The Best Cranberry Sauce, Made from Scratch

Thanksgiving is my family’s version of the Super Bowl.

Vertical image of a red-trimmed bowl filled with a chutney with a spoon on a yellow towel, with text on the top and bottom of the image.

There’s the year-round training, where my dad and I flex our culinary muscles on the reg – making sure to take a day off here and there to recoup, which in our world means ordering takeout.

There’s the prudent plan we create in advance to ensure we have an offensive strategy in place if hurdles arrive, such as the grocery store being out of shiitake mushrooms.

There’s the towel we each throw over our shoulders at game time, to wipe our hands in preparation for the sweating of the onions.

And then, of course, there’s the big show.

Vertical image of a red-trimmed bowl filled with a deep maroon chutney on a yellow towel next to a zester, orange slices, fruit, and a green plant.

It begins first thing in the morning, as we stretch our stomachs with Italian roast coffee and bran muffins while we discuss the team lineup. Turkey is typically up first, as it takes the longest to cook, with the cranberries coming in second since the sauce needs plenty of time to properly set.

Yay, sports!

The best part is that in the end, everybody wins. That’s a nice perk for those of us who don’t have a competitive bone in our bodies.

All of this to say that when it comes to my foodie family, Thanksgiving is the heavyweight of all holidays. And though my dad and I like to tinker with the menu a bit each year based on the flavors and trends we’ve recently been enjoying, the cranberry sauce stays the same.

Vertical image of a white bowl filled with a dark maroon thick and chunky spread topped with orange zest next to a pink towel.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Or in other words, if a Thanksgiving side repeatedly gets devoured each year – don’t stop making it.

The subtle melody of simmering berries beginning to slowly burst open and reveal their tart juice is the soundtrack that kicks off our cooking marathon. Well, that and some classic Ella Fitzgerald.

Now, let’s talk oranges.

Known for being tenaciously tart, cranberries need a counterpart to balance them out. Fresh orange juice brings natural sweetness, and the intense zip of the zest adds a tangy zing that makes all the difference.

Vertical top-down image of a red-trimmed bowl filled with a thick and chunky maroon fruit spread with a spoon, on top of a blue towel next to fruit and a zester.

Golden, syrupy honey also helps with harmonizing the flavors, and offers a nice change from white sugar. Besides its obvious differences in terms of composition compared to the granulated stuff, honey even provides some added health benefits like a low glycemic index.

It also may help to reduce cholesterol levels when used as a substitute, which doesn’t hurt on a holiday known for its glorious use of butter and more butter.

Vertical image of a red-trimmed bowl filled with a deep maroon chutney with a spoon on a yellow towel next to a zester, orange slices, and fruit.

The real secret is the added touch of vanilla which, when combined with the fruit, loudly emerges with its woody, almost smoky perfume.

Other than the time required for it to set, this sauce comes together in a snap and barely requires any babysitting.

In my opinion, it’s the quiet, humble star of the sides on our Thanksgiving table. Not to mention, a little scoop enjoyed alongside every forkful makes for well-rounded bites and inevitable arrival in the clean plate club.

Touchdown! (If I do say so myself…)

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Horizontal top-down image of red-trimmed bowl filled with a deep maroon chunky and thick spread on a yellow towel next to a zester, orange slices, fruit, and a green plant.

The Best Cranberry Sauce from Scratch


  • Author: Fanny Slater
  • Prep Time: 5 minutes
  • Cook Time: 20 minutes
  • Total Time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
  • Yield: About 3 1/2 cups (14 servings) 1x

Description

This is the cranberry sauce your Thanksgiving deserves. It’s made with fresh berries and swimming with sweet orange and woody vanilla. 


