Cranberry Sauce Is the Last Thing You Should Stress About on Thanksgiving

The only thing better than a good recipe? When something’s so easy to make that you don’t even need one. Welcome to It’s That Simple, a column where we talk you through the process of making the dishes and drinks we make with our eyes closed.

My mother’s Thanksgiving dinner is the stuff of legend. Seriously, it’s the talk of the Dallas Indian aunty community during the holidays. It’s probably because my mom takes the meal very seriously, pulling out all her greatest hits: matar paneer stewed in a heady tomato gravy, sweet and tangy fenugreek-coated butternut squash, smoky roasted aloo gobhi, and puffs of puri, an Indian fry bread.

While there isn’t a turkey in sight (because we all know no one actually wants that), the somewhat curious mainstay on our Thanksgiving table is the bowl of unadorned, burgundy-red cranberry sauce. We’re not talking the canned stuff—this is homemade cranberry sauce, and it’s probably the least elaborate dish on the table.

How did it get there? A few years ago, my mom was looking for a festive, seasonal, chutney-like condiment to put on the Thanksgiving table to counterbalance all those spice-heavy dishes. Then she remembered the cranberry sauce she had at a family friend’s place: Sweet, sour, good on everything, it was kind of like…well…chutney. So she bought a bag of frozen cranberries and followed the instructions on the back of the packet. The recipe was stupid simple. White sugar, cranberries, a little orange zest. It was an instant hit, and now we can’t have Thanksgiving without it.

When I emailed my mom for the cranberry sauce recipe, she responded, “It seems silly to just write down the recipe from the back of the bag. Is that what you want me to do?” Yep.

So how do you make traditional cranberry sauce?

My mom’s loosely adapted version has less sugar (my family loves the pucker-inducing tang!), plus orange zest, for a little zip. To make it, combine one 12-oz. bag fresh or frozen cranberries, ¾ cup granulated sugar (you can also use some brown sugar in its place for a deeper, more caramelly flavor), 1 cup water, and 1 Tbsp. orange zest (and, if you’re feeling frisky, 1–2 Tbsp. orange liqueur like Cointreau or Grand Marnier) in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the cranberries start to pop and get soft and jammy—they should easily coat the back of the spoon—stirring frequently so nothing sticks and burns at the bottom. This takes about 10 minutes. Turn the heat off and let the cranberry sauce cool to room temperature (or you can refrigerate it! Dealer’s choice).

In my family, it has to be this basic version. I’ve tasted all the gussied-up cranberry sauces, with various spices and infusions and toppings. But to us, simple is best. Put the rosemary and chile flakes on the vegetables and that fancy nut topping on the pie. Cranberry sauce requires no dressing up.

How do you make cranberry sauce better?

While I’ll stand by my opinion that when it comes to the best cranberry sauce, simper is better, there are endless ways to fancify it. To name a few ideas…

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