Yes, autumn is all about apples and the passion for pumpkin spice, but what about the almighty cranberry who seems to be the red-headed step-fruit of chilly weather eats? This Cranberry Orange Sauce may have you second-guessing only creating cranberry concoctions for Thanksgiving.
I have to admit, I have enjoyed the jiggly cranberry sauce — you know the canned stuff. But once I tried actually making a homemade cranberry sauce, I couldn’t go back.
Cranberry sauce is one of those classic sides that, while expected at a Thanksgiving feast, typically takes the back seat to everything else on the holiday dinner table. This sauce, though, has such an incredible flavor profile that steals the show — delicious cranberry and orange marry with cinnamon and then vanilla rounds it all out.
The next time you’re looking for a homemade sauce that will seriously rival the jellied stuff that slithers out of the can, take a look at this easy recipe. You’ll be stocking up on cranberries and making it well beyond a holiday meal.
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What is Orange Cranberry Sauce?
This sauce combines the bright flavor of tart cranberries with the sweetness of navel oranges to create a citrusy yet slightly sweet sauce. It pairs just as well with Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas dinner as it does with weeknight meals.
The secret to this sauce is twofold — first, using orange juice instead of water as the base infuses more flavor and fruitiness. Second, incorporating zest makes the orange just as much a star of the show as the cranberries, rather than its flavors showing up as only a supporting actor in the sauce.
Fresh cranberry sauce also brings texture to the table. Rather than being a silky smooth sauce, it retains some of the natural characteristics of the cranberries in the best way.
Fresh vs Frozen Cranberries
Cranberries are a pretty hearty fruit — when they’re refrigerated, they can last up to four weeks before spoiling. Frozen cranberries are good for up to a year.
Of course, frozen fruits tend to retain their nutritional value better than fresh produce. If your grocer stocks frozen cranberries on the regular, it’s not a bad idea to store some in your freezer.
At the same time, since cranberries are not an overly in-demand fruit year-round, it can be good to stock up on fresh juicy cranberries as soon as they hit the shelves and keep them in your freezer.
There’s very little difference in the end result of your sauce if you use one or the other. The cooking time may vary slightly, but the flavor will likely be the same.
Why So Many Cranberries?
When you pour all of these cranberries into your pot you may question the need for so many when all you need is a simple fairly small dish of sauce. However, the quantity is important.
Just like other fruits and vegetables that have a lot of water, cranberries will cook down as you boil them. Think about that big bag of spinach that you buy that fills up your large pot only to wind up being barely enough to serve as a side for everyone at the table.
The lesson here is: don’t skimp on the cranberries. Just bring out the big pot and get to boiling!
Why Use Both Orange Zest and Orange Juice?
In traditional cranberry sauce recipes (like on the back of the bag of cranberries) water is suggested as the base. However, the sweet citrus flavor of orange juice helps to tame the bitterness of the cranberries.
The zest of fruit is known to impart intense flavors. While the orange juice will cook down some and blend with the cranberries, the zest will help to retain that zing of orange flavor in the sauce.
What is Vanilla Bean Paste?
Vanilla bean paste is a syrupy paste that brings vanilla flavor to the forefront in any recipe. It also imparts a slight bit of texture with tiny bits of vanilla bean. While vanilla extract and vanilla bean paste can be used interchangeably, there’s a general consensus that vanilla bean paste elevates a dish over the more standard extract.
Why Use Navel Oranges?
Navel oranges are known for being sweet and refreshing but also for the fact that their skins are so thick and easy to peel. That makes them perfect for zesting for this recipe to add an extra orange kick.
Additionally, navel oranges are high in dietary fiber and offer a tremendous source of vitamin C. Paired with cranberries, which are known antioxidants, they make this sauce a healthy addition to any meal.
With just a short list of simple ingredients, this sauce comes together in no time.
- Cranberries – You can use fresh or frozen cranberries but note that the fresh cranberries will take less time to pop open.
- Sugar – Typical white table sugar works best because the small granules dissolve quickly in the boiling process.
