10 Ways To Elevate Canned Cranberry Sauce

Cranberry sauce is a nostalgic dish popular during the holidays, from Thanksgiving to Christmas. This festive side brings a spot of bright, cheery red to the table that dresses up a spread like no other. While cranberry sauce is a relatively simple dish to prepare, it's likely one of many other dishes that need to be cooked for a holiday feast. But don't be tempted to omit it from your menu, as a holiday spread without tangy cranberry sauce is an incomplete meal. Rather, spend your time and energy making more laborious dishes and consider serving canned cranberry sauce instead.

Canned cranberry sauce debuted in 1941, and we can thank lawyer Marcus L. Urann for this ingenious product. In 1921, Urann bought a cranberry bog in Massachusetts and soon after set up a cooking and packing facility to begin canning berries to extend their shelf life, which was a mere six weeks when stored fresh. Urann's canned cranberry sauce became available nationwide 20 years later, and the rest is history.

If canned cranberry sauce conjures an unappetizing image of a jiggly molded blog that makes you quiver, hear us out. There are ways to dress up canned cranberry sauce, from adding spices and splashing in booze to stirring in nuts and amping up the presentation. We guarantee your guests will fawn over the most delightful canned cranberry sauce they've ever had.

Warm it up

If you've ever inspected a can of cranberry sauce, you'll notice that an air bubble is formed in the can above the product, letting you easily release the molded jelly in one piece. But before you resort to grabbing a knife and serving up room-temperature slices of jellied cranberry sauce, consider serving it warm instead. Since canned cranberry sauce is a ready-to-eat food, you don't need to heat it to kill bacteria and make it safe to eat. Rather, you want to warm the cranberry sauce to intensify its flavor, give it a pleasant, non-gelatinous texture, improve its appearance, and boost moisture. Warming food often makes it more pleasant to eat; how warm depends on your personal preference.

To heat canned cranberry sauce, dice the jellied mold, toss it into a saucepan, and let the low heat on the stove do the work while you stir it occasionally to ensure even heating. Alternatively, you could use a microwave instead of the stovetop, but make sure to cover the microwave-safe bowl to prevent the sauce from exploding onto the walls. Cook and stir the sauce in the microwave at 15- to 30-second intervals for the best results. The warmed canned cranberry sauce will have a jammy consistency, but you can add water or juice to thin it if you prefer it to be more sauce-like.

Add some spices

The main ingredients of canned cranberry sauce are typically cranberries, sugar or corn syrup, and water, which means that the primary flavors are sweet and tart. To add depth and dimension, try adding basic pantry spices like cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and ginger, to name a few. These spicy additions will contribute an array of warm fall flavors to balance the sweetness and tartness of the sauce. One of our favorite spices to use in cranberry sauce that most people don't expect is five-spice powder. This complex blend of spices used in Chinese cuisine typically includes star anise, cloves, Chinese cinnamon, Szechuan peppercorns, and fennel seeds. Adding spices is an easy way to add some flair to your holiday spread, so do it!

While using ground spices is convenient, you can use whole spices like cinnamon sticks and cloves or freshly grated spices like nutmeg. If you opt for fresh ginger spice, finely grate the root with a microplane (instead of chopping it) to avoid chunky bits that are unpleasant to eat. And, of course, don't forget to add a pinch of salt to round out the sweet-tart flavors of the cranberry sauce, making it a better accompaniment for your savory meal.

Mix in fruit

Canned cranberry sauce is a fantastic blank canvas for you to personalize. While cranberries have a bold, intense flavor, mixing them with other fruits can temper their stringent, assertive taste. Fruit also gives canned cranberry sauce more body and a chunkier texture to hold its own alongside the other foods on your holiday plate. If you're counting calories, you'll love that adding fruit also bulks up the volume of your cranberry sauce, making this low-calorie food more filling to help you eat a little less of the high-calorie dishes.

