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Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

The Food Lab Thanksgiving Special: The World's Easiest Cranberry Sauce

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[Photograph: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

I understand the appeal of canned jellied cranberry sauce. It plops out of the can, has those pretty ridges, and can be sliced up and placed right in the center of a plateful of curly parsley. It's got a kind of Betty Crocker appeal to it. But whole berry sauce-in-a-can or jar? Why do it?

Sure, we found some store-bought versions that were pretty good in our recent taste test, but homemade is so much better, and best of all, it's blindingly simple to do.

Here's why:

First off, cranberries are extremely high in pectin. This is the cellular glue that holds plants together and is the primary gelling agent in jellies. Unlike most other berry jellies which require you to add powdered or liquid pectin in specific amounts to get the requisite gel level, cranberries already contain the perfect amount. That means that all you've got to do is cook them down with some sugar and just a touch of water to get them started, and they basically do all the work themselves, setting into a jelly all on their own.

Cranberries and cranberry sauce also have an extremely long shelf life. In part due to their high acidity in addition to naturally high levels of antimicrobial phenolic compounds, fresh cranberries can last weeks (if not months) stored in the refrigerator. I make my Thanksgiving cranberry sauce at least a week ahead of time. It sits in the fridge no problem, and saves me from having to think about it on turkey day.

Finally, making cranberry sauce yourself lets you adjust the flavorings any way you like 'em. I'm a purist at heart, so my sauce most often contains nothing but cranberries and sugar, with perhaps the occasional hint of cinnamon (cranberries contain spicy phenolic compounds similar to those in cinnamon, so the flavors go quite well together).

Here are a few more ideas:

  • Orange. Go ahead and replace the water in the recipe with half a cup of orange juice. Finish them off with a couple teaspoons of grated zest.
  • Ginger. Add a teaspoon of grated fresh ginger to the pot, the finish the sauce by stirring in some diced crystallized ginger.
  • Spices. Cinnamon works well, as does grated nutmeg, allspice, or loves. A bit of vanilla or spiced rum added towards the end of cooking will also spice things up a bit.
  • Dried fruits. A handful of raising or currants can add texture and flavor variety to your sauce. Add them right at the beginning to allow them to soften.
  • Nuts. Toasted almonds, pecans, pistachios, or walnuts roughly chopped and mixed into your sauce at the end are a classic pairing.

What are your favorite cranberry sauce mix-ins?

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