Vibrantly festive with their red hues, cranberries are the quintessential holiday accompaniment. Harvested during October and early November, these juicy, buoyant gems signal that the joyful Christmas season is just around the corner. One of the most enduring symbols of the holiday, cranberries are a staple of Christmas tables across all of North America. A Christmas table setting without cranberry sauce or cranberry stuffing just seems wrong somehow.

This year, enjoy the red berries to the fullest by incorporating them into a multitude of flavourful recipes and yuletide decor.

It was probably inevitable that the cranberry became associated with Christmas. With their bright red shiny colour, they reflect the season perfectly and consequently as early as the 1840s people were stringing them with popcorn to make festive garlands for the Christmas tree. At the same time, with their winter availability and the fact they were slow to spoil, cranberries represented one of the few fruits that could be served fresh during the holidays. To settlers’ delight, it was discovered very early that the tartness of cranberry sauce helps cut the fat and richness of such traditional holiday fare as pork, goose, duck and turkey, making it a perfect complement to festive dishes.

The tradition of serving cranberries at Christmas went from being a larger regional, New England tradition to a North America wide one around 160 years ago, during the American Civil War. By the autumn of 1864 the war had been dragging on for three long years and Union soldiers (many of whom hailed from the traditional cranberry growing region of New England) were growing homesick. To boost morale, Union generals provided their soldiers with a Thanksgiving feast with all the fixings of home, including cranberry sauce. Soldiers from rest of the Union were therefore introduced to the cranberry’s unique flavour, and after the war concluded, took home with them a taste of this most unique fruit. It became a staple on holiday tables at both Thanksgiving and Christmas, and slowly spread across all of North America. The introduction of canned cranberry sauce in the early 20th century only boosted its popularity further.

While canned cranberries remain a supermarket staple, there’s no comparison between fresh and preserved berries—the former are simply way more flavourful. Fresh cranberries can be found in the produce section of supermarkets from September through December.

Before using, wash and sort through the berries to discard any that are bruised or damaged. Fresh whole berries can be stored for up to two months in a tightly sealed plastic bag in the refrigerator. As with all berries, if one starts to rot it will spread to the rest, so be sure to sort out any soft ones if you plan on storing them for any length of time.

Chris Smythe is the Executive Chef at Prince of Wales Hotel in Niagara-on-the-Lake. He’s passionate about the use of cranberries and works them into many recipes, both at Christmas and throughout the year.

“Cranberries are available year round and are also very cost effective compared to other berries, so use them as much as possible. They have many health benefits and are also known as a “superfood,” mainly boosting immune systems and lowering blood pressure,” he explains.

“Cranberries are very tart so they need to be balanced out with sugar and acid,” Smythe continues. “They can also be very dominant so pair then with dominant ingredients. Lemon, for example, pairs very well with cranberries.”

Be wary about adding water to any recipe with cranberries; the berries— which are composed mainly of water—will simply break down.

So what does one use: fresh or frozen? Some people swear by one or the other. For answers, we turned to Executive Chef Marc Lyons at Queen’s Landing in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“I prefer to use fresh for making cranberry sauce and garnish, but I prefer to use frozen or dried for any type of baking. With frozen cranberries, the fibers have been broken down more and are therefore more palatable in baked goods. With dried berries, the sweetness is more appealing,” he explains. An additional benefit of frozen cranberries rather than fresh is this that they tend to bleed less, making for a more aesthetic plate.

You can purchase frozen cranberries from the supermarket or freeze your own fresh berries (perhaps picked up after a visit to Ontario’s only cranberry far, Johnson’s Cranberry Marsh in Bala) — simply wash and dry them, then place the berries in an airtight bag. Frozen cranberries will keep for up to one year, and they need not be defrosted before using.

And of course no holiday table is complete without a bowl of crimson cranberry sauce at its centre. The reason is simple: the tartness of cranberry sauce is the perfect accompaniment for the gaminess of pork and turkey. But don’t go for canned variety when your cranberry sauce can be so much more: we’ve attached two outstanding recipes; pick one or try them both.

A symbol of the holiday season, the cranberry should be embraced at Christmas. Elevate your cranberry sauce with game-changing homemade variety, then spread your wings with other dishes that take advantage of the unique flavour and festive pigmentation of these berries. Options for cranberries are limitless; it’s a matter of filling yourself with Christmas cheer and experimenting.