Cranberry Sauce Is Not Dessert, so Go Easy on the Sugar

Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 14 2012 9:15 AM

You’re Doing It Wrong: Cranberry Sauce

Cranberry sauce
Cranberry-orange sauce

Laura Sankey for Slate.

In preparation for the greatest of all holidays, Brow Beat will be telling you what you’re doing wrong with five crucial Thanksgiving dishes this week and early next—and then we’ll follow up the barrage of recipes with a handy game plan to help you keep your sanity in the kitchen on Turkey Day. First up, the simplest, easiest holiday recipe: cranberry sauce.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

There is something comforting about the sight of a jiggly, cylindrical mass of jellied cranberry sauce fresh from the can. But there is nothing comforting about its metallic, bitter flavor or paste-like texture. By all means buy a can of the processed stuff to remind you of your childhood—but you’ll want something you can actually eat, too.

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Happily, fresh cranberry sauce is a snap to make, and it keeps for several days in the fridge without any discernible deterioration in quality. Unhappily, many cranberry sauce recipes are downright uninspired. The recipe on the bag of cranberries I bought for the above picture, for example, called for a cup each of sugar and water to be added to the cranberries. That’s it.

Give our palates a little credit, cranberry packagers. Despite our reputation as corn-syrup addicts, unable to tolerate the tiniest mouthful of anything that hasn’t been sugar-crusted, most Americans I know appreciate a wide spectrum of flavors. And the primary flavor that cranberry sauce should bring to the Thanksgiving table is tartness. Cranberry sauce provides the crucial acidity that counteracts the richness of virtually every other dish on the sideboard.

So being judicious with the sugar is the first order of business. Half a cup is plenty for a 12-ounce package of cranberries, especially if you supplement the white stuff with oranges, which provide a natural sweetness and gentle acidity that mitigate the harshness of the cranberries. I like to use not only juice and zest, but also chopped orange flesh, which has a fresh, juicy mouthfeel. Nearly as important is piquant candied ginger, which gives cranberry sauce a third flavor dimension and a little chewy textural contrast. (Feel free to add a little grated fresh ginger, too, if you want things extra spicy.)

If you doubt such a sauce will be sweet enough for your liking, taste it once it’s cooked, and feel free to add more sugar, a tablespoon at a time. But don’t overdo it. Cranberry sauce should be as acerbic (and as enjoyable) as Sleater-Kinney’s Dig Me Out. And there will be plenty of pure sweetness come dessert.

Cranberry-Orange Sauce
Yield: About 2 cups (12 to 16 servings)
Time: 15 minutes

12 ounces fresh cranberries
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons finely chopped crystallized ginger
2 large oranges

1. Combine the cranberries, sugar, and crystallized ginger with ½ cup water in a medium saucepan. Add the juice and grated zest of one of the oranges. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thick and the cranberries are mostly disintegrated, about 7 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, peel the remaining orange and chop its flesh. When the cranberry sauce is thick, remove it from the heat and stir in the orange flesh. Cool thoroughly and serve. (Store cranberry sauce in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.)

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