Poppin’ Cranberry Sauce

Every Thanksgiving, my aunt Patty tells us about the cranberry sauce they used to make as kids. She says that when the sauce starts to heat up, the cranberries start to POP, and she and her siblings used to watch the pot of sauce and cheer as each cranberry burst open. That image is pretty magic to me, a bunch of excited little kids clustered around the stove (Aunt Patty was one of seven children) getting excited about how food behaves, how real it is, when you cook it at home. She re-tells this story every year, and every year I smile and wonder what real cranberry sauce is like, but we always end up using a can of that gross and kind of suspicious-looking jelly.


The popular brand of canned, jellied cranberry sauce has 21 grams of sugar per serving. The ingredients are cranberries, high fructose corn syrup, water, and corn syrup. There are no signs of actual cranberries in the stuff, other than the color. Recently I thought, why the heck do we keep eating this stuff? It’s not good for us. It’s not actually that great tasting. We’re just used to it. The success of canned cranberry jelly is the result of three things:

1. The American desire for the quick and easy.
2. The standard American diet is so high in sugar that people expect fruit-flavored things to be ridiculously sweet.
3. Since people have stopped making their own cranberry sauce, the can-shaped blob is all we know anymore.

I’m most guilty of #3—I realized that even though Aunt Patty had this great story about making real food from scratch, we had never made cranberry sauce, not in my entire life. I think this is the problem for a lot of families—we’ve lost touch with the real thing, to the point where we don’t know anything but the fake, processed, high fructose corn syrup stuff. (Heck, not even maple syrup is actually maple syrup anymore.) I’d never made cranberry sauce before, and I’d never seen it done, but I decided to Google it and see what other people have done.

This is the combination of flavors I ended up liking best. I used a sweetened cran apple juice because I was lazy and didn’t want to go to the fancy schmancy store and buy an unsweetened juice. If you’re really serious about reducing the amount of sugar (as in, for diabetics, or because you’re awesome like that), you might choose to go with a no sugar added variety, or even a straight-up unsweetened cranberry juice. I also decided to substitute agave nectar for sugar. Agave nectar is a low glycemic option, which means that although it has about the same calories as sugar, it has a lower insulin demand on your body when consumed. It’s also 25% sweeter than sugar, so you don’t have to use as much. I’m estimating that compared with the canned stuff, this recipe saves you about 100 calories per quarter cup of sauce. Of course, that’s also assuming that you don’t go overboard with the agave either. Remember—they’re cranberries. They’re SUPPOSED to be a little tart. The nice thing about this recipe, is you don’t have to add sugar at the beginning, so you can sweeten to taste at the end. That, and you get this magical, mildly tart sauce with real texture—you can see that it actually came from cranberries.

Poppin’ Cranberry Sauce

1 package cranberries ~12 oz
1/2 c cran apple juice
zest and juice of one large, juicy navel orange
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
~5 tbsp agave nectar (I used the darker stuff, but light works too)

1. Wash cranberries and dump into a saucepan. Add cran-apple juice, orange juice, zest, and spices.
2. Heat to a boil, then turn the heat down to a simmer, for 10 minutes, or until most of the cranberries have popped (You’ll know what that means when you see it. It’s delightful.), and sauce has thickened.
3. Remove from heat and mash up the cranberry bits with a large spoon.
4. Add the agave syrup slowly, a tablespoon at a time, and taste as you go. I stopped after 5 tablespoons, but you might use more or less, based on your personal taste and the sweetness of the cranberries and juices.

Happy Cooking!

Carolyn Murphy

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7 Responses to “Poppin’ Cranberry Sauce”

  1. omes November 18, 2011 at 7:17 pm #

    excited to try this.
    i’m going to make it sunday for my friend’s thanksgiving dinner dry-run.
    the spice combo is interesting, looks like pumpkin pie spice.

    question about the orange: are we using ALL of the zest and juice?

    • Zipongo November 18, 2011 at 7:32 pm #

      Hey Omes!

      Yes. Definitely use all of the juice. Navel oranges aren’t typically that large, so for the zest, go ahead and use as much of the orange part of the peel as you can, without getting a lot of the pithy white stuff in there. If you don’t want to use ALL of the zest, you don’t have to. Just get a good amount of it in there. It’s not an exact science.

      Let me know how it goes!

      Carolyn Murphy

  2. omes November 18, 2011 at 7:20 pm #

    also, as i’ve never made cranberry sauce from scratch either, i’ve never actually shopped for fresh cranberries.
    any tips for how to pick good ones at the supermarket?

    • Zipongo November 18, 2011 at 7:35 pm #

      Sure thing! This time of year, you shouldn’t have too much trouble with fresh cranberries, because they’re in season. They should be bright in color and firm, without any dark spots or spoilage.


  3. omes December 2, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

    made this for two thanksgiving dinners :)
    in terms of appearance, the super bright red color really surprised and delighted me. i think perhaps i didn’t heat it for the proper amount of time or didn’t have a good pectin:sugars ratio because it didn’t seem to congeal the way i expected [or is that normal when it's not from a can?]
    in terms of taste, it was definitely more tart than canned but also more flavorful. the tartness was overpowering at first, but then i found myself spooning it like mad over every bit of turkey i consumed. it complemented the meat so well!
    i think the next time i make this, i will try dark agave nectar and a bit less [or sweeter] orange.


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