Love it or hate it, there is a right way to make cranberry sauce

It may be a controversial condiment but when done correctly, cranberry sauce can bring the perfect balance to a savory holiday meal.

Cranberry sauce falls into the love-it-or-hate-it category of foods.

Based on at least one poll, it’s more “hate it,” as respondents listed cranberry sauce as their least favorite holiday food. Still, the sauce has become a staple at holiday tables, and we can blame a lawyer for that.

Cranberry sauce
Like it or not, cranberry sauce is a holiday staple. A homemade version is a real treat. (Photo: AdobeStock)

Cranberries have been around for a long time. A research paper in Science Direct notes the connection between cranberries, one of the few fruits indigenous to America, and Indigenous Americans. In 1796, America’s first published cookbook, “American Cookery,” contained a recipe for cranberry sauce.

But it wasn’t until 1912 that cranberry sauce became seared into the consciousness of Americans, and it’s all because of Marcus Urann.

Urann was a lawyer who decided to start a cranberry bog — that’s what they call the water-logged beds in which cranberries grow. Urann devised a way to process the cranberries into the canned jelly log that’s so popular today. Smithsonian Magazine said the first commercial canned cranberries hit the U.S. market in 1941, and eating cranberries during the holiday took off.

According to the Smithsonian, Americans consume more than 5 million gallons of the canned stuff annually, but 26% of Americans make their own cranberry sauce. Another poll shows that 37% of Americans prefer canned, 27% fresh, and the rest will eat either.

They’re clearly in the “love cranberries” category.

So in the spirit of the holidays, let’s show some love and explore the pros and cons of canned vs. fresh cranberry sauce.


There are three advantages to those jellied logs.

  1. It’s easy. Open a can and it slides right out, like a pancake sliding off a well-buttered pan. Kids seem to like it—not because of the taste, but because when it hits the plate, it wiggles; when it stops, you can shake it again, and it wiggles some more. Cheap entertainment!
  2. Canned, jellied cranberry sauce won’t break the bank. For right around $2, you can get a can.
  3. It’s flexible. You can slice a portion as thin or thick as you like, dice it into chunks, whatever you prefer. 

But there are some issues.

The sweetness isn’t for everyone. Most canned cranberries contain high fructose corn syrup, other artificial sweeteners and coloring. Beyond the ability to slice and dice, you can’t do much else with it without a labor-intensive effort. Some recipes show you how to take canned cranberries and add ingredients that will make it look homemade, but if you’re going through all that trouble, make it homemade. And speaking of which:


There are two significant advantages to making this yourself.

  1. You can make it as a jellied log or as an authentic sauce with your own touches.
  2. You can adjust the recipe to your taste. I recently had aged beef tenderloin with bone marrow, parsnip, horseradish and cranberry. The cranberry perfectly complemented the dish because it had just a touch of sweetness.

Of course, there are issues.

It will take more than two hours to make jellied sauce when you consider the time it takes to chill it. A standard sauce will take less than 20-30 minutes, and you can use frozen cranberries. Still, you have to watch that the sauce doesn’t burn or simmer too hot, making it a lot of effort when you have other dishes to cook.


A fresh cranberry sauce beats the jellied version, canned or homemade. It’s not even close.

Yes, you have a longer cook time. But you can make it a couple of days ahead, and it’ll be out of the way. Your homemade version will also taste much better and you can control the sweetness and flavors. 

The less than 30 minutes it takes to make will yield a sauce that will complement your dish and lead to compliments for the chef.  

All you need to do is add one frozen package of cranberries in a saucepan on medium-low heat, and after that, add sugar and water.

  1. Add ½ cup of water and ¼ cup of sugar, and ¼ cup of orange juice (optional) to a saucepan and bring to a gentle boil. Immediately reduce the heat so the mixture simmers.
  2. Add one 12-ounce package of frozen cranberries. Stir together and cook over medium-low heat. Taste after about 5 minutes. The mixture should be thick, so add ¼ cup of water at a time until you get to your desired thickness. If you want the sauce sweeter, add sugar, two tablespoons at a time, until you get to your desired sweetness.
  3. Check and stir the sauce regularly so it doesn’t stick to the pot and get too hot. 

Most recipes call for one cup of water and one cup of sugar, but I prefer to adjust as I go. 

This simple, easy recipe will turn a side dish many Americans despise into one they’ll appreciate. Fresh is always better.

Ray Marcano

Ray Marcano is a longtime, award-winning journalist who has written and edited for some of the country’s most prominent media brands. He’s a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, a two-time Pulitzer juror, and a Fulbright Fellow.

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