- Navel orange – You’ll need to both juice the orange and zest the orange peel. The fresh orange juice is perfect for mixing with the cranberries as they cook down while the zest brings out more flavor.
- Vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract – You can make your own vanilla extract or you can buy either of these ingredients at the grocery store (or online).
- Kosher salt (coarse) – If you have a different preference of the type of salt, use what you like. Be sure to taste before it completely cools — if you prefer, add another pinch of salt.
- Cinnamon stick – While you don’t need a lot for this recipe, cinnamon sticks are great to have around in the cooler months for making all sorts of recipes. They are a favorite way of mine to boost the flavor in my mulled wine.
- Lemon juice – For a little bit more citrus, brighten up the sauce with some lemon juice.
How to Use Cranberry Orange Sauce
Of course this is a perfect accompaniment for holiday meals (like your Thanksgiving turkey) but you can also eat this sauce all on its own or you can take other meals and snacks up a notch with it.
- Yogurt – Spoon this sauce over vanilla (or your favorite flavor) of yogurt or Greek yogurt for a sweet and tart start to the morning.
- Dip – Mix this sauce with cream cheese, creme fraiche, regular yogurt, or Greek yogurt for a sweet dip to serve with fruit, ginger snaps, animal crackers, or any other sweet treat.
- Smoothie – Throw a dollop of this in your morning smoothie (or on your smoothie bowl) for a bright start to your day.
- Spread – Use this on leftover turkey sandwiches or in a chicken wrap. You can also spread it on toast or a bagel at breakfast or for brunch.
- Cheese board – The bright, tart flavors of this sauce, and its acidity, will go well with fattier cheeses like brie and camembert, or as an accompaniment to a rich flavored cheese like gouda. It also pairs well with creamy goat cheese.
- Puree – If you want to puree it in a blender (or with an immersion blender) until it’s smooth, this makes for a colorful base for a mocktail or cocktail.
- Meats – Besides roast turkey, try this sauce on meats like pork tenderloin, roasted chicken, or game meats — it can even be combined with fattier cuts on a charcuterie board or summer sausage. Its acidity balances the fat in the meat and delivers big, bright flavors.
This sauce has a brilliant balance of tart and citrusy flavors combined with sweetness but we’re always fans of putting a special signature spin on a standard recipe. These are just a few ideas to spruce up your sauce.
- Spices – Add some warm spices like ground cinnamon (instead of the cinnamon stick), nutmeg, allspice, and star anise are all great add-ins.
- Golden raisins – These add some color and texture to the sauce.
- Dried cranberries – For some additional texture, mix in some dried cranberries once the sauce has cooled slightly.
- Maple syrup – If you want more sweetness, or just an added layer of flavor, add just a bit of maple syrup while cooking. Be sure to mix well.
- Honey or agave – Like maple syrup, these ingredients can be added to create a more interesting flavor profile. Also, they are good options if you find that the sauce isn’t as sweet as you’d like — never add sugar to the sauce after cooking to avoid grittiness.
- Apple cider – If citrusy flavors aren’t for you, you can substitute the orange juice for apple cider and omit the orange zest.
Storage, Make Ahead and Freezing
Storage: You can store this sauce in the fridge for up to a week in an airtight container.
Make-Ahead: Make this up 3 days ahead and all the flavors will come together and be ready to accompany the main meal.
Freezing: Store in an airtight container and freezer for up to 3 months.
More Sweet Sauces
Cranberry Orange Sauce Recipe
- 16 ounces cranberries fresh or frozen
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 navel orange juiced and zested
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon coarse Kosher salt
- 1 cinnamon stick
- Combine the cranberries, sugar, orange zest and juice, vanilla, salt and cinnamon stick in a medium saucepan over medium heat.
- Stir for 15-20 minutes until the sugar has dissolved and cranberries are bursting open.
- Remove from heat and allow to cool and thicken before serving.
- If you’ve tried this recipe, come back and let us know how it was in the comments or star ratings!