Thanksgiving is all about tradition, but there is one that is worth retiring. I’m talking specifically about that dark red, oblong thing with all the ridges sitting in the middle of your dining table. Does anyone love cranberry sauce from a can? Really, truly love it? Cranberry sauce is as much of a part of a classic Thanksgiving menu as the turkey and dressing, but I challenge you to find one person who wakes up that morning excited to eat it. Cranking open that can and wiggling out the contents into a cut glass dish is pure ritual. We may dutifully add a few spoonfuls of cranberry sauce onto our plates, but eating it does not remotely compare to the pure comfort of a forkful of creamy mashed potatoes and turkey gravy, or the delight of tasting tart apples and warm spices in a slice of apple pie. It’s just there, like the pilgrim-shaped salt and pepper shakers.
I’m not saying we should give up on cranberries completely. There’s a reason why this tart, brightly colored fruit is a permanent fixture on Thanksgiving tables across America. Not only are cranberries a nod to the first Thanksgiving meal in 1621 (cranberries were a native fruit in Massachusetts and were likely eaten by the Wampanoag Indians), they are a much-needed spot of bright color and flavor in a sea of brown and beige richness. The zingy acidity of cranberries cuts through the heaviness of a traditional Thanksgiving meal, while also complementing many of the dishes on the table, especially turkey.
If you’ve never made your own cranberry sauce, let this be the first year you do. It is one of the easiest dishes you can cook for the big feast and is better than the canned stuff in almost every way. Here are five reasons, for starters:
1. Homemade cranberry sauce has bigger, bolder flavor.
Canned cranberry sauce often has a fuzzy, muted taste from too much sugar. It doesn’t capture the pure tartness of fresh cranberries. When you make it from scratch, you can control how much sugar you put in, or use other sweeteners like maple syrup or honey.
2. You can go cooked or raw.
Cranberry relish is a tangy-sweet mixture of coarsely ground raw cranberries and other ingredients like oranges and sugar. No cooking required! Just toss the ingredients in your food processor and grind them up. If you like a soft, smooth sauce, simmer your cranberries with some sugar and other ingredients until tender.
3. You can add all sorts of interesting ingredients.
Try Cranberry Chutney with spices and apples, Cranberry-Pecan Chutney with nuts and ginger, Spicy Cranberry Orange Chutney with pepper jelly, or a fruity Cranberry-Apricot sauce or Double Cranberry-Apple Sauce.
4. You can spike it.
Add a splash of bourbon or orange-flavored liqueur to your cranberry sauce and give the grown-ups at the table something else to be thankful for. Try Grandma Erma’s Spirited Cranberry Sauce or Cranberry-Orange Relish for cranberries with a kick.
5. It makes your kitchen smell great.
Although you can make homemade cranberry sauce a few days in advance and store it in your refrigerator, a pot of berries and spices simmering on the stove makes your house smell like the holidays in minutes.
Thanksgiving can be a tense time for family dynamics and I would never suggest doing something that could upset people. Some people might actually claim that they like canned cranberry sauce. If you are worried that omitting it will disturb the natural balance of the Thanksgiving table, conduct a simple experiment. Set out a bowl of scratch-made cranberry sauce next to the canned stuff and see which one is gone when dinner is over. I hope for your sake that there is a little homemade sauce left over because it is really good on a turkey sandwich.