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Is cranberry sauce supposed to be bitter? November 18, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes.
Tags: , , , ,

Silence Dogood here. This reader query really struck a chord with me and our friend Ben, lovers of cranberry sauce that we are. Because, you see, we weren’t always devotees of homemade cranberry sauce. And that’s because most homemade cranberry sauces are too bitter.

Let me clarify: Cranberries are inherently bitter. That’s why we don’t eat them raw by the handful like, say, blueberries or cherries. You can still taste a hint of bitterness under the cups of sugar (or, gack, high-fructose corn syrup) in most cranberry juice. You can taste it in dried cranberries (aka craisins), sweet and delicious as they are. And yes, you can taste it in cranberry sauce. But it shouldn’t dominate the flavor of the sauce, any more than it dominates the juice or craisins. And too often it does.

The cranberry sauce OFB and I grew up with was pretty similar. Our mothers put bags of cranberries (just the berries, not the bags, mind you) in water, added orange sections, whole cloves, sugar, and cinnamon sticks, brought the mixture to a boil, and cooked it down. The result was beautiful, aromatic, and bitter. As children, we both passed on the homemade sauce and went for the canned cranberry “jelly,” and yes, we do still love that stuff, which somehow isn’t bitter.

We understand that, in the North, some families make a chopped raw cranberry relish for Thanksgiving. We can’t even begin to imagine how bitter that must be! But before fans of cranberry relish and traditional cranberry sauce take up their cudgels against us, let me clarify one point: I think that the whole original appeal of cranberry sauce was its bitterness.

This concept completely eluded me as a child, and almost escaped me as a vegetarian, but eventually my carnivorous roots came to my rescue and reminded me that a certain amount of bitterness can really enhance a rich meat. Roast turkey, duck, and pork are prime candidates for a bitter/tart cranberry sauce or relish served as an enhancement to the meat, a condiment, much like mint sauce with lamb. It’s only when you separate the meat and cranberries that you lose the connection and the bitterness becomes a drawback.

So, dear reader, cranberry sauce was indeed supposed to be bitter. But that doesn’t mean it has to be bitter! My cranberry sauce is sweet and delicious, and there’s not a cup of sugar or corn syrup in sight. (It’s adapted from a recipe by Dorie Greenspan that’s been given the “Silence treatment.” Thank you, Dorie!) If you’re looking for a sweet, succulent cranberry sauce, try this, you’ll love it:

                   Silence’s Supreme Cranberry Sauce

2 12-ounce bags fresh cranberries

1 12-ounce jar apricot preserves

16 ounces orange juice

1/2 cup dried diced apricots

1/4 cup Grand Marnier

2 cinnamon sticks

heaping 2 tablespoons ginger paste or 2 slices diced crystallized ginger or minced fresh ginger

Rinse and drain cranberries and put them in a large, heavy pot. Pour in orange juice and Grand Marnier. Add diced apricots, apricot preserves, cinnamon sticks, and ginger. Stir well to mix, then cook over low heat until cranberries “pop” and mixture thickens. Allow to cool (it will continue to thicken as it cools), then pour into containers and refrigerate until needed. Keeps very well. Serves up to 12 (fewer if you love cranberry sauce like we do).

Because this sauce is so bold and flavorful, we find that it makes a wonderful accompaniment long after Thanksgiving dinner is a memory. Try it with bland but rich dishes like Fettucine Alfredo or a simple creamy pasta. (Served with a side of roasted Brussels sprouts and mushrooms and a big, crunchy salad, this is a recipe for cold-weather bliss!) We find my fabulous cranberry dressing far too good to serve just once a year (don’t worry, I’ll be posting the recipe in plenty of time for Thanksgiving!), and it’s delicious served with mashed potatoes or roasted sweet potatoes and this cranberry sauce.

Getting back to the whole cranberry sauce/rich meat thing, let me leave you with a thought: If I were serving up cranberry sauce specifically to eat with a turkey or pork roast, I’d make it like this: Saute diced sweet onion in butter until it clarifies. Add curry powder, salt, and lots of cracked black pepper. Add fresh cranberries, maple syrup, and a splash of chicken stock. Cook down on low, adding more chicken stock as needed. You could sub chipotle powder for the curry powder if you’d like to heat things up, and/or cook bacon instead of melting butter, sauteeing the onion in the bacon drippings and removing the bacon and dicing it before adding it back to the pan. The sweet/savory/spicy cranberry sauce you’d get with this approach would perfectly balance fowl or pork.

OFB and I will stick with my own recipe, though. In addition to serving it as a side dish, we can use it as a topping on cheesecake or vanilla ice cream or pumpkin bread, or layer it in a vanilla or pumpkin or chocolate torte.

Bitter? Not my sauce!

             ‘Til next time,




1. pixilated2 - November 18, 2011

This sounds wonderful! Q: What kind of apricot preserves are you finding that don’t have sugar in them?
Thanks! ~ Lynda

Hi Lynda! Oops, sorry about that, actually I do use apricot preserves made with sugar in my cranberry sauce, didn’t mean to be misleading! But both Polaner and Smucker’s make an all-fruit version of apricot preserves, and Smucker’s also makes one with Splenda instead of sugar. Enjoy!

pixilated2 - November 19, 2011

Thanks! 😀
~ L

2. uzma - November 21, 2011

Hi there,

I used a recipe for cranberry sauce with :
some orange zest (i made sure i zested it correctly)
crystalized ginger

Its turned out quite bitter and I added some more sugar but it didnt help. Is there a way I can save this sauce? Thanks

Gosh, uzma, that’s too bad! Sounds like you did everything right. This recipe would make a classic bitter cranberry sauce without the raspberries, but I’d have thought they’d have helped make it milder. Guess not! I can’t think how you could “save” the sauce as sauce at this point, but there are a few things you could try: Add orange juice (16 ounces or a can of frozen juice concentrate), cook it down again, and then use your former sauce as a sort of jammy flavoring: Make a turkey sandwich with some stoneground mustard, a thin layer of the cranberry sauce, and a slice of sweet onion. Swirl the sauce through a vanilla cheesecake; it will look beautiful, and the super-rich cheesecake should balance the cranberry sauce’s bitterness. Smear a little on slices of baguette, add a sprinkling of salt and a slice of brie to each slice, and toast until the brie melts. Add a thin layer of cranberry sauce to a cracker and top with a slice of blue cheese. Soften vanilla or pumpkin ice cream, swirl in the cranberry sauce, and refreeze, then serve. Use as a topping for typically bland and boring sugar cookies, or mix into dough for scones or shortbread. These are just top-of-the-head ideas, but maybe they’ll inspire you to find a way to save your cranberry sauce. Good luck!!!

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