Thanksgiving has a reputation for endless brining methods, divisive side dishes, and argumentative relatives. It’s no wonder hosting can be stressful. Unless you’ve got The Right Stuffing, that is. This series is devoted to all things related to the Thanksgiving meal, and it will help you create dishes that appear on your table year after year—even if it can’t help you manage your relatives.
Canned cranberry sauce is a common Thanksgiving choice—maybe you’ve eaten it for years. But have you ever found yourself feeling a little cran-curious? Have you ever paused in the aftermath of Thanksgiving wondering, “could I make cranberry sauce?” Well you can, and you should. (There’s no need to argue over it. If you’re a jelly-in-a-can purist this article isn’t for you. Or is it?)
The ubiquitous red sauce is necessary for any Thanksgiving spread and is uncommonly simple to make, but it’s also ripe for riffing. You can easily add a burst of orange, a touch of cinnamon, or a pop of cabernet. All you need is a place to start and an appetite for adventure (and cranberries). Use this easy cranberry sauce recipe as the base, and personalize it any way you wish.
What makes this recipe simple?
Sometimes simple is best, and that’s the case with the following recipe. As soon as you think, “what’s next?” the recipe is finished. This cranberry sauce only has three necessary ingredients: cranberries, sugar, and water. No cornstarch, no roux, and no fancy thickeners. Fresh cranberries naturally have a lot of pectin, a soluble plant fiber often used in jam making as a thickener and gelling agent. You can buy pectin commercially, but cranberries provide plenty of their own. That means this is the one part of the Thanksgiving meal you don’t have to stress about.
How to make cranberry sauce
Credit: Allie Chanthorn Reinmann
Add three cups of fresh or frozen whole cranberries to a medium-sized pot along with the sugar and the water. Crank the heat up to medium and let the mixture cook for about 10 minutes. Once the mixture begins boiling, start stirring frequently with a rubber spatula, monitoring its progress to prevent any berries from scorching.
Credit: Allie Chanthorn Reinmann
The sauce will bubble, and the berries will crack and swell. Towards the end of the cooking time, use the rubber spatula to press the now soft berries against the bottom or walls of the pot to encourage their juices and pectin to release. Turn off the heat and let the sauce cool to room temperature, and…it’s done. After it cools, the sauce will be thick, tart, and a lovely garnet red, with translucent candied fruit peels scattered throughout. This is a simple yet perfect cranberry sauce, and you can enjoy it like this—sweet and tart, plain and proud. Or you can customize it.
Here are some tips for making a more thrilling (equally satisfying) sauce.
How to put your own spin on cranberry sauce
Switch out the liquid. It’s easy to add a twist to this recipe. The cranberries and sugar are non-negotiable (trust me, you need the sugar), but the liquid is a variable. you can have fun with. Instead of using water, swap it out for orange juice (or apple juice, if you want a more mild touch). For thicker fruit products like nectars, try a half-and-half mixture of water and nectar, and otherwise cook the cranberry sauce as directed above.
You can also add alcohol, wine, or liqueurs to the liquid component. Since alcohol can vary in strength and composition, keep it to around 25% or less of your total liquid. I’d suggest using a juicy pinot noir, or a gamay with soft tannins—something that pairs well with turkey. For a bitter, herbaceous note, add some Campari to the sauce.
Steep with dry spices. Put a sophisticated twist on your cranberry sauce with whole spices and add a whole cinnamon stick, a dry chili, cardamom pods, cloves, or star anise. For an intense flavor, add the spice to the pot with all of the other ingredients at the start, and cook the sauce as usual. For a lighter flavor, you can add the spices directly after the sauce has thickened and you’ve turned off the heat. Allow the sauce to cool with the spice. You can take it out after 10 minutes of steeping, or leave it in there all the way up until you serve it.
If you’re using many spices, or something small like cloves, you can make a small pouch from doubled-up cheesecloth to hold them so you can fish them out after steeping. Put the spices in the center and gather up the corners and edges. Tie it in a knot if you can, or use a piece of kitchen string to tie the top closed. Drop this parcel in the cranberry sauce for cooking or for steeping after cooking. You could even use a tea bag if those flavors intrigue you (English breakfast cranberry sauce, anyone?) After you’ve reached your desired infusion time, remove the bundle.
Add aromatic fresh ingredients. Similarly to adding spices, you can add aromatic ingredients while the sauce is cooking, or afterwards when the sauce is cooling. I personally prefer to steep them after the sauce is off the heat. Try adding large strips of orange zest, or my favorite, a 1-inch nub of peeled ginger. Keep the aromatics in large pieces, as they’ll be easier to remove that way.
Add an extract. Extracts can bring subtle warmth and aroma to your cranberry sauce, but they’re powerful and can lead to bitter notes (of which cranberry sauce already has enough), so use a light hand, adding a half teaspoon of extract to your cranberry sauce after it comes off the heat. Try vanilla extract, cinnamon, or a splash of almond extract. Allow the mixture to cool and then taste it. Stir in more if you’d like.
Here’s that basic recipe again, for good measure. It can be cut in half, doubled, or tripled as needed. After the sauce cools, serve it at room temperature, or pack it into a container to keep in the fridge for about a week. You can also freeze it for up to three months.
Easy Cranberry Sauce Recipe
3 cups cranberries (about 12 ounces)
1 cup sugar
1 cup water (substitute other liquids mentioned above)
Optional spices, flavorings, juices, or aromatics
In a medium pot, add the cranberries, sugar, and liquid ingredients. Add any optional ingredients mentioned above that you want to cook at the same time. Over medium heat, cook the mixture stirring somewhat frequently. After the berries begin to pop and the liquid bubbles, use the spatula or spoon to help crush the berries. After about 10 minutes, and the mixture has boiled and thickened, and the berries have all been crushed, turn off the heat. Add any other aromatic ingredients you’d like to steep in the sauce while it cools. Once the sauce is room temperature, serve or store.