Cranberry Sauce: The Crown Jewel of the Holiday Table
Sweet, spicy, fruity, chunky, sliceable — how do you like your cranberry sauce? Skip the canned stuff and follow this colorful how-to guide for 20 fabulous (and surprisingly easy!) cranberry sauce recipes.
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Homemade Citrus Cranberry Sauce; photograph by Olga Ivanova
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Every year the Thanksgiving dinner plate is in danger of looking like an abstract painting from the 1970s, with lumpy circles of beige and brown foods and, if you’re lucky, an occasional dab of dusky orange from some sweet potatoes. Except for one thing: the glistening ruby red jewels that generously lend their tart good cheer and sparkle to the entire affair — the cranberry sauce. It really ties the plate together.
And this sweet tart sauce — or compote, or relish as it’s sometimes called — has been a delicious companion to Thanksgiving turkey for at least 200 years: Amelia Simmons suggested pairing cranberry sauce with turkey for the Feast of Plenty back in 1796, in what was likely the first cookbook by an American to be published in the U.S., called American Cookery.
But the best part of bringing a bowl of homemade cranberry sauce to the Thanksgiving table ... or any holiday banquet? It is incredibly easy to make, even from scratch. And fast! You can whip up a shimmering crimson bowl’s worth in about 20 minutes, and (if you can avoid eating it all with a spoon in the kitchen) simply relax and prepare for the oohs and ahhs. Now that’s something to be grateful for.
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The art of cranberry sauce, explained
Homemade cranberry sauce is so much easier than you might think. Check out the tips below and then grab that bag of cranberries!
What is cranberry sauce?
Cranberries are indigenous to North America, and are grown in the northern climes of the country. Sound cranberries will bounce when you throw them down the stairs — which was the original way of sorting them! But cranberry sauce, at its simplest, consists of four ingredients: fresh or frozen cranberries, water, sugar, and a pinch of salt. It can be dressed up with citrus zest or juice, warming spices, a splash of bourbon or wine or Grand Marnier, or diced fruit.
Cups vs. ounces of cranberries called for in recipes?
Most fresh or frozen cranberries in the U.S. are sold in 12-ounce bags, which contain about 3 cups each.
How do you make cranberry sauce?
Whether you’re working with fresh or frozen cranberries, it’s a snap. Rinse the berries, then put them in a medium saucepan with (almost always) the rest of the ingredients. Add a pinch of salt — do not skip the salt, whether the recipe calls for it or not! A little pinch of salt brings out a complexity and nuance to the tartness, and makes the sweet notes all the more dulcet. Turn the heat to medium-high, and stir occasionally for the next 5 to 7 minutes as the cranberries start to pop. When about two-thirds of the berries have popped and the liquid has reduced slightly, take the pot off the heat and let it cool. Cranberries are very high in pectin, so will naturally gel up as the sauce cools. If you want a thicker sauce, let it chill in the refrigerator and it will firm up further.
How long will cranberry sauce keep?
Cranberries contain high amounts of benzoic acid, which naturally preserves them after harvest for months on end; cranberry sauce will keep for several weeks in a closed container in the refrigerator. And guess what that means? It's the perfect candidate for a make-ahead recipe on your Thanksgiving menu.
What should I do with leftover cranberry sauce?
The classic answer is to use it as a spread with a little mayo on leftover turkey sandwiches. But cranberry sauce can do so much more: Serve it next to pork chops or with sautéed chicken; swap it out in muffin batter for blueberries; make bruschetta with toasted sliced baguette, a swipe of ricotta cheese and a daub of cranberry sauce; stir some into morning oatmeal; use as a topping for pancakes; or puree it with some olive oil and black pepper for a piquant rosy red salad dressing.
Sweet and simple cranberry sauce recipes
These cranberry sauce recipes are basic, but in the best sort of way. They’re a simple start to making homemade cranberry sauce, with versions below to fit every diet.
With only four ingredients, this easy cranberry sauce is simple enough for the novice, but tastes sophisticated enough (especially if you add a pinch of salt!) to impress any holiday crowd.
Looking for an easy recipe with less sugar? The natural sweetness of chopped dates and apple cider stands in for sugar in this warming spiced cranberry sauce that brings extra holiday cheer with a dash of cinnamon and ground ginger. It’s paleo-friendly, and you can whiz leftovers with some olive oil for a cheerful blush-colored salad dressing.
