The season for holiday eating starts and lasts in my home well into January, since my birthday happens to fall on January 6th, just after the Christmas and New Year holiday stretch and on the day celebrated by some Christians around the globe as Three Kings Day. One of my favorite things about going grocery shopping at this time is how easy it is to find fresh cranberries. It wouldn’t be the holidays in my house without cranberry sauce, which I have made every year for Thanksgiving since I was a kid.
In its fresh, not dried and sugar-coated, form, the cranberry is a controversial fruit: some love it, some hate it. I’m definitely on Team Cranberry and growing up, it was a contest each year between my mom and I to see how many bags of cranberries we could make for our sauce, which we did on Thanksgiving day. One year, we made six or seven bags worth of sauce, which we gave to family members in plastic containers along with festive tins of homemade cookies for their holiday celebrations.
And call me weird, but I like canned jelled cranberry sauce, too. I have mashed it up with some water, orange juice and fresh or frozen whole cranberries to make a “shortcut” cranberry sauce in the past, although I believe there is no substitute for homemade sauce from scratch.
I happen to think the cranberry is underrated. A lot of people don’t like them because although they are round, like blueberries, they are mouth-puckeringly tart. Blueberries start off small and tart, ripening and getting sweeter as they mature. Not a cranberry, which is why I think of them as the blueberry’s sassier cousin. Sadly, I guess that is why any cranberry dessert, cranberry juice, or cranberry sauce I have ever come across has been either spiked with a lot of other berry flavors, usually from raspberries, to up their sweetness (but sometimes detracting from rather than complementing the cranberries) or laden with a ton of sugar.
When they aren’t doused with sugar, cranberries are very good for your health: they are considered to have antioxidants on par with dark chocolate and a good source of vitamin C. Although cranberries are also well-known to be beneficial for keeping your kidneys and urinary tract healthy, some studies show that they don’t necessarily prevent UTI’s from occurring when compared to, say, being mindful of drinking a lot of water.
Over the years, I have dialed both the bags of cranberries and the cups of sugar way back when I make my sauce. I am constantly improving the recipe: trying different spices, like Chinese five-spice, which is really aromatic and complex, made with star anise and fennel seed among spices like cinnamon; substituting honey for the white sugar, whole as well as in part, and sometimes using brown sugar for the toffee-like flavor that it can bring; and adding other fruits, like dark bing cherries, for flavor and different kinds of added sweetness without dumping in more sugar.
With the version that I made this past Thanksgiving, I used both honey and white or raw sugar. The sugar helps take the edge off the tart berry, while the honey adds a lovely floral flavor. In the case of the honey, what I have had on-hand over the past couple of months has been “hyper-local” – in other words, from the summer harvest taken from our backyard bees, which is as local as it could possibly get. Fresh grated ginger, a splash of vanilla, and a pinch or two of salt and fresh ground pepper added to the other spices and orange made a satisfyingly tangy, spicy and sweet sauce.
The cranberry, to me, just doesn’t mean Thanksgiving anymore: I make cranberry sauce now at least one other time during the season aside from Thanksgiving. Usually, it’s for a special weekend dinner leading up to Christmas and New Years Eve, if not Christmas dinner itself. But to others, cranberries are so synonymous with the holidays that they are hard to find fresh at any other time of the year. Stores are now better at carrying them frozen during the off-season, but I always buy an extra bag (or three) when I can find them from October through December in local stores and freeze them to use throughout the year.
Just like with other fresh berries, if you find yourself with extra cranberries you can scatter them in an even, single layer on a baking tray that will fit into your freezer and freeze them until solid, then transfer to a freezer-safe zip-top bag or another type of container. Or you can do what I do these days and just freeze the whole damn bag. In my experience doing this, they do not get freezer burnt. Every few days for the first week, I will also shake up the bag, to prevent them from sticking and clumping together too much.
On a final note, it was admittedly hard to approximate the cooking time on this recipe, simply because it is such a “make it” and (practically) “forget it” kind of preparation. After combining all ingredients, I usually let this simmer on low on my stove as I’m cooking other things. It shouldn’t aggressively boil; if it is, turn the heat back. The popping of the cranberries will be loud at first, then soften as the berries cook down. I like to think of the popping as a gentle reminder to stir every so often, and you can use a splatter screen, if you wish, or a deeper pot to cut back on any potential mess. It has such a nice aroma from all of the spices as it cooks, too.
It wouldn't be the holidays in my house without cranberry sauce. Here's how I make my fresh, whole berry cranberry sauce with spices and orange, which is great to serve with turkey, chicken and other holiday roasts.
- 12 oz bag whole fresh or frozen cranberries
- 1 cup water
- 1 orange
- ¼ cup white sugar
- ½ cup honey
- 2 sticks cinnamon broken in half
- ½ tablespoon fresh ground ginger
- ¼ teaspoon ground allspice
- ¼ teaspoon ground clove
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
- Fresh black pepper a few grinds
- Pinch of salt
Wash and pick through cranberries, removing and discarding any stems and soft/bruised berries. Cut the orange into large quarters, leaving the peel on.
In a medium pot, add cranberries, water, honey, spices, and orange. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook, approximately 45 minutes, until cranberries start to "pop" and sauce thickens.
The sauce will continue to thicken as it cools and can be made in advance and refrigerated up to two weeks. Remove cinnamon sticks and orange before serving.