Why It Works
- Cranberries are high in pectin, which helps them set naturally into a jelly without the need for any other thickeners.
- Orange zest and cinnamon are natural flavor pairings for cranberries, enhancing and complementing their tartness.
I understand the draw 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, some store-bought versions are pretty good, but homemade is so much better. Best of all, it's blindingly simple to make.
"The cranberries basically do the work themselves, setting into a jelly all on their own."
Here's why: First off, cranberries are extremely high in pectin. This is the cellular glue that holds plants together, and it's the primary gelling agent in jellies. Unlike most other berries used for jelly, which require you to add powdered or liquid pectin in specific quantities 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 the cranberries basically do 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 part due 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, but sometimes I'll add a couple of strips of orange zest and a splash of orange juice as it cooks down. Floral orange plays really nicely with the tart cranberries. A cinnamon stick can also be a good complement—the spicy phenolic compounds in cranberries are similar to those in cinnamon, so the flavors go quite well together.
If you're looking for more specific directions for cranberry sauce variations, you can check out our recipes for Spiced Red Wine Cranberry Sauce, Cranberry Sauce With Candied Pecans, Apple-Orange Cranberry Sauce, and Pear and Ginger Cranberry Sauce.
- 1 (12-ounce; 340g) bag fresh or frozen cranberries
- 1 cup sugar (5 ounces; 140g)
- 1/2 cup water (4 ounces; 115g)
- 2 strips zest and 2 tablespoons (30ml) juice from 1 orange (optional)
- 1 cinnamon stick (optional)
- Pinch kosher salt
Combine all ingredients in a 3-quart saucier or saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until berries start to pop. Press berries against side of pan with a wooden spoon and continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until berries are completely broken down and achieve a jam-like consistency, about 10 minutes total. Remove from heat and allow to cool about 30 minutes. Stir in water in 1-tablespoon increments to adjust to desired consistency. Cranberry sauce can be served immediately or stored in the refrigerator for several months.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Cranberry sauce can be made and refrigerated in a sealed container for at least one week before Thanksgiving, or frozen for several months and defrosted to serve.