Cranberry Orange Sauce

This simple cranberry sauce can simmer while the rest of the meal comes together.

Cranberry Orange Sauce
Photo: Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox
Active Time:
15 mins
Cool Time:
10 mins
Total Time:
25 mins
Yield:
2 1/4 cups

If you've eaten fresh cranberry sauce (like I did as a child), you know the magic of some fresh cranberries boiled with a little fresh-squeezed orange juice. When the cranberries start to pop and release their pectin, the sauce comes together into a consistency that makes it a versatile spread on leftover Thanksgiving turkey sandwiches, a topping for pumpkin pie, a stir-in for overnight oats, an accompaniment to a cheese and charcuterie board, and so much more.

If you want a more fix-it and forget-it preparation try our Crockpot or Instant Pot Cranberry Sauce. Just be sure to add the orange zest, cinnamon sticks, and ginger for that balance of acid, heat, and sweetness.

Why Do We Eat Cranberry Sauce at Thanksgiving?

An indigenous fruit to North America, cranberries have long been associated with Thanksgiving. Likely, the 1621 harvest celebration included cranberries, but not in the form we make them today. The Wampanoag Tribe used cranberries as a dye, in medicine, and for different food preparations like pemmican, a dish of dried meat and crushed cranberries.

According to The Library of Congress, the first written cranberry recipe can be found in Amelia Simmons' 1796 cookbook American Cookery. This was the first cookbook published in the United States, and Simmons gives instructions on using "cramberries" for pies.

Eighty years later, The Home Cook Book provided two cranberry sauce recipes, utilizing Simmons' techniques. Famously, General Ulysses S. Grant ordered cranberries to be served to soldiers during the Civil War as part of their Thanksgiving dinner just one year after President Lincoln declared that the last Thursday in November would be observed as a national holiday.

We also find cranberry sauce recipes in community cookbooks throughout the early 1900s, including a spiced cranberry sauce and versions including apples. November editions of newspapers throughout the 1900s gave space for details about commercial cultivation of cranberries, uses and recipes for cranberries, and the story of Thanksgiving.

In the 1930s the cranberry game changed when Ocean Spray introduced the much more efficient wet harvest, the popular bog image we associate with it today. Marcus Urann left a law career for a simpler life farming cranberries in Massachusetts. He obsessively sought a way to extend the shelf life of his berries so they could be enjoyed year-round. His experiments led to cranberry juice cocktail in 1933 and the iconic canned cranberry sauce in 1939.

Ingredients for Cranberry Orange Sauce

This homemade cranberry sauce calls for just a handful of ingredients:

ingredients for cranberry orange sauce
Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

Cranberries
If you've tried to source this fruit outside its seasonal window, you know it's difficult to obtain. The cranberry grows in sandy bogs and marshes, predominantly in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest. It's a perennial that's harvested every fall. The season is short so you may need to source them frozen or even dried if you aren't making this dish in the seasonal window.

Orange juice and zest
A basic recipe for homemade cranberry sauce calls for water, but I like to substitute fresh-squeezed orange juice, which gives the sauce a zest that complements the cranberry's tartness. You could use bottled orange juice, but that contains sugar which will create less balance in the recipe.

Depending on where you call home, there are a number of choices in the orange category. The most common is the navel, and I've used this one a number of times. The juice is not too sweet, and the amount of peel yields plenty of zest. I also love tangelos, Cara Caras, and Valencias.

The bonus of using fresh oranges is you also get fresh zest. Using a Microplane, or other zesting tool you have handy, zest the orange, being careful to not get down to the bitter white pith. Once you've accumulated a tablespoon of zest, you're ready to juice. I like an old-fashioned citrus reamer because you get a ton of juice, and you can sneak in a little of the pulp while keeping seeds at bay.

fresh squeeze orange juice
Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

Ginger and cinnamon sticks
A little freshly grated ginger gives your sauce an extra kick. The ginger has heat and complements the sweetness and tartness of the cranberries and the orange juice. When added to the cinnamon sticks, the holiday flavors burst forward. I grate the ginger with a Microplane since it's easy-to-use and compact—no need to pull out a bulky box grater.

