I updated this post in 2015, four years after it was originally published. The update includes new photos (the old ones were soooo bad) and some new text. This post still has the cranberry sauce recipe; I moved the cranberry-apple sauce and cranberry-orange relish recipes to new posts. They are now linked in the text of this post.
As a kid, my only experience with cranberry sauce was jelly that comes out of a can – a bizarre substance that I considered barely edible on its own, but useful for a tangy counterpoint to other Thanksgiving foods.
At college, I got acquainted with real cranberries. My love affair with the tangy fruit (fresh and dried) began with plain sauce and moved in all sorts of directions. Now I throw dried cranberries in salad and rice dishes, bake with them, and toss them in yogurt or cereal. The raw ones are bit more challenging, because they require sweetening. They do well baked, but their true shining moment is in a cranberry sauce, relish, or chutney.
I love cranberry sauce for its contrast to the mild taste of turkey, but even the vegetarians consider it an essential part of our Thanksgiving meal. Traditionally, we have 3 varieties: plain cranberry sauce, an apple-cranberry-nut sauce and an uncooked cranberry-orange relish. This year, I may also add a Southeast Asian version (chutney) with crystallized ginger. Whatever version you’re making, if it has cranberries, it’s a great condiment for any poultry (turkey or chicken) or even pork and goes wonderfully with stuffing and vegetables. Did I mention how wonderful cranberry sauce/relish/chutney is in sandwiches?
My family’s three recipes are simple. You can dress them up with additional ingredients or substitutions. For example, try substituting orange juice for water in either cooked cranberry sauce. Or add a tablespoon of liqueur or 1-2 teaspoons of grated orange zest. I use honey in my plain and cranberry-apple-nut sauce, but sugar works if you add another 1-2 tablespoons of water. The extra liquid compensates for the liquidity of the honey. When I make the cranberry sauce more than a few days in advance, I freeze it in a container that has the air “burped” out of it.
Note on serving sizes/cost – In my experience, there is considerable variation in how much cranberry sauce/relish people eat. I’d estimate that each cooked sauce makes 6-8 servings and the relish about 10-12. Each version costs about $3.50 – $5 for the whole batch, of which $2.50 is the cost of the cranberries. Divided by the number of servings, these condiments cost from $.35 – $.85 per serving.
- When boiling honey (or sugar) and water, be careful not to let the mixture boil over. It can happen suddenly if the light under the mixture is high and cleaning it up is a mistake you won’t soon forget.
- When adding cranberries to a heated mixture of honey (or sugar) and water, the water has to be bought back to a rolling boil and the cranberries have to cook, popping for several minutes.
Plain Fresh Cranberry Sauce
This version is tart, rather thick, and smooth but with a few individual cranberries visible after cooking. If you like it on the sweet side, add more honey. If you prefer it thinner, increase the water to 1 cup, keeping in mind that cooked cranberry sauce gets thicker as it cools.
If you’re really adventurous, try NPR commentator Susan Stamberg’s recipe from her mother-in-law. She uses horseradish and sour cream. those ingredients make the cranberry sauce weirdly pink, but she swears by it.