4 Mistakes That Ruin Cranberry Sauce (and How to Fix Them)

Thinking outside the can for Thanksgiving and making a cranberry sauce recipe? Learn the pitfalls of homemade cranberry sauce—and how to avoid them.

What is this, you say? You've only had cranberry sauce out of a can? Sorry, friends, you've been missing out. Nothing beats the vibrant red hue and sweet-tangy flavor of homemade cranberry sauce. Sure, the canned stuff is convenient, but cranberry sauce is easy to make at home—plus you can (and should) make it ahead so you can focus on your other Thanksgiving dishes during crunch time. For those of you thinking outside the can this year, here are four possible cranberry sauce pitfalls and how to fix them.


Pictured recipe: The Best Homemade Cranberry Sauce

Mistake #1: Your Cranberry Sauce Is Too Thick

Thick versus thin cranberry sauce is really a matter of textural preference—there is no right or wrong here. Those who favor the kind that slips neatly out of a can may not mind a cranberry sauce that's semi-solid, but if you prefer a looser sauce and you've wound up with something more like Jell-O, you'll need to do some troubleshooting. If your cranberry sauce is too thick, it's most likely overcooked. When you cook cranberries (or any berries), they burst, releasing pectin—a natural thickener. The key to a perfect consistency is to allow some but not all of the cranberries to split open—something you'll achieve with less time on the stove. Cranberry sauce is also best served after it's cooled, which will thicken it further. If your cranberry sauce is too thick while it's on the stove, then it will be way too thick when you serve it. To fix a cranberry sauce that's too thick for your liking, add a splash of water or orange juice to loosen it up before you take it off the stove—it's as simple as that!

Mistake #2: Your Cranberry Sauce Is Too Runny

On the other end of the spectrum, you might end up with a cranberry sauce that won't thicken. Nobody really wants to dine on cranberry soup, so to combat this issue, you'll have to cook it more to release that all-important pectin. But what if you've been cooking it forever and it's still not right? You may have added too much liquid to the cranberries. In addition to pectin, cranberries contain water, which means you only need to add a splash of liquid to get the cooking going. Add too much and you'll be stirring at the stove much longer than expected. Again, more time on the stove will fix this problem. Another possible blunder that can cause cranberry sauce to be too thin is using too little sugar. Sugar helps the thickening process, and while it's nice to try to keep your cranberry sauce from being too sugary sweet, you will need at least some sugar to make it work well (about 1/2 cup sugar per 12-ounce bag of cranberries).


Pictured recipe: Cranberry Relish

Mistake #3: Not Making Your Cranberry Sauce Ahead

The turkey is resting and you've almost pulled off Thanksgiving dinner, only to realize you forgot to make—you guessed it—the cranberry sauce. You've got 15 minutes. Do you whip out a saucepan and start cooking? You could, but how many steaming pots of hot cranberry sauce have you seen lately? Not many. Cranberry sauce is at its best when it has cooled, which, unless you live in the Arctic, takes about two hours. Instead, you can make cranberry sauce ahead of time and save yourself the last-minute panic. Cranberry sauce can hold in the fridge for over a week, so you can fix it and forget it (hopefully until dinnertime). But, back to our original scenario, what should you do? You can make a cranberry relish instead. Think of it as a raw cranberry sauce—no cooking required. A food processor can make quick work of all the chopping. Let the cranberries macerate with a touch of sugar and voilà! You've got yourself cranberry sauce (ish).

No-Sugar-Added Cranberry Sauce

Pictured recipe: No-Sugar-Added Cranberry Sauce

Mistake #4: Your Cranberry Sauce Is Too Bitter

Cranberries are bitter, tart and vibrant by nature, so cranberry sauce is sweetened to help balance their tartness. A basic cranberry sauce has only three ingredients: cranberries, water and sugar. Obviously, we can't lose the cranberries, but you can swap out the water for orange juice, apple cider or grape juice. The sugar, while necessary, doesn't need to be granulated sugar. Maple syrup, brown sugar and even honey can make your cranberry sauce more dynamic. And don't forget the spices! Cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, citrus zest and star anise all work well with cranberries and can be added while the sauce cooks to infuse your sauce with flavor. And one last overlooked remedy for cranberry sauce: a pinch of salt. While you won't taste it, salt helps equalize the sweet-tart flavor of your cranberry sauce while making it a better pairing for the rest of your savory sides and, of course, the turkey.

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