Ingredients

Scale
  • 1 12-ounce bag fresh cranberries, or frozen and defrosted (about 3 1/2 cups)
  • 1 cup honey
  • Zest of 1 large navel orange (about 1 tablespoon)
  • Juice of 1 large navel orange (about 1/4 cup)
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • Pinch coarse salt

Instructions

  1. In a large saucepot over medium-high heat, add the cranberries, honey, orange zest and juice, vanilla, and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium.
  2. Simmer the cranberries, stirring occasionally to prevent them from sticking to the bottom, for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, continuing to stir occasionally, until the berries begin to split and break down, about 10 minutes.
  3. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the sauce to come to room temperature. Pour into a serving dish and refrigerate until chilled and fully set, for about 2 hours. The sauce will thicken as it sits.
  • Category: Sauce
  • Method: Stovetop
  • Cuisine: Condiment

Keywords: cranberry, cranberry sauce, orange

Cooking By the Numbers…

Step 1 – Measure and Boil Sauce Ingredients

Measure the cranberries, honey, and vanilla. Zest and juice the orange, making sure to only get the colorful part of the skin and none of the bitter white pith.

Horizontal image of a bowl of round red fruit, an orange, zest, a zester, and a teaspoon of vanilla.

If you’d prefer to use whole vanilla beans instead of vanilla extract, use this conversion: 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract equals 1 teaspoon of vanilla bean paste or the seeds scraped from the inside of a 2-inch piece of vanilla bean.

Add all of the ingredients to a large saucepot and place it over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium.

Step 2 – Simmer the Sauce

Simmer for 5 minutes while stirring occasionally, to prevent the fruit from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Horizontal image of simmering a liquid with round red fruit in a pot.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, continuing to stir occasionally, until the berries begin to split and break down. This will take about 10 minutes.

It’s important to make sure you don’t overcook the fruit, as the berries can turn to mush and become bitter. They should only be cooked until they begin to pop and split, and then the pan should be removed from the heat.

Step 3 – Set the Sauce and Serve

Remove the pan from the heat and allow the sauce to come to room temperature.

Horizontal image of a white bowl filled with a chunky fruit spread garnished with zest next to a zester and yellow towel.

Pour it into a serving dish and refrigerate until the sauce is chilled and fully set, for about 2 hours.

You can serve it chilled or set it out to return to room temperature first. The sauce will keep in the fridge for about 10 to 14 days, and it can also be prepared in advance.

Tackle Their Taste Buds

Finally, cranberry sauce that tastes like fresh cranberries because that’s what we used, plus some deliciously flavorful add-ins and no need for high-fructose corn syrup.

Not to knock the canned, jellied goop too hard since I know it’s a nostalgic nosh for many – but I promise if you give this recipe a try, you won’t turn back.

You may be surprised by the minimal amount of leftovers this sauce produces as it’s truly that addictive, but the available ideas for spreading the extra are just about endless.

Horizontal top-down image of red-trimmed bowl filled with a deep maroon chunky and thick spread on a yellow towel next to a zester, orange slices, fruit, and a green plant.

I use it to enhance the color of a fall-inspired cheese plate, and smear it onto English muffins along with some eggs and sharp provolone for a fruity twist on your more traditional breakfast sandwich.

Other than the traditional second-day turkey sammie, where will you enjoy your fruity sauce leftovers if you have any? Share your tart and tasty ideas in the comments below! And don’t forget to give this recipe a five-star rating if you loved it.

For even more delicious goodies to make with cranberries this season, try these recipes next:

Photos by Fanny Slater, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published by Lorna Kring on November 8, 2015. Last updated on November 21, 2021.

Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.

About Fanny Slater

Fanny Slater is a home-taught food enthusiast based in Wilmington, North Carolina who won the “Rachael Ray Show” Great American Cookbook Competition in 2014, and published her cookbook “Orange, Lavender & Figs” in 2016. Fanny is a food and beverage writer, recipe developer, and social media influencer. She was a co-host on the Food Network series “Kitchen Sink,” was featured on Cooking Channel’s longtime popular series “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” and continues to appear regularly on the “Rachael Ray Show.”

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