12 November 2009

The Haphazard Holiday Part Three


Between Ilwaco and Long Beach, we passed what looked like a cranberry bog. I Googled it on the Awesome Phone and sure enough, we were just at the end of the cranberry season. As we came into Long Beach, we passed a woman sitting by her truck and a table laid with plastic bags of cranberries. She was still sitting there on our way back south so we pulled in and I bought two gallon bags of the little jewels.

I've been eating Trader Joe's Dried Cranberries and like them a lot but they are a tad expensive. I've tried Ocean Spray's "Craisins" (for some reason that word gets right up my nose) but they are too sweet. I decided to try making my own. I did some research at rec.food.preserving (thanks, Google, for maintaining this great reference!) and found that they are a bit difficult to recreate at home. I read several stories of mishaps including one person who ended up with “small, red, sour rocks”.

One person said she cut each cranberry in half(!), another poked each one with the business end of a meat thermometer. Another woman, frustrated with her lack of success with individual dried cranberries, went another route: she boiled them then put them through a food processor and made cranberry fruit leather. The last person said to heck with drying them - make cranberry muffins!

After reading about everyone's experiences and, having lots of cranberries with which to experiment, I tried a few different methods:

1. I washed and sorted four cups of cranberries.

I brought four cups of water to a boil then stirred in three cups of sugar until it dissolved. I washed and sorted four cups of cranberries and simmered them in the sugar syrup until the skins cracked.

I removed them from the stove and let them come to room temperature. I drained them and laid them out on two mesh trays of the dehydrator. I sprinkled one with sugar and left one as a control.

I set the dehydrator to 135F and left it to do its thing overnight.

After ten hours, the cranberries were still quite juicy so I left it running and turned the temperature up to 155F. I checked them at fifteen hours and they still had a way to go.

I tasted both versions to check the sweetness. The batch without the sugar sprinkled on them was a little too tart even for me and the ones with sugar were just about right.

They eventually reached a storable level of dryness after about 20 hours. They taste pretty good and the texture is not too bad. Storing dried foods in a closed container for a time allows the moisture to equalize between each piece. I think these will have a good level once they sit on the shelf for a bit.

2. JD has blood sugar issues so I tried a second batch with the same method as Batch One but substituted Splenda for the sugar.

The package says it can be used just like sugar but I did notice some differences in the process:

After cooking, the cranberries appeared opaque. The color was kind of cloudy and a little faded.

By comparison, the sugar batches kept bright and translucent skins.

-When I removed the cranberries to put on the dehydrator trays, they tended to stick together quite a bit more than the sugar batches.

-They also seemed to break down more than the sugared cranberries. I ended up with a lot more skins and cranberry blobs (some of which drained away in the process of moving to the dehydrator.)

I'm not sure what in the makeup of Splenda causes this. My chemistry classes were more than twenty years ago(!), so I can only speculate. Splenda seems to be less crystalline than sugar - more like powdered sugar than granulated sugar. It's also less substantial so a sugar syrup is thicker than a similar Splenda syrup. So perhaps it's something in the way it adheres to the fruit or the interaction with the acids in the fruit.

3. I suspected that the sweetness level of the final product had more to do with the sugar sprinkled on during drying than the amount in the initial syrup so I tried a couple of batches with lesser amounts of sugar/Splenda in that first step but still sprinkling on the sugar/Splenda when drying them. There was a bit of a difference but not so much that I'm sure it justifies the additional amount in the syrup.

4. Since the cranberries took so long to dehydrate and not all of them broke open during the simmering, I tried another batch with the initial recipe (four cups of water, three cup of sugar) but cut all the cranberries in half. That was a bit of a job so I tried to be all Zen about it. You know, be in the moment, empty your mind, all that stuff. But then I figured it was a pretty sharp knife so I should just be all paying-attention-to-what-I'm-doing about it....

Once that was done (with no injuries, I'm happy to report), I processed them the same way as the first batch - simmer in the sugar syrup, let come to room temperature, dehydrate for several hours.

I think these came out the best of all. In the previous batches, even with simmering, not all the cranberries burst open so I had to continually check for whole berries and cut them open. This not only meant that they didn't get any sugar inside but they also took lots longer to dry.

The halved cranberries didn't have to cook as long since I didn't need to wait for all the skins to crack. There was a better sugar to sour cranberry ratio so the flavor was better. They also dehydrated more quickly and more consistently than the others.

All together, I ended up with about a quart and a half of these lovelies:

They are so pretty. I think they look like a little dish of garnets.

Although none of my dried cranberries turned out quite like Trader Joe's, I'm pretty happy with the results. I'm not sure it's economically sound considering the electricity it took to dry them, but I think the cost of the raw materials was less at least. At least I know these were transported a shorter distance so in that aspect it's a slightly greener option. And I always like finding an alternative to store-bought - not only because I like to know what goes into my food but also because Trader Joe's has periodically discontinued an item that I bought regularly. It was also fun to experiment with all the different methods - even better since I found a good process to use next year. And I STILL have about four cups of cranberries to use. (I'm telling you, it was A LOT of cranberries.) but I think I'll pop those in the freezer. I am a fan of freshly-made cranberry sauce, too, after all. And it's Thanksgiving soon. Almost time to buy a Tofurky! Yum!


  1. So, I swear I commented on this post last night, but apparently it did not show up...unless you have to approve comments first. If that is the case, please delete this second comment.

    Thanks so much for your comments on my blog! This post of your really made me think about how cranberries are grown. I want to take some day trips and go visit farms.

    I have been using frozen cranberries in pumpkin muffins and to make pancake topping. I have been using dried cranberries from Henrys in trail mixes and oatmeal.

    What kind of dehydrator do you have?

  2. Hi SDV - The other comment never showed up. Weird. Thanks for trying again.

    I have two dehydrators. One is an off-brand that I picked up at a garage sale. It works quite well so long as you don't need to adjust the temp. The other is a Nesco American Harvest. I don't think the air circulates as well as my off-brand one but it does have a temperature adjustment dial which is helpful.

    I'm looking forward to visiting cranberry farms next summer, too!

  3. Craisens *are* too sweet. I never realized how pretty cranberries are, nice pix! Love T


Homesteading Webloggers
Powered By Ringsurf