Cranberry sauce is a Thanksgiving staple and often the only spot of brightness on a table full of brown, orange, and tan. While the canned stuff is available year-round, fresh cranberries come to market in October, making it an ideal time to whip up a batch of this sauce — which is actually an entry-level jam — and have it waiting for your Thanksgiving table.
How Cranberry Sauce Became a Thanksgiving Icon
The cranberry is truly a berry and native to North America. It is also one of only three native fruits grown commercially (the blueberry and Concord grape being the other two). While forms of cranberry sauce appear on menus and in recipes as early as the 19th century, it wasn't until the 1930s when the Ocean Spray cranberry growers cooperative had a surplus of harvested cranberries (thanks to the advent of wet harvesting) that cranberry jelly became readily available. Wet harvesting made cranberry picking more economical, but it also left growers with some damaged cranberries better used for cooking than selling fresh. Thus, cranberry jelly became cheaper and more readily available for the Thanksgiving table.
Even if you love cranberry jelly, making homemade cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving is worth a go. It gives you control of how sweet or tart the final sauce is, and it's remarkably easy to make.
Cranberry Sauce Is Just a Simple Fruit Jam
Sauce is a bit of a misnomer, as cranberry sauce is actually a fruit jam. Cranberries are naturally high in pectin. When cooked with sugar and acid (often lemon juice, but in our case orange juice), the pectin is released and gels the fruit.
2 Things to Know About Pectin When Making Cranberry Sauce
- Pectin needs both sugar and acid to gel properly. That's how we get a sauce that has body and texture.
- Pectin requires time. Cook the cranberries for at least 10 minutes or until they burst to release their full gelling power.
Read more: What's the Deal with Pectin?
Make-ahead tip: Like most fruit jams, cranberry sauce can be made and refrigerated up to two weeks in advance. You can also freeze cranberry sauce for up to a month.
Making This Cranberry Sauce Recipe Your Own
Once you understand the basics of making cranberry sauce, the possibilities to customize are endless. You can replace some of the sugar with brown or maple sugar. You can substitute water or cranberry juice for some of the orange juice, as long as you have at least 1/4 cup of orange or lemon juice to make the pectin gel.
- Add a vanilla bean while boiling or a teaspoon of vanilla extract at the end.
- Whole spices, like cinnamon, anise, or cardamom, can be boiled with the sugar and orange juice. Remove before serving.
- Finely chop a jalapeño and add at the end of cooking for a savory finish.
- Add a tablespoon of freshly grated ginger with the cranberries.
- Stir in a tablespoon of rum, brandy, or whiskey to the finished cranberry sauce.
How to Serve Cranberry Sauce
Cranberry sauce is a favorite at Thanksgiving since it's a sweet-tart foil to a table filled with such rich flavor, but I have found that cranberry sauce is one of those dishes that tastes better the next day or even a few days after its made. The sauce will gel as it cools and become sweeter.
As for the leftover cranberry sauce post-Thanksgiving? Consider swirling it into oatmeal, using it to top pancakes, or blending it into a smoothie.
More Ways to Use Leftover Cranberry Sauce
How To Make Cranberry Sauce
What You Need
2 large Valencia or navel oranges
1/2 cup granulated sugar
12 ounces fresh or frozen cranberries
Measuring cups and spoons
Juicer or reamer
- Zest and juice the oranges: Use a vegetable peeler to remove a 1-inch-thick strip of orange peel from one of the oranges; set aside. Halve, then juice the oranges into a measuring cup. Remove any seeds from the juice. Two large oranges should yield about 1 cup of juice. If you do not have enough juice, add enough water for 1 cup.
- Simmer the juice and sugar: Place the orange juice, sugar, and reserved orange peel in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Stir to dissolve the sugar.
- Simmer the cranberries: Add the cranberries and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer uncovered until the cranberries are tender and pop open and appear glossy, about 11 to 15 minutes. Remove and discard the orange peel. Transfer the sauce into a bowl.
Cool and serve: For a looser cranberry sauce, the sauce can be served warm. If you prefer a thicker (canned-like) consistency, cover and refrigerate overnight.
- Make ahead: Cranberry sauce can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or frozen for up to 1 month. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator before serving.