Cranberry bog
Farmers harvest a Wisconsin cranberry crop. (Photo courtesy of Wisconsin State Cranberry Growers Association)

This holiday season learn a little bit about the state’s favorite tart berry and the many ways to make it part of your basement bar or dining room table.

Wisconsin easily held onto its ranking as the top cranberry growing state in 2021. Wisconsin produced 4.64 million barrels of cranberries in 2020, more than double the production of the number two state, Massachusetts. Wisconsin accounts for about 60 percent of the total crop of cranberries in the United States. Our cranberry industry is mostly located in the sandy marshes of central Wisconsin, an area bounded by Black River Falls, Tomah, and Wisconsin Rapids. But there’s also a good number of bogs in the northwoods counties of Vilas, Oneida and Price. Don’t be fooled by those harvest photos, cranberries grow on drained marshes which are only flooded to float the fruit for easier harvesting. They’ve been grown commercially in Wisconsin since 1860, and enjoyed for millennia by Native Americans.

Wisconsin Hosts a Helluva Cranberry Party

Since 1973, the little town of Warren in the bogs of Monroe County has been putting on the Warrens Cranberry Festival.  It’s always the last full weekend in September and this year the fest drew over 140,000 people for an event that includes tours of a cranberry marsh, a large art show, a flea market, a farmers market, a cranberry queen and, of course, a parade. This is not the only festival to celebrate our ruby fruits. Wisconsin Rapids has a cranberry blossom festival in June, while Eagle River, Manitowish Waters and Stone Lake have fall cranberry festivals.

Cranberries Aren’t Just for Thanksgiving

Only 20 percent of Wisconsin’s cranberries are consumed during the holidays. The rest are dried, made into juice or sauce and eaten year round. The Wisconsin Cranberry growers have a vast web site of cranberry recipes, which may tempt you to consider cooking with these tart little beauties the other 364 days of the year. You can do a full meal, starting with cranberry salsa and chips,  followed by a cranberry wild rice salad, a grilled steak topped with a spicy cranberry and onion relish and a cranberry sorbet for dessert. Or go all out with the Food Network’s holiday mint julep dessert topped with bourbon cranberry sauce.

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The signature ingredient in the cosmopolitan or “cosmo” martini, is cranberry juice. [Photo by Sarah Stierch (CC BY 4.0)]

How About a Splash of Vodka With That Cranberry?

From the cosmo to the seabreeze to the cranberry margarita, cranberry juice is well-known as a cocktail mixer. But the folks at Wisconsin Cranberries have thought of a few libations you probably haven’t considered. The “Hot Cranberry Rum Percolator Punch” will certainly warm up your holiday party (or surprise the boss if you sneak it into the coffee maker at work.) There’s also recipes for cranberry peach sangria and a cranberry wine cooler. And you can’t get more Wisconsin than “Cranberry Brandy Slush.”

How About Jazzing up That Cranberry Sauce?

Some people add some orange and fresh ginger, others go the maple syrup route. You can go a little Indian by making cranberry chutney or a little Canadian by cooking up a savory concoction featuring sauteed onion and balsamic vinegar. Or go all the way cran-crazy and make the famous horseradish cranberry sauce that is promoted every year by venerable National Public Radio personality Susan Stamberg. It is the exact color of Pepto-Bismol and will take the lining off your nose if you use strong horseradish. If you don’t want to kill your guests, the Wisconsin Cranberry folks also have recipes for cranberry barbeque sauce and cranberry ketchup. 

Just Can’t Quit That Canned Cranberry Sauce?

For some of us, there’s nothing that says Thanksgiving at grandma’s house like the gaaaa-loosh sound of jellied cranberry sauce plopping out of a can like a ruby-colored sea slug. If you can’t jibe your foodie self-image with your childhood love of canned sauce, we found a recipe for DIY canned cranberry sauce. Just cook up five cups of whole cranberries, three cups of sugar, one cup of apple cider and the juice of one lemon until everything is bubbling and the cranberries split open. Then run it through a food mill. Funnel the puree into an empty but clean tin can, let it chill in the refrigerator, and voila! You have a sauce so perfectly cylindrical that everyone will think you bought it off the shelf!