You have many options for fruit that pair well in cranberry sauce. Have some apples, Asian pears, or overripe persimmons lying around? Cut the fruit into bite-sized pieces and cook in some water or sauté with a bit of butter to soften them before mixing into your cranberry sauce. That lonely can of mandarin segments sitting in your pantry or the bag of pomegranate arils in your fridge? Stir them into your cranberry sauce, too!

Dried fruits in cranberry sauce also work great by adding a pleasant chewy texture and a touch of sweetness to the sauce. Experiment with cherries, apricots, golden raisins, or add figs to your cranberry sauce. Just because you are using canned cranberry sauce doesn't mean you can't add fresh cranberries to it for texture and extra tang — make sure to boil the whole cranberries in some water first to soften them.

Use a dose of citrus

If you want to perk up that can of cranberry sauce, look no further than the citrus in your fruit bowl to add a whole new element to your canned cranberry sauce. Adding citrus to canned cranberry sauce is an easy way to make it taste more homemade, too, which is always a good thing. A teaspoon of zest from fresh lemon, lime, or orange added to the warmed sauce will release their oils to brighten the sauce and inject a citrusy flavor for a zingy twist. Want something a little more zippy and special? Stir in some chopped candied peel to add soft and chewy bits of mellow sweet citrus.

Don't just stop with citrus zest and peel. Use the juice, too. It's a great way to add a mellow tang, especially if you prefer a more fluid cranberry sauce. Grapefruit and lime juices are delicious, but orange is the tried-and-true juice to pair with cranberry. Tart cranberry and sweet orange are two flavors meant for each other that make each other better. Orange juice adds acidity, which brightens and balances the tartness of the cranberries; use freshly squeezed orange juice if you can. Give citrus a try — it just may be the magic touch your canned cranberry sauce needs.

Spike it with booze

Are you in the mood to perk things up and get the party started? Spike that canned cranberry sauce with booze. Alcohol and cranberry are a popular duo for great-tasting cocktails, so you have a lot of choices for what to splash into cranberry sauce. Because sweet orange pairs well with tart cranberry, Grand Marnier — a cognac and orange liqueur blend — is an obvious choice for adding tantalizing aroma and yummy flavor to cranberry sauce. Bourbon whiskey is another fabulous choice because it adds lovely oak and caramel flavors that complement cranberries well. Or, add a splash of your favorite rum for a cranberry rum punch in sauce form. If you're a fan of margaritas, try adding some aged tequila like añejo, or at least a reposado, to your cranberry sauce for depth of flavor — don't forget the pinch of salt and squeeze of lime.

Remember to bring the cranberry sauce to a low boil if you want to cook off the alcohol, leaving you with the flavor of the liquor without the booziness. And make sure to use a high-quality, great-tasting liquor that you enjoy as a beverage — if you don't like to drink it, it's not going to taste any better cooked into your food. Lastly, this is a great way to finish off those big bottles of alcohol taking up space in the cabinet holding just a few splashes of liquor. Bottom's up!

Stir in nuts

There's something satisfying about foods that crunch. Maybe it's the sound, maybe it's the sensation. Whatever it is, it certainly works with canned cranberry sauce, which is pretty soft and smooth, even if you bought the whole cranberry version. Jazz up that canned cranberry sauce by adding your favorite nuts! Mixing in a bit of crunch or adding it as a garnish will bring some pizazz to the jellied sauce.

You can chop any meaty nut — pecans, walnuts, pine nuts, hazelnuts, for example — and mix it into your cranberry sauce for a textured, flavorful side dish. Adding an element of crunch to canned cranberry sauce will enhance it while bringing an extra element to your plate that might be missing. And since many of us try to prevent overeating during the holidays, the added nuts are more filling and require more chewing, so you'll feel fuller and more satiated. We prefer roasting nuts to accentuate their nutty flavor before adding them to cranberry sauce, but raw or candied nuts are delicious, too. It all comes down to personal tastes.

