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 dishes and drinks we can make with our eyes closed.
You don’t need a fancy cranberry sauce recipe. 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 add to her roster of Thanksgiving recipes—something to counterbalance all those spice-heavy dishes. Then she remembered the fresh 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. 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 that easy 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.
How to make classic cranberry sauce
My mom’s loosely adapted version requires minimal prep time and has less sugar than the original (my family loves the pucker-inducing tang!), plus orange zest for a bit of zip. To make it, combine one 12-oz. bag fresh or frozen cranberries (no need to thaw them if frozen), ¾ cup granulated sugar (you can replace some or all of the white sugar with brown sugar for a deeper, more caramelly flavor), 1 cup water, 1 Tbsp. orange zest, and a pinch of salt (and if you’re feeling frisky, 1–2 Tbsp. orange liqueur, such as 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). You don’t need to add any thickener—as they pop, the cranberries release their natural pectin, and as the sauce cools, it gels into the texture you know.