Stick around to the end and I'll share some fun facts that you can use to quiz your family when the conversation falls into a lull!
Cranberries are very tart berries that grow on a short plant that some people like to call a vine. It's not a bush or tree like some people believe. It's not a vine in the sense that it winds its way up a fence, or at least not here where they keep them groomed. More on how they groom them later.
Cranberries do so well in our climate because they don't need a long growing season and they especially love sand. And if we have anything on the beach, it's sand.
I've always thought that's why they are so bitter. They have such rotten conditions to grow from!
The reason it's called a cranberry is because the flower looks like a crane, as in the bird, like a whooping crane. Or a heron, if you don't call them cranes where you live.
The bogs, and we call them cranberry bogs, not fields as some person in a youtube video I just saw called them. They are bogs, as in peat bogs. Peat is decayed matter and we have lots of peat here in the marshes. These bogs are down in the ground, so when you drive by cranberry bogs, you notice that the "field" is actually a foot or more below ground level. In the winter, when they flood the bogs and the water freezes, it looks like you're stepping down into an ice skating rink.
There are lots of ditches in cranberry bogs so that when it comes time to flood the bogs, the water has somewhere to come in and a way to go out when they drain the bogs. It makes it really hazardous when they are dry picking the berries because they push machines kind of like big lawn mowers and if they don't pay attention to where they are, they can get the machine or themselves stuck in a ditch.
The water also protects the vines in the winter as the water freezes, so when it's going to get really cold here, most bogs get flooded. And lots of people think that means they should go ice skating on them! We were also told it was safer than pond skating because it's not as deep so if they ice isn't really frozen and we fall in, we are less likely to drown. A myth because hypothermia kills just as easily as drowning!
When the berries are ready, which is usually in September, they have two ways to pick. First, they dry pick as I just explained. These machines also groom the "vines". In the old days, they used to have wooden boxes with tines like a comb that they would use to handpick. I can't even imagine.
Once they have dry picked, then they will often wet pick the same bog. With wet picking, they flood the bogs and all of the good cranberries float to the surface. This is why in those cranberry juice ads with the older guy and younger guy, it looks like they are standing in red water.
The guys wear waders in the water and another guy drives a different kind of machine. These are kind of like giant egg beaters that go below the surface and stir up the berries and release any that the dry picking didn't get. Somehow, these beaters don't destroy the plants.
They corral the berries with big pieces of wood and make a big circle of berries that get vacuumed up into a large trailer.
Dry picked berries are what you get in the produce aisle at this time of year, in the plastic bags. I imagine dry picked also get dried as craisins eventually too.
Wet picked won't be dried again, so they make the juice and cranberry sauces out of those.
There was a time that only 5 states in the US could support growing cranberries because of their peat/sand soil. However, with modern science, fake bogs have been created and now they grow cranberries in China which I can't even comment on without probably getting arrested for my outrageous accusations.
So, I bring you this lesson because we usually get cranberries from a grower that k-ster grew up knowing. At one point, k-ster worked as a harvester of berries and brought home a ridiculous amount one year. I wasn't the canning maven then that I am now, so I gave away tons and tons of those berries.
This year, I didn't cook the berries on the stove because I found that they got too foamy last year. I put them in the crockpot and let the magic happen. This way, I could get them washed and ready to cook and then go away for a while and let them do their thing without constant attention.
I got two crockpots going at once and made the first batch into jellied sauce. This requires putting the berries through the food mill once they are done, but it also gives a nice jelled sauce that has less seeds and no pulp than whole berry sauce.
The next batch was just whole berry. Once the berries get soft, they are easy to squish, so as I stirred in sugar and ladeled it into the jars, a lot of berries squish down. Some remain intact, so they are really pretty in the glass jars when the canning is done.
Cranberry sauce is really easy to make, whether you are canning it or just making it to eat with the Thanksgiving meal. You put the cranberries into a pan with a little bit of water so the berries don't stick. Put it on medium heat or lower and let them cook. THey start to pop when they are heating up and once a lot of them are soft, you add the sugar.
And that's it.
If you want precision, google a recipe for it. And prepare yourself for the quantity of sugar it requires. It's A.LOT.OF.SUGAR. Because cranberries are sooooooo tart!
When I made my sauce this year, I did one batch outside and the following weekend, I had less time and less sauce, so I did the other batch inside. I love to can outside, which I can do if it's fruit because you don't need to pressure can fruit. I use the big propane burner and my huge put which has this strainer that I love for putting the jars in and pulling them out.
This year, I had two jars break. Something I've never had happen before. I am pretty sure it was because I wasn't very precise about headspace. I filled them too much and they just exploded.
One of the things I'm always afraid of with canning is breaking jars. I always think they are going to explode like a meth lab and we'll be picking glass shards out of the neighbor's beams for years to come.
Each of the jars that broke were in a different round of cooking and both just broke out the bottom and that was it. No shattering of glass, no giant explosions. I was sad to lose two jars but happy that the effects were minor.
So, the fun facts I promised to reveal:
-cranberries and poison ivy grow exceptionally well together and when it's time to pick, it's impossible to avoid the poison ivy. For someone who is so highly allergic, picking season spells out a trip to the doctor no matter what. Miraculously, the poison ivy oil doesn't carry over to the berries when they are bagged because I've never picked up poison ivy from cranberries and I would be the first to get it!
-cranberries are full of vitamin C and during that first terrible winter that the pilgrims spent trying to live on this seemingly fallow land, they discovered the health benefits of cranberries. Ships started carrying cranberries for sailors to eat to get their vitamin C to ward off scurvy. Remember learning about scurvy? I bet they don't have time to learn that in 4th grade anymore. Sad, really.
-spiders love cranberry bogs and though I haven't seen how big they get, from the way I've heard them described, they are like daddy longlegs on steroids. And they crawl all over you while you're picking. Can.you.imagine.
-cranberry sauce isn't the only thing you can make with cranberries. My sister introduced us to Cranberry Salsa and I bring it to a lot of things as a dip. In the summer, I use my frozen cranberries to make it and since it's a dip, it doesn't matter that the cranberries get soggy when they thaw. But don't ever make this mistake.
-when cranberries are good, they bounce. When we went to the Ocean Spray factory in 4th grade, we saw an example of the bouncing box. Here, I show my own version. And that little one at the end doesn't bounce because it is quite rotten.
So, this holiday season, as you enjoy your cranberry sauce and cranberry dishes, you can think of me and this lesson in cranberry growing and wow your friends and family!