Swerve, stevia, or monkfruit powder stand in for sugar in this paleo-friendly and keto cranberry sauce with some pizzazz from orange juice, cinnamon, and clove.
Fruity cranberry sauce recipes
Cranberry sauce with orange or other citrus is a zesty pairing, while raspberries, cherries, apples, and figs offer a sweet contrast to cranberry’s natural tart notes
Dried figs add a depth of flavor to the bright high notes of this homemade cranberry sauce. Half of the water is replaced with rye (the alcohol is cooked out), and spiced with fresh ginger, cinnamon sticks, star anise (feel free to use just one), and brown sugar for a complex tasting, yet very easy cranberry sauce.
This generous cranberry sauce has more orange and lemon pieces than it has cranberries, making it a chunky delight for Thanksgiving, but also a great side for pork chops or salmon later in the week.
Grapes and cranberries both flourish in the Northeast, and are a natural pairing in this compote. Don’t let the name flummox you: It’s still a homemade cranberry sauce you’re serving.
Raspberries and almond extract elevate this homemade cranberry sauce to make it something really special to enjoy during one of the many events of the holiday season — but leftovers are delicious spread on biscuits or scones, or spread over sweet mascarpone cheese spread on squares of puff pastry for a nearly instant dessert.
This recipe can be made entirely from pantry staples and some fresh cranberries — and fortunately calls for exactly two 12-ounce bags, which is the most common way fresh cranberries are sold. Orange marmalade, cinnamon, and a bit of brown sugar make it a snap to prepare.
Granny Smith apples, fresh squeezed orange juice, ginger, and cinnamon give this homemade cranberry sauce a warm, comforting quality that conjures up images of happy children eating their applesauce snack.
Sometimes you need a little something extra to make it through a family holiday dinner. This bourbon-laced cranberry sauce cooks out the booze so it can be served to everyone, but the smoky undertones are great with the sweetness of the orange zest and tartness of the cranberries.
Spice-filled cranberry sauces
Warming spices give fresh cranberry sauce a spicy boost
This homemade cranberry sauce is both spiced and spicy, to give each bite of that tender turkey a festive kick. Almost all the ingredients get roasted together, then stirred in a bowl for an easy cranberry sauce to make when all the burners on the stovetop are spoken for!
Frozen cranberries go from freezer to sauce in a quick 10 minutes, and get dressed up with fresh ginger and ground cloves, and some depth from dark brown sugar.
Maple syrup adds a nice holiday touch to this cranberry sauce, and provides the sweetness when it’s combined with orange juice. Cinnamon and nutmeg complete the festive vibe.
This intriguing fresh cranberry sauce has as much cherry as cranberry in it, and with the addition of chopped chipotle peppers in adobo (plastic gloves while chopping will protect your hands and eyes), delivers an excellent warming twist on the classic.
Shallots, apple, allspice, and apple cider vinegar give this cranberry sauce a German gingerbread holiday twist that’s satisfying with turkey but would also stand up well to gamey venison, too.
Brown sugar, vanilla, orange juice, and zest get this cranberry sauce as close to dessert as possible. Stir any leftovers into your favorite muffin recipe (swap out an equal amount for blueberries) for an easy holiday baking project.
This cranberry sauce comes in at 17 ingredients, but if you’ve got the better part of an hour it might be worth it to make a cranberry sauce worthy of Willy Wonka’s stick of gum that contains an entire holiday dinner!
Yes, you can make sliceable jelly!
No more ridged cans for your Thanksgiving table. The natural pectin in cranberries only needs a little gelatin boost to create a beautiful molded jelly to adorn the buffet.
My late grandmother would have called this molded jelly a “salad,” much to my delight as a child. This cranberry sauce with orange juice and zest, plus pieces of apple, is a great accompaniment to Thanksgiving dinner, and delicious sliced for a turkey sandwich.
That canned cranberry sauce has got nothing on you. Cranberries and maple syrup get treated firmly thanks to powdered gelatin in this mold that’ll impress a crowd. Plus, it can be prepared two days ahead of time for a hassle-free holiday.
You’ll need a five-cup mold to make this showstopper of a side dish. Pomegranates also come into season in the fall, so the combination makes this homemade cranberry sauce mold a fitting surprise and delight of a centerpiece.
Want more fabulous holiday recipes?
From mashed potatoes and green bean casserole to turkey roasting tips and luscious pies, we've got you covered on Thanksgiving recipes: