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The Perfect Homemade Cranberry Sauce Recipe
November 19, 2014 | By:

No Thanksgiving or Christmas is complete without cranberry sauce. Our intrepid food writer mucks into a cranberry bog, finds the best berries and emerges with a homemade recipe for your meal

No holiday dinner is complete without cranberry sauce - here's the truth about the berry

Every holiday dinner must have cranberry sauce – here’s the naked truth about the berry

I’m up to my thighs in cold water, with a special rake in my hand, doing my utmost to help gather a lake of cranberries in deepest Massachusetts. To help matters, I am also wearing what is essentially an attractive waterproof onesie.

The things I do in pursuit of better understanding of my food!

I’d never imagined that the berry sauce that has become a mandatory staple at Thanksgiving and Christmas tables across the country begins like this.  

I’m spending the day dipping into the farming life to get a taste of what the cranberry harvest really involves, courtesy of Ocean Spray (one of the largest cranberry suppliers) and fourth generation farmer Gary Garretson, one of 700 members of the US’s oldest farmer’s co-operatives.

Despite it being extremely cold with a full Northeasterly wind blowing, and relentless rain, the fall foliage is divine: shades of amber, orange, and, well, cranberry.

The red berries have been part of American history since the beginning. Besides accompanying turkey at Thanksgiving (since the Pilgrim Fathers first Thanksgiving in 1621) and at Christmas, in darker times cranberries were first dehydrated by Ocean Spray during the Second World War, and shipped to troops in Europe to serve in porridge. 

Further back in the seventeenth century, sailors were given cranberry rations to protect against scurvy, and Native Americans used cranberries for food as well as for medicinal purposes and for dyes.

The Cranberry Test

And here I am, standing thigh-high in a wading suit. The berries don’t actually grow underwater, but on low-lying vines on boggy wetland mainly in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Washington and Oregon. Being so close to the ground and growing so densely, cranberries are challenging to pick by hand. They are dry-harvested using a lawnmower-like machine with teeth that picks them carefully as if by hand as they are “mowed” back and forth across the bog.

Cranberries are a relatively small, specialized crop so resourceful farmers have invented and fine-tuned their own contraptions to make the picking easier. Known as “egg-beaters” they gently agitate the cranberries to loosen them off their vines and leave them floating on the bogs like ruby water-lilies. 

It’s a stunning sight to behold, like the most splendid water-born sunset, especially set against the autumnal colors of the foliage, with the only sound that of aspreys swooping.  

The harvest lasts for eight to nine weeks from mid September into early November, finishing before it is cold enough for the flooded bogs to ice over. Each cranberry bog is flooded with 15 inches of water.

The reason I’ve waded in (the sensation is rather like being in a volatile adult ballpit) is to help direct the cranberries to the pump that sucks them up into the trucks to take them to a nearby plant.  

At the plant, the berries are sorted into a tank ready for freezing, and then to be turned into cranberry sauce or “craisins” which are dried cranberries with a little cranberry juice injected in to keep them luscious. 

Fresh cranberries have to pass a “bounce” test which involves being passed along an archaic machine with seven wooden boards for their “trampoline” test: each berry must bounce at least four inches off of a wooden board to “pass” ensuring they are mature and firm enough to be eaten. 

However, I’m more used to the finished product.

Cranberry Inspiration 

While in Boston, I encounter cranberries used at every meal and not merely as a sauce or relish.

I breakfasted on a cranberry and orange muffin (and pumpkin latte), found cranberries in a supporting role in salads such as chicken with quinoa and have come across cranberries as accoutrements to terrines and even burgers. 

Veteran cranberry farmer Gary Garretson’s favorite way of serving cranberry sauce is melted into a whole baked camembert  – everyone dips into it with bread for communal cranberry dining.

Then there was a classy cranberry curd, served with cranberry scones and English Devonshire clotted cream at The Mandarin Oriental Boston.  Rather than tea, it came accompanied by a seasonal cocktail “Cape Cupper” created at the hotel’s new Bar Boulud. 

The drink, comprised of gin, Pimm’s, tonic, cranberry, lemon and thyme, is perfect for Christmas parties and, to add to the seasonal cheer, relatively good for you.

Also, any woman worth her salt knows that cranberry juice is also the go-to aid to for urinary tract infections (they contain type A proanthocyanidins (PACS) which inhibit microbial growth in the urinary tract), so pass the Cape Cupper and bring on the sauce!

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Cranberries can be used in sauce, muffins, scones and cocktails (as well as on burgers and terrines)

The Definitive Cranberry Sauce Recipe

300g (10.5 oz)  fresh cranberries

100g (1/2 cup) soft brown sugar

grated zest and juice of two oranges

slug of brandy (optional)

Tip sugar and orange juice into a pan, add grated zest, then bring to the boil.  Add the cranberries.  Allow to simmer until they soften though still hold their shape: allowing  5 minutes for fresh cranberries, 6 – 8 minutes for frozen.  Add slug of brandy and stir in gently.   The sauce with thicken as it cools.  Cranberry sauce can be kept in the fridge for one week. Enjoy!