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Not Just for Sauce: Creative and Affordable Uses for Fresh Cranberries

During this time of year we’re lucky enough to have access to fresh cranberries. Compared to their shriveled dried cousins, fresh cranberries are refreshingly bittersweet and add a fantastic depth of flavor to seasonal dishes. Don’t just limit yourself to canned sauce. Try these winter dishes which emphasize the unique flavor of these little cold weather gems.


Make no mistake, cranberry sauce has stood the test of time because it works, especially with lean meat like pork, poultry, and fish. Cooked sauces can really transform these fairly bland proteins. The little berries ‘pop’ and break down when exposed to high heat, which makes them ideal for making light but flavorful sauces that don’t overwhelm the palate. The sharper notes mellow and the natural sugars caramelize; the end result can be used much as you’d use a citrus or plum-based sauce. Apples, whether raw or in the form or sauce or juice, are a natural pairing, possessing more body than cranberries and providing a complementary sweetness; another great addition to cranberry sauces is a sweet alcohol like mirin, wine, or cider.

A traditional holiday cranberry sauce is essentially a reduction of simple syrup, with cranberries added. Their skins have fantastic thickening properties and if you don’t mind a rustic version, you can just chuck a bag of cranberries into a pot with a little water and sugar and let it cook. Blanching and peeling will produce a smoother sauce, and if you like the canned texture you can jellify the sauce when it reaches a good consistency.


But you can really go a lot farther with your sauce-making. Do you like the flavor of fruity Chinese-American plum or orange sauces? Instead of relying on reduction, add Asian flavors like five-spice or dried ginger, a bit of soy sauce, real mirin (or seasoned rice vinegar) and thicken the sauce with corn starch when it’s still fairly wet.

On the other extreme, you can reduce the sauce to a ‘butter’ or jam consistency. If you’re using only cranberries and sugar, you’ll end up with a shiny cranberry jam, very much like marmalade. For a mellower, thicker consistency you can add apple sauce or raw apples.


Vegetarians and meat-lovers both should try the addition of fresh cranberries to winter sides – the sharp sweetness balances out earthier, richer fall vegetables. Stay away from most root vegetables, especially carrots, parsnips, white potatoes, and celeriac, but sweet potatoes will benefit from a little astringency. Do…and I mean DO try them with winter squash – especially the richer-flavored butternut or pumpkins.

Bacon seems almost like a culinary cliché by now, but whole cranberries are a great compliment in hearty combinations of dark greens (Brussels sprouts, kale, chard) and bacon. For a meal in one pan, you can mix in a starch like cooked rice or cubed sweet potato. The whole thing will cook up in maybe ten minutes on the stove. Not a pork eater? Smoked turkey, or an umami-rich sauce like oyster sauce (make sure if you keep kosher or halal that it’s mushroom-based), kecap manis/soy sauce, or fish sauce could work in substitution.

Sugarfree Mom

For salads and cold dishes, cranberries are great as-is. They keep their shape very well and can be a great contrast to salt or fat. Sweeter fruit like pears and apples or even sweet vegetables like jicama, parsnip, and carrot have a richer flavor when paired with the tartness of fresh cranberries. They can also be used in place of pomegranate seeds and many types of citrus.


Winter is a time for bold-flavored sweets and among spicy gingerbreads, decadent puddings, and the myriad of cookies and cakes, sometimes we want a reminder of the flavors of berry-picking weather. Cranberries can be used in sweet goods much like one would use blueberries.  They mellow and pop in the heat, and when nestled in soft, pillowy cake or quickbread dough they deepen the flavor of sugar and fat in the enriched dough. If you’re left with a few extra, they make excellent mix-ins to pancakes. A recurrent theme with cranberries is their interaction with nuts and sweeter fruit, and quick breads are no exception; just remember that they pack a big flavor punch and can’t be used as liberally as blueberries.

As mentioned above, cranberries can replace or complement many other winter flavors. Use them alongside apples, pears, and tangerines, or use them in place of plums, tart citrus, and pomegranates. Make the most of these little red gems while they’re around, because they really are a cold-weather treat that we’re lucky to have here in New England.

For more cranberry goodness, here are some delicious recipes:

Hoisin-Cranberry Chicken (Eating Well)

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Leeks, Bacon, and Cranberries (Sugarfree Mom)

Cranberry Quick Bread (Taste of Home)

-Edmund Brennan

Cover Image Source: Wikipedia

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