Highbush Cranberry Jelly
When is a cranberry not a cranberry? The Highbush cranberry (a.k.a. American cranberrybush, viburnum cranberry), isn’t a cranberry at all!
It is a shrub in the Adoxaceae family (same as the elderberry) with three-lobed leaves that kind of look like maple leaves (hence the name Viburnum trilobum). This native plant is found across Canada, and it tolerates a wide range of soil and temperature conditions. While the berries aren’t the first choice for wildlife, they become an important winter food source, as the drupes remain on the branches through the winter.
In the spring, it has beautiful white showy flowers surrounding some little yellowish flowers (that look like buds that haven’t opened fully) in the centre. The yellow flowers are the ones that are pollinated by insects and develop into the fruit. The berries are bright red, and tart, with a large heart-shaped seed in the centre. They are nothing special to eat fresh, but they can be transformed into a delicious jelly or fruit syrup that can be enjoyed throughout the winter. The fall foliage is bright red, and it’s a nice looking tree even when bare.
I used to go forage in some wooded areas near my work, but I planted a bare-root whip in my garden three years ago, and this is the first year it has borne a useful amount of fruit. Note: Please make sure when you are foraging that you are picking Vibernum trilobum (sometimes known as Viburnum opulus var. americana) and not Vibernum opulus. Vibernum opulus is the European species of this plant (of which the North American variety is a subspecies), and it apparently tastes nasty. Also, I should mention I have read that some people have gotten ill from eating large quantities of Highbush cranberries, especially unripe berries. The plant is still considered non-toxic, however.
It is pretty easy to snip a whole cluster of berries at one time off the plant when it’s harvest time. We have had a couple frosts before I picked them (supposed to give a better flavour), so they were a bit wrinkly, and you could definitely smell them. What’s that you say? Smell them? Yeah. Highbush cranberries kind of smell like stinky sweaty socks. But trust me, that funky smell goes away and turns into something nice!
After I removed the berries from their stems and washed them, I had just under 1lb of fruit. The orange berries aren’t quite ripe yet, but that is good, because they have more pectin to help the jelly set.
Next, I put the berries into a pot and added almost a cup of water. My berries were a bit dessicated from being harvested late. If you add too much water, it’s not a problem, it just means the boil-off stage will take longer.
Next start boiling the berries, stirring them so they don’t clump or stick to the bottom of the pot. Some will burst as you stir them, beware of bright scarlet juice fountaining up. Also take note, this part kind of stinks. It smells like hot sweaty gym socks.
Once the berries are hot (and stinky), I switched to a potato masher to make sure they were all popped. The whole purpose of this step is to separate the seeds, pulp, and skins so that you can filter them out from the juice you will use to make the jelly.
Then, take the berry mixture and strain it in a colander lined with cheesecloth or a lint-free tea towel. You can also use old nylons, which is what I did here. Purists say to never squeeze the jelly bag or your jelly will be cloudy but I don’t care and squeeze it anyhow. Let it hang to drain, can be left overnight.
After the juice has been separated, discard the pulp, seeds and skin left in your jelly bag. Put the juice into a saucepan. After I was done straining I had one cup of juice. Add one and a half cups of sugar to each cup of juice and began boiling it. Skim off any foam that forms.
Once the juice passed the wrinkle test, pour it into clean and sterilised half-pint jars. Because I will be using this quickly, I didn’t bother processing them in the hot water bath. They’ll be kept in the fridge also.
There you have it! I didn’t add pectin to my jelly as I had quite a lot of unripe berries in my batch. It gelled up fine. If it doesn’t, well, you can reboil it with some pectin, or refrigerate the lovely syrup you have created and use it on pancakes, mix into hot apple cider or dilute with water to make a refreshing drink.