Canned is fine, but here’s how to make a fresh cranberry sauce people will actually remember this Thanksgiving.

By Maddy Sweitzer-Lammé
Updated October 15, 2020
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Here’s a tip: Cranberry sauce is a great thing to offer to bring if you’re not hosting Thanksgiving. It’s easy, affordable, and can sit at room temperature for… a long time. It’s also often kind of an afterthought, since so many people are used to eating the canned stuff, so if yours isn’t perfect, it won’t be a big deal. That said, there are a couple of key steps to making your cranberry sauce memorable and truly delicious. Here’s what you need to know.

1. Use whole cranberries.

Around Thanksgiving, whole cranberries will probably appear in your grocery store. There will probably be fresh and frozen. Use these to get vibrant cranberry flavor, not juice. If you’re going to use juice, you might as well just buy canned cranberry sauce (a respectable choice and almost certainly what I will do this year) because the canned stuff is just juice anyway.

2. Keep it tangy.

If you’re making your own cranberry sauce, you want it to taste homemade, not like the canned stuff. And one of the advantages to this is your ability to make your sauce pretty tangy, which is a better offset to the rich flavors of other Thanksgiving dishes that you're going to be eating. That acidity cleanses all the butter and fat off your palate, helping you to continue eating your way to a clean plate. And isn’t that the whole point of Thanksgiving? To reach that delightfully acidic point of perfection, hold back slightly on the sugar, so the flavor of the cranberries can shine through.

Credit: Caitlin Bensel Food Styling: Tina Stamos and Gordon Sawyer Prop Styling: Kay Clark

3. Use fresh citrus.

I love a healthy dose of orange juice and orange zest in my cranberry sauce. The juice brings a little natural sweetness that doesn’t edge toward sugary, and the zest adds depth of flavor and a hint of bitterness that I find is quite welcome at the Thanksgiving table. It also adds complexity of flavor without muddying the cranberry flavor, which brings me to my next point...

4. Chill on the spices.

Lots of cranberry sauce recipes tell you to add spices like nutmeg and cinnamon, but I’m here to tell you to close the spice drawer. These warming spices are present in other dishes at Thanksgiving, and cranberry sauce is meant to be a palate cleanser. If you really want some spices, opt for fresh ginger, which gives you a kick of heat as well as a warming flavor, without compromising the fresh elegance of the sauce.

5. Make it ahead!

If you’re in charge of the main meal, and you’re planning to make your own cranberry sauce, I salute you. I also highly recommend that you make it in advance. Not, like, the day before, when you should be baking pies and prepping other ingredients, but at least a week in advance, when you are maybe doing a preliminary grocery shop for non-perishable ingredients. It’s like a gift to yourself, and believe me, you’ll appreciate it.