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We used to be a cranberry sauce from the can family, which is why I also used to be a cranberry sauce hater. The sight of that Jell-O like cylinder of sauce sliding out from a can, with ridge impressions intact, was incredibly off-putting to me. For reasons I still can't quite figure out, that visual was haunting, and I could never find joy in cranberry sauce. For a big portion of my life, I couldn't understand why this disappointing sauce was such a beloved part of an otherwise awesome meal.
Then one year things changed. The can was absent, and instead my Mother had bought a bag of fresh cranberries that she turned into a sauce, with only a ten-minute investment of effort in the kitchen. She boozed that one up with a little too much bourbon, but still, I got a taste of what a fresh cranberry sauce could be—tart and sweet, with a pleasing fruity flavor and a texture that has a nice jam-like quality.
Since then I've done a complete 180 and have become a cranberry sauce fiend, taking over the making of this holiday staple, and finding new ways to enhance it each year.
My process has been exactly what Kenji described a while back—boil cranberries with sugar, water, and salt until they start to pop, then mash them against the side of the pot and keep cooking until the sauce thickens and gets jammy. It's fast, simple, delicious, and open to so many variations that it never gets old.
In preparation for the meal this year, I toyed with five different recipes, including:
Basic Cranberry Sauce
The original base is comprised of cranberries, sugar, water, and salt. I always add a least a couple tablespoons of fresh orange juice into my basic recipe as well—the sweet citrus is a nice compliment to the tartness of cranberries.
Spiced Wine Cranberry Sauce
Taking inspiration from another fall comfort—mulled wine—this version swaps the water for red wine and adds in holiday spice in the form of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice. Molasses and maple syrup give the sweetness an extra depth as well, making this the most layered of the lot.
Cranberry Sauce with Candied Pecans
Nuts are a common add-in for cranberry sauce, but this recipe takes things a little further by first toasting the pecans with a spiced brown sugar glaze. Once chopped and added into the prepared sauce after it's cooled slightly, the finished product has a sweet and nutty crunch.
Pear and Ginger Cranberry Sauce
Pear and ginger are a great contrasting pair, and work very well together in this cranberry sauce variation. I used a double dose of ginger—both grated fresh ginger as well as chopped crystallized ginger that I mixed in at the end. The ginger flavor was sharp here, but delicious. If you want a little bit less edge to this sauce, cut back on the crystallized ginger or omit it completely.
Apple-Orange Cranberry Sauce
This apple-orange version was born out of necessity: I had a ton of leftover apples and oranges from other Thanksgiving recipe tests. It ended up being one of my favorite combos—the Granny Smith apples built on the already tart and sweet profile, and the addition of extra orange juice and zest gave the sauce a brighter flavor than any of the other recipes.