Sugar
I find granulated sugar dissolves the easiest when cooking, and I like the neutral sweetness it provides. You could substitute brown sugar if you didn't have any granulated on hand, but keep in mind brown sugar has molasses added to it so you would be introducing another flavor to the profile.

What if I Can't Find Fresh Cranberries?

I love cranberry everything throughout the year, so I often buy extra and freeze them for use when they aren't available in grocery stores. If you cannot find fresh cranberries, and did not freeze some for future uses, you have a couple options.

Some grocery stores maintain frozen cranberries year-round. When making this Cranberry Orange Sauce recipe, you don't even need to thaw them; just use them like fresh in the recipe. If your grocery store doesn't carry them (like mine in Florida), there are a number of farms that will ship a larger quantity to your door.

fresh cranberries
Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

If all else fails, you can sub in dried cranberries with a few adjustments:

- For fresh cranberries, 1½ cups equals 12 ounces, the amount needed for one batch. The first adjustment for dried cranberries is to add an extra ½ cup of berries. Then comes the rehydrating.

- Boil enough water to cover the berries, and pour it over them in a heatproof bowl. Cover the bowl, and let them sit for 30 minutes.

- Drain with a mesh sieve until all the water is gone. Then make the recipe, except eliminate the sugar if your cranberries are sweetened (most are, so be sure to check on the package).

The other change with dried cranberries has to do with texture. The pectin (what naturally is released to thicken sauce made with fresh cranberries) is eliminated during the drying process. You won't hear any popping to clue the end of cook time. I boiled all the ingredients for 7 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep the sauce from sticking. You will notice that once cooled, it is not as vibrant red in color, and because of the pectin loss, not as jelled. But the flavor is still that wonderful sweet-tart of homemade cranberry orange sauce.

How Far Ahead Can I Make Cranberry Sauce?

Preparing a holiday feast can be stressful. Making items ahead relieves some of that day-of craze. Cranberry orange sauce is a great contender for a make-ahead dish. It's best served chilled so it has time to set, and is good in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. I like to make mine the day before so its shelf life is extended enough for me to slather it on leftover turkey sandwiches, cover my pumpkin pie and cheesecake with it, and sneak spoonfuls when I'm feeling snacky.

Can I Freeze Cranberry Orange Sauce?

In short, yes. Let's say you just can't finish the leftover sauce in that two-week window. The best thing to do is transfer it to a freezer container where it will be good for another six months. Or you could make a double batch and know some will be on hand for a while.

Cranberry Orange Sauce
Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox

What Else Is Cranberry Sauce Good for Besides a Thanksgiving Side Dish?

We all know it's great with turkey. The tart flavor cuts the richness of gravy, mashed potatoes, and all the other Thanksgiving staples. It also makes a delicious spread to serve with your charcuterie board, a topping for roasted meats like pork tenderloin and chicken, and an accompaniment to rich desserts like cheesecake. I also love it as the centerpiece of my thumbprint cookies, spread on toasted sourdough and scones, dolloped on Brie before baking it in puff pastry—it's incredibly versatile.

Ingredients

  • ¾ cup granulated sugar

  • 1 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice (from 2-3 oranges)

  • 1 (12-oz.) package fresh cranberries, rinsed and drained

  • 2 cinnamon sticks

  • 1 Tbsp. grated orange zest

  • 1 tsp. grated ginger

Directions

  1. Combine sugar, orange juice, and cranberries in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil. Add cinnamon sticks, orange zest, and ginger. Reduce heat, and simmer for 10 minutes, or until 2/3 of the cranberries have burst. Stir occasionally to keep the sauce from sticking to the bottom of the pan. Remove from burner, and allow sauce to come to room temperature before serving.

Tips

If you find the cranberry sauce is too bitter, don't add sugar. Follow these tips instead, and add some maple syrup.

Related Articles