Kitchen Intuition: Cranberry sauce

Authored By aliceodea

Talking turkey last week put me in a Thanksgiving frame of mind, but I also don’t want to abandon the discussion of sauces, so I’ll bring things back around to the topic with a classic for your holiday table: cranberry sauce. Most Thanksgiving tables feature cranberry sauce from a can, but I’m pretty sure this is because not many people know how incredibly quick and easy it is to make your own. And the canned and homemade versions just don’t compare at all. On one side, you have an overly sweetened gelatinous blob made with high-fructose corn syrup (and who knows what else), and on the other, you have a fruity, flavorful, textured treat-and you can brag that you made it yourself!

This is such an easy prep that you might even miss the instructions on the back of a bag of cranberries. The recipe I used the first time I made cranberry sauce had just three ingredients (12 ounces fresh or frozen cranberries, one cup of sugar and one cup of water), and the instructions were so simple, I was able to turn them into a haiku:

Water and sugar
Mix over heat; add berries
Simmer till they pop.

You could just throw everything into a pot and heat it up, but I like to dissolve my sweetener into the liquid before adding the berries. Then, I let it simmer, stirring frequently, until the skins on the cranberries have popped and the sauce starts to gel. How long you cook depends on how thick you want the sauce to be, but keep in mind that it will thicken even more as it cools.

Harold McGee, “On Food and Cooking”

“Cultivation and efforts at improvement began in the 19th century, and the familiar jellylike cranberry sauce was born early in the 20th century when a large producer decided to process his damaged berries into a canned puree.”

You do want to let it cool a bit before serving, so plan to make the sauce at least an hour or so ahead of time. Better yet, make it a day or two before Thanksgiving, because it gets better as it sets. Plus, you’ll have one less thing to do while you’re trying to get your meal on the table.

Of course, you don’t have to stick with just those three ingredients (or to the stovetop method). There are substitutes and supplements for each one (see below), and you can tinker with the proportions as well. If you want a really tart sauce, scale back on the sweetener a bit. Lighten up on the liquids if you want an especially firm result. If texture is an issue for you (or you want to make a batch for picky kids), strain the sauce while it is still warm by pouring it through a sieve or food mill to remove the skins and seeds.

Water works perfectly well, but if you would like to add other elements to the flavor, you could replace some or all of the water with other liquids. Change the character of the sauce with different fruit juices (orange, pomegranate, apple cider) or give it a kick by adding a little bourbon, brandy or wine.

Just about anything is an improvement over the high-fructose corn syrup used in many canned cranberry sauces, but if you are avoiding white sugar, feel free to experiment with sweeteners such as brown sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup or agave nectar.

It doesn’t matter if you have fresh or frozen cranberries. If they’re frozen, they don’t need to be thawed first. If you have any leftover berries, you can put them in the freezer and they’ll keep quite nicely until you need them again (I keep a bag of cranberries in the freezer year-round; they’re great for adding a pop of color and flavor to all sorts of different dishes and drinks, and might also have some health benefits).

Other possible variations to consider are other fruits (different kinds of berries; diced or grated apple or pear; citrus, peeled and chopped or zested; pineapple chunks); ginger; or spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, clove or cardamom. Mix in some nuts once the sauce has cooled a bit for some extra flavor and texture. And if you’re afraid that your Thanksgiving table won’t be the same without that can-shaped blob, you can even save an old can to use as a mold for your homemade cranberry sauce!

Happy meal planning!

Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.