Cranberries have a short season—they are harvested from the beginning of September until the end of October and appear in markets from October to December. They actually date back to the first Thanksgiving, where Indigenous peoples taught the Pilgrims how cranberries had preservative qualities. Cranberries also offer health benefits and can be incorporated into a variety of recipes other than cranberry sauce.
Choosing Fresh Cranberries
A fresh cranberry will be shiny and plump and have a deep red color; the deeper the color the more highly concentrated the beneficial compounds are. Truly fresh cranberries are quite firm to the touch and will bounce if you drop them. (Cranberry harvesters will actually bounce the berries against boards to sort the high quality from the low quality.) Shriveled berries or those with brown spots should be avoided.
You will most often see fresh cranberries tightly packed into 12-ounce bags, but if organic berries, you may find them packaged in pint containers. One 12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries will yield about 3 cups whole or 2 1/2 cups chopped cranberries.
If you are looking for cranberries during their off-season, you will have to purchase them in a different form—either dried, canned, or frozen. Dried cranberries are similar to raisins. They cannot substitute fresh cranberries in cranberry sauce but are an interesting addition to salads and other recipes. Canned cranberry sauce is a perennial favorite and is available either as a smooth, congealed jelly (that has taken on the form of the can) or as a whole-berry sauce that has a looser consistency. The best replacement for fresh cranberries is frozen, which are available year-round. The frozen berries can be put into recipes without thawing. Once thawed, however, they will be very soft and should be used immediately.
Fresh cranberries will last for up to two months in a tightly sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator. As with all berries, if one starts getting soft and decaying, it will quickly spread to the rest. Be sure to sort out any discolored, pitted, soft, or shriveled fruits before refrigerating. The cranberries may look wet when you remove them from the refrigerator but don’t worry—the moisture doesn’t mean that they are spoiled. If you notice discoloration or the berries feel sticky or tough, however, then they are past their prime and should be tossed.
Cooked cranberries can last up to a month in a covered container in the refrigerator. If liquor or liqueur is added to the cooked mixture, it can last up to a year refrigerated.
Fresh whole berries may be washed, dried, spread out on a cookie sheet, and frozen. After a couple of hours transfer cranberries to an airtight container. Frozen cranberries will keep up to one year at 0 F.