With Halloween in the rear-view, our attention is turning toward the upcoming holiday season. In the United States, Thanksgiving is the next major holiday, though Christmas preparations like to make an early appearance. However, whether your focus is on Thanksgiving or Christmas first, there’s a little berry that often shows up on tables over the next two months. The Cranberry.
Cranberries are considered a berry, like a blueberry, strawberry, or boysenberry. According to Massachusetts Cranberries, these little powerhouses fruits grow in sandy wetlands, like bogs or marshes. They are native to North America and grown in several northern states and southern Canadian provinces. A vine similar to the strawberry, the Cranberry plant, it is a perennial that produces fresh berries each year.
Not only is the cranberry Wisconsin’s state fruit, Wisconsin is the leading producer of cranberries in the country. Wisconsin Cranberries states that the first Wisconsin harvest took place in 1860 by Edward Sacket in Berlin, Wisconsin. To harvest cranberries, farmers often flood the bogs or marshes with water. The berries rise to the surface, allowing for easier harvesting.
Cranberries are in the same family as blueberries, the heather family. Like blueberries, cranberries are also a super food full of antioxidants. Fresh cranberries are 90% water, contain some fiber and little sugar. That makes them tart and why most ways to prepare them include adding sugar. Besides antioxidants, these little berries are also packed with Vitamins C, E, and K.
These nutritional qualities mean that cranberry may be beneficial to fight certain ailments. There is debate about whether it is a helpful cure for a UTI (urinary tract infection). Theoretically, the nutritional qualities should help, but it may be difficult to eat enough to get the amount needed to actually cure it. However, cranberries may help prevent cardiovascular disease by lowering one’s body max index, improving cholesterol levels, and regulating blood sugar. There is also hope that cranberries may help fight cancer.
There are several ways to prepare cranberries. First, you can purchase them in fresh, frozen, or canned form. They come in juices, too. Fresh is, as is often the case, the best way to eat cranberries as it allows you to get the most water and fiber from them. The skin also contains the most nutrition, so eating them fresh, whether mixed in a salad, smoothie, or just as is, is the best way to get the most of these little berries.
However, fresh may not taste as good as other prepared versions. For example, dried cranberries (think craisins) are likely the least healthy of the options. This is because drying concentrates the sugar, removes the water, and reduces the fiber. Plus, sugar is almost always added. Juice is also not the healthiest option, primarily because it often contains a high amount of sugar, is mixed with other fruits, or is from concentrate, thus lacking the nutritional qualities from the beginning.
Despite the ominous perspective on dried cranberries, are there still nutritional qualities when prepared in such a way? According to Livestrong, yes! Dehydrating naturally removes the water content, thus it concentrates a cranberry to a fourth of the size. Dried fruit, however, including cranberries, are high in fiber, even if some of that fiber is lost during the drying process.
Though the fiber content is reduced, other nutrients, like the antioxidants, are not lost. The trick with drying cranberries is not adding all the extra sugar. Craisins are high in sugar to offset the tartness of a cranberry. By making dried cranberries at home, you can control how much sugar, if any, you add to your berries.
So how do you make your own dried cranberries? Especially if you don’t have a dehydrator at home. Use the oven!
I have never dehydrated cranberries before, though I have had great success drying apples, pears, and bananas in my oven. So I’ll walk you through how drying cranberries went for me on my first attempt and perhaps you’ll want to try it, too.
First, I found a recipe. Spruce Eats tends to have solid instructions, so I started there.
Fresh cranberries are now readily available at the grocery store, plus they are often on sale. I grabbed a bag at our last shopping trip and kept them refrigerated until I had a free day to dry them.
I may have waited a day or two too long because a couple of the cranberries started to spoil by the time I could dehydrate them. That’s okay. As I boiled water for the first step, I also sorted through the bag, taking out the mushy berries. They didn’t even stain my hands like blueberries usually do!
According the the recipe I used, after you wash the cranberries, you pour boiling water over them and let them sit for 10 minutes. So, after I sorted and washed the cranberries, I waited for the water to boil, then simply put the cranberries straight into the water and turned off the gas burner.
The berries immediately started popping. This is a good sign and the purpose behind the boiling water. It splits the skin. But with boiling water spitting out of the pot with each pop, I covered it and set a timer.
Meanwhile, I made the sugar concoction. This is the part that you may want to skip, depending on how healthy you want to make your dried cranberries. Since this was the first time I was dehydrating them, I stuck closer to the recipe than I may in the future. The sugar concoction ratio is two parts water to one parts sugar and the recipe said I should only need 1/4 cup of the mixture.
So, I filled a measuring cup with 1/4 cup water and mixed in a less-than-generous 1/8 cup of sugar. In making my usual cup of tea, I find sugar dissolves better in hot water than cold water, so I stuck the sugar water in the microwave for 30 seconds. Then stirred. It still wasn’t blending great, so I microwaved it for another 30 seconds. That did the trick. The sugar was completely dissolved and mixed into the water.
By this time, the 10 minutes had passed, so I poured the boiling water and cranberries into a strainer, tossed them to get as much water off as I could, then poured the cranberries onto a paper towel. I patted them dry as carefully as I could. I was surprised at how mushy they were at this point in the process so I worked as gently as possible.
After I put them back in the empty pot, I poured the sugar water over them and mixed. While they soaked in the sugar, I prepared the rack. To do that, the instructions said to put two layers of paper towels over a cooling rack and cover them with parchment paper, then set the rack on a baking sheet. I did just that.
Then I spooned the cranberries onto the parchment paper and spread them out so air could get all around them. Any un-popped cranberries I pierced with a paring knife. Then I slid the baking sheet into the oven, preheated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, the lowest my convection oven can go.
The recipe said to let them sit in the oven for 8 hours. I put them in at 9 in the morning and checked on them throughout the day. By the 8 hour mark, 5 p.m., they were perhaps more done than I would like. To know whether they had finished dehydrating, you take out one, let it sit for 15-20 minutes, then tear it in half. If it’s leathery with no moisture, then they’re ready!
As I let them cool on the rack on top of the oven, I also pried them off the parchment. It was easier to do than I expected, but the flatter, mushier cranberries and turned into cranberry crisps rather than wrinkled berries. Still leathery and eatable, just not as pretty.
Of course, we also taste-tested them. Even with the sugar I mixed in, they were more tart than I expected! My two-year-old doesn’t mind tart food, so he kept asking for more. The tartness grew on me so that I don’t think I will adjust the amount of sugar when I make my next batch.
And yes, I will make them again! They are the perfect little snack, topping, or mix-in to cereal, oatmeal, or salads. The tartness adds flavor, especially to blander food. Next time, however, I will more closely watch the length of time I dehydrate them.
As with any recipe, it takes time to perfect, but that’s the fun part. The part that uses the creativity we talk about in these posts. And dehydrating is a great way to feel accomplished, make a healthier snack, while also not using up all your energy.
I’m glad I tried drying cranberries. Did you try it, too? Do you have a different cranberry recipe that you love? This tiny super food is just waiting to be included beyond Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.