Cranberry sauce is a fixture on tables in the US at this time of year, and it seems to come, as I discussed earlier this month, in a myriad of forms, although there’s really only one that’s acceptable on my mind: Plain whole berry cranberry sauce. It’s what I grew up with, so we can obviously see where my bias comes from, but, also, it’s good. My thing with food is that I actually like to taste the flavours. With plain cranberry sauce, you get that crisp tartness and a hint of sweet, and that’s it. You don’t have anything interfering to obscure the clarity of the flavour, and that, to my mind, is a very good thing. Once you start adding candied oranges and nuts and what have you, in addition to creating a food allergy minefield, you also obscure the key, core, most important ingredient, the cranberries.
Cranberries are a beautiful thing, people. These peculiar little fruits (berries?) of the bog are intensely tart but they also have a sweet note going on. If you’re the antioxidant type, they’re packed with those, and they also evidently have at least mild antimicrobial activity. They’re pretty much rad, and I see absolutely no reason to override their fantastic flavour with a bunch of additives.
My father and I have been making the same cranberry sauce for as long as I remember, and people praise it a lot and demand the recipe, as though there’s some sort of deep, dark secret to it. Well, I’m here to tell you there is no secret: The recipe we’ve always used is from the back of the Ocean Spray[1. Fun fact: My father used to pick cranberries for Ocean Spray, although I don’t think this has anything to do with our clinging to their recipe.] package. That’s it, really, we don’t do anything special.
What you need is:
- One cup (~250 milliliters) water.
- One cup (~200 grams) sugar[2. If you’re feeling innovative, you can try honey, or raw sugar. If you want to use agave I would recommend cutting down, because it’s very sweet. For other sweeteners, you’re on your own.].
- 12 ounces (340 grams) (about two cups) cranberries. They can be fresh or frozen.
- One saucepan—I like to use my French green enamel pot but it’s really not that important.
Dump the cranberries in the saucepan; you may want to rinse and pick over first. Add the water and sugar. Turn the heat to high, until the water starts boiling, and then reduce it to medium. Bring it down lower if the mixture is really aggressively bubbling because you don’t want a big mess or an explosion. Cook for around 20 minutes, until all of the cranberries have burst open. I like to stir occasionally, because I am fussy, but I’m not actually sure how necessary that is. Set aside and allow to cool.
Cranberries naturally contain very high levels of pectin, and while the mixture will seem sloppy at first, it will thicken up. Once it’s cooled, you can use it, put it in the fridge for a few days, or freeze it. I happen to be a huge fan of cranberry sauce and usually freeze a number of bags in the winter, when they are available, and sometimes also make a big batch of cranberry sauce and freeze it in individual servings so I can thaw out just enough to use when I want it, because I am nerdy like that (freezer bags are perfect for this and you can rinse and reuse them).
That’s it. That’s all there is to the Smith family’s cranberry sauce. It’s pretty simple and doesn’t require any special skills, and if it makes too much, you can easily cut it down to half a batch and make it easy to handle. You can also adjust the sweetness if you find that it’s too sweet or not sweet enough for your tastes. I tend to like mine more on the tart side and often cut down on the sugar unless I know other people will be eating it, in which case I sweeten it up to stem the tide of vociferous and angry complaints about the intensity of the bitterness.
Although cranberry sauce is often recommended as a relish for meats, there are other ways to use it as well. I sometimes apply it like chutney to Indian food, I make cranberry tarts by filling pie shells with cranberry sauce (I will sometimes add a layer of chocolate ganache to make them more exciting), and you can also pour it over mashed potatoes, which happens to be a particular favourite of mine. That last might sound a little weird, I know, depending on whether you’re one of those people who likes to segregate your holiday foods onto isolated and remote areas of the plate or mash them all together; I’m sure I acquired a taste for cranberry mashed potatoes after a few too many breaches of the stuffing levy.