Homemade Cranberry Sauce: One of the World's Easiest Embellishments

Cranberry sauce is one of those things that most of us grew up eating out of a can. Because it was so darn easy, yes. But also, I think, because cranberry sauce was kind of an after-thought for holiday dinners, a little something sweet to cut the heaviness of all those savory dishes.

But here’s the deal: homemade cranberry sauce is one of the easiest things to prepare in the kitchen, and is so much better than the canned stuff. It is one condiment that can share star billing. And if you are going to a potluck and want to wow family or friends (especially those who don’t know how easy this is), this will cost you less than a half-hour of prep time.

Bob Benenson Homemade Cranberry Sauce

Let’s start with the basics: Here how hard it is to make cranberry sauce that is as good as, or better than, the store-bought kind. Brace yourself.

One 12-ounce bag of fresh cranberries, rinsed
1 cup of sugar
1 cup of water

Yep, that’s it. Three ingredients, one of which is water. Dissolve the sugar in the water, boil (stirring frequently) to create a simple syrup, add the berries, cook at medium heat — not too high, because the berries will pop as they cook — until the fruit has broken down and the mixture is somewhat firmed up. It will finish gelling in the refrigerator.

[Aside to friends who favor the jellied variety and say it ain’t cranberry sauce unless you serve it with the can indentations intact… sorry, but I’ve got nothing for you here.]

The neat thing about that basic whole berry recipe, though, is that it’s almost endlessly adaptable to your tastes. I happen to like the combination of cranberry and citrus, so I used the following recipe:

One 12-ounce bag of cranberries, rinsed
3/4 cup orange juice
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup white sugar
Zest from 1/2 grapefruit*
Zest from 1/2 lemon*

* If you use fresh oranges for the juice, you might use orange zest in place of either or both of these.

Dissolve the sugars in the juice and heat until it becomes a bit syrupy. Add the berries and the zest and stir frequently until the mixture looks like cranberry sauce. Cool and refrigerate.

After I made that batch, I decided the second batch could use a little spice. So I threw a cinnamon stick in while making the syrup and left it in as the berries cooked (remove after cooking). Want more spice? Use more cinnamon sticks, or ground cinnamon to taste.

That said, you can go a lot of different directions with this. Like the cran-apple combination? Peel and chopped up a couple of apples, and add them to the basic recipe. Or you can mix the cranberries with other berries. Or raisins. Or chopped nuts, if you want something to sink your teeth into.

Or you can switch up the liquid you use for the syrup. My friend David Mueller, owner of the excellent Paul Henry’s Art Gallery in Hammond, Indiana, suggests using wine. Carly Crystler, a fellow member of the Chicago Spartans club board, says she uses lambic (a Belgian fruit beer) to good effect. While I haven’t tested their theories, I implicitly endorse them.

Have some ideas of your own to share? Please do, preferably as comments to this blog post.

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