Sweeten it

Though canned cranberry sauce comes sweetened, you can play around with adding other types of sweeteners to give it more depth of flavor. If you consider yourself adventurous in the kitchen, this may be the route you want to go. Try out maple syrup, a natural sweetener with a clean taste. Depending on its color and flavor intensity, maple syrup can have notes of caramel, toffee, and vanilla that can make your cranberry sauce more dynamic. Honey, another natural sweetener, can jazz up canned cranberry sauce and make your guests take notice. Honey can be floral, fruity, or earthy, depending on its nectar source, so it's a fine way to bring a lot of dimension to cranberry sauce. Another option is brown sugar with deep toffee-like flavor from molasses, just be sure to add it to warm cranberry sauce so it dissolves completely.

When adding sweetener to cranberry sauce, it's best to taste as you go, as it can quickly become overpowering and mask the wonderful tartness of cranberries. Play with the amounts (or mix and match sweeteners!) to get the level of sweetness right where you like it.

Bring some heat

With a wonderful array of mouthwatering dishes at a holiday meal, little 'ol cranberry sauce can sometimes get lost in the mix. It's a comforting, vibrantly colored, consistently sweet-tart dish, but it can be very one-dimensional in flavor. So why not add a little spiciness to take it to the next level and make it more memorable? After all, sweet and spicy together perfectly, as evident in condiments like hot honey, pineapple salsa, honey chipotle dressing, and pepper jelly. 

Chilies and hot peppers can add another layer of flavor, providing a hint of spicy heat right on the heels of the sugary tart cranberries, so it's worth mixing them into canned cranberry sauce to amp up your holiday meal. You can keep it tame or boost the heat level depending on what type of chilies and peppers you choose to use and if you deseed them or not. The sky's the limit when it comes to what type of spicy ingredients you can add to cranberry sauce – everything from jalapeños, cayenne pepper, and crushed red chili flakes to ghost peppers and Carolina reapers (if you dare).

Remold it

Just because canned cranberry sauce comes out jellified in the shape of its container, that doesn't mean you have to serve it that way. In fact, please don't. Instead, melt the jellied sauce and turn it into something far more aesthetically pleasing than a ridged cylinder.

You can remold the jelly into an attractive side dish for your holiday meal with a little effort. Dump the cranberry sauce into a small pot and melt, stirring occasionally, over low heat until soft and smooth. While it melts, lightly coat your desired mold with pan-release spray, then pour the melted cranberry sauce into the greased mold and refrigerate until firm. Release the cranberry sauce by dipping the mold in warm water and inverting it onto a serving platter.

If you own fall-themed cookie cutters, consider adding some creative flair to your feast with cranberry sauce cutouts. This fun idea involves using cookie cutters to cut festive shapes out of the cranberry sauce. Instead of using a mold, pour the melted cranberry sauce into a greased baking dish or rimmed tray. After the sauce has been thoroughly chilled in the refrigerator, use cookie cutters to cut out different shapes. Arrange them on a platter or use them to garnish other dishes.

Dress up the presentation

You'll find the first cranberry sauce recipe in Amelia Simmons' 1796 cookbook, "American Cookery." This book was written over a hundred years before canned cranberry sauce was developed. Undoubtedly, the author would have been amazed at the development of canned cranberry sauce, though we wonder if she would've condoned its use. But times have changed; we're busier than ever, and store-bought canned foods can be a lifesaver. If time isn't on your side this holiday season, it's fine to serve cranberry sauce straight out of the can. But don't just dump it into a bowl or serve naked slices on a plate. Take a few minutes to add some garnishes to dress up the presentation. You'll feel better — so will your guests.

Let's start with our favorite garnish: sugared cranberries. These festive sugar-coated cranberries are simple to make and have a gorgeous sparkle. Cranberries are dipped in simple syrup, dried on a wire rack for an hour, then rolled in sugar. Fresh herbs like rosemary and thyme are another easy way to fancify cranberry sauce, especially because there's a good chance you'll have extra sprigs from making other holiday dishes, like stuffing and roasted vegetables. You can drape the sprigs directly over your cranberry sauce or chop the leaves and sprinkle them on top. You can even coat the whole herbs in sugar by dipping them in water, generously sprinkling them with sugar, and letting them dry before using.