Cranberries provide a beautiful contrast to a rich Christmas or Thanksgiving meal, especially roast turkey. But if you’re looking for a homemade alternative to a can of jellied cranberry sauce, you should be asking yourself a question – cranberry sauce, or cranberry relish?
Cranberry sauce and cranberry relish may appear similar based on their ingredient lists. And they’ll both give you that delicious tart-sweet contrast to your festive meats. But they are completely different in texture and palate, so it’s not an easy decision!
And to make it even harder, cranberry relish has seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years, so there are lots of recipes out there for both homemade cranberry sauce and relish. So to help make sense of it all, I’ve compared ten recipes for cranberry sauce, and ten recipes for cranberry relish, to help you decide which way to go, and choose an approach or a recipe when you do. And you’ll find links to all twenty recipes at the bottom of this page.
Sauce vs. Relish
Cranberry sauce is a cooked sauce, which thickens significantly as it cools. Cranberry relish is made from raw cranberries, and doesn’t thicken like the sauce does. As a result it has a very different texture, and tends to be more tart as well. Sabrina from Dinner then Dessert describes it well:
“Cranberry Relish is an uncooked dish with more ingredients in it that give it a fresher feel with a more complex taste.”
For this review I made a version of each, and Sabrina’s description is spot on. Relish is definitely fresher tasting, and the texture is chunkier and looser. Sauce on the other hand is richer in taste, and much smoother in texture. I also found the flavour of the relish more complex, with the oranges more prominent than in the sauce.
Both sauce and relish are served cold as an accompaniment to roast meats, and can also be used in a variety of other great ways if you’ve got leftovers. I tried both with chicken breast, and also with cheese, and all four combinations were excellent. Like I said, not an easy choice!
Homemade cranberry sauce is the closer equivalent to canned jellied sauce. But most of these authors, and many of their readers, are convinced that once you’ve tried homemade sauce you’ll never go back to the canned stuff.
Ingredients in a cranberry sauce
Beyond cranberries, there’s a fairly consistent list of ingredients across the ten recipes:
- Orange juice, zest or both
- One or two additional flavourings
Overwhelmingly the authors prefer fresh cranberries, with only four even offering frozen cranberries as an option. And nine of the ten authors use a 12 oz (340g) pack of cranberries.
Based on the authors’ comments and their responses to questions from readers, frozen cranberries can work almost as well if that’s all you can access. In fact, frozen were all I could find for my test cook-up, and my cranberry sauce was delicious. I did allow them to thaw first, but I suspect they could’ve gone straight into the pan and it would’ve just taken a little longer to come to the boil.
What about dried cranberries?
A number of readers ask about using dried cranberries. They’re easy to get year-round, and keep well in the pantry, so why not? None of these authors had tried, so couldn’t comment. But if that’s all you have, don’t worry. I was able to quickly find a number of recipes. A couple of examples – Alyona from Alyona’s Cooking has a recipe for cranberry sauce using Craisins, and Just a Pinch have a dried cranberry sauce recipe too.
If you’ve never had them before, cranberries are tart. Like, REALLY tart. Especially when they’re fresh. And while this is the key to their appeal, most people like to temper it a bit with sugar. Sugar also helps thicken up the sauce as it cools.
Nine of the ten cranberry sauce recipes include sugar, and white is the more popular choice, used by six authors. The other three use a combination of white and brown sugar for a little more flavour.
The amount of sugar varies from half to one cup for each 12 oz (340g) of cranberries. The one exception is from Natural Beach Living. Their recipe uses a pound (450g) of cranberries and two cups of sugar.
If you’re keen on a cranberry sauce without sugar, the closest you’ll come here is from Natasha at Natasha’s Kitchen. Instead of using sugar, she makes her cranberry sauce with honey.
Orange is a popular another addition to temper the cranberries’ tartness, both with its citrus freshness and its natural sweetness.
Six recipes include orange juice, either packaged or freshly squeezed. Three of these include a teaspoon of zest as well, and another two use a piece of peel.
The inclusion of orange doesn’t suit everyone though. One reader commented he was never a fan of homemade sauce because of how the orange overpowers the cranberries. If you’re like this reader, three of the ten sauce recipes use no orange at all. If you want to make a cranberry sauce without orange, you could try:
- Natural Beach Living’s cranberry sauce
- Ashley at Baker by Nature’s cranberry sauce
- Sara from Dinner at the Zoo’s cranberry sauce.
And if you want to give orange a go, but you’re not sure, try the cranberry sauce recipe at That Low Carb Life. Karly uses only a teaspoon of orange zest for a small citrus lift.
I only mention water because it is typically used to bring the liquid in most of these recipes to one cup. The recipes with half-a-cup of orange juice include half-a-cup of water. The recipes with no orange juice use a cup of water. And Kimber from The Pinning Mama’s recipe has a cup of orange juice, and therefore no water.
There are a couple of exceptions to this rule though. Natasha from Natasha’s Kitchen only uses a quarter-of-a-cup of each. And Natural Beach Living’s recipe uses a pound (450g) of cranberries and two cups of water.
Seven of the authors include one or more other flavours in their sauce recipes:
- The most common is cinnamon, which appears five times, either as powder or a stick.
- Salt is the next most common, used by four of the authors.
- Vanilla appears a couple of times.
- And the only others are honey (mentioned earlier) and black pepper, each appearing in one recipe each.
There were also a number of suggestions provided by readers of these recipes in their comments. One reader adds a handful of blueberries. Another adds half a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar. Cloves are suggested more than once as well. And based on more than just a few of the comments, cranberry sauce is a popular way to sneak a bit of alcohol into the meal. Suggested additions included:
- Grand Marnier
- Port wine
- Vodka, either plain or flavoured
And some of these recommend replacing all the water or juice with their alcohol of choice! To be fair, some do add it at the beginning, so the alcohol will cook off, leaving only the flavour. But some add it at the end…love it!
How to make cranberry sauce
Given how many other dishes you’re likely preparing on the day, you’ll be happy to hear that cranberry sauce is quick and easy to make. The basic steps are:
- Combine your ingredients in a pan and bring them to the boil.
- Simmer until the cranberries start to pop, or longer if you prefer a softer consistency, typically about ten minutes.
- Remove it from the heat and allow it to cool so it can thicken.
Some authors add their cranberries once the sugar and liquid comes to the boil. And some authors add their additional flavours, like cinnamon or vanilla, at the beginning, and some towards the end.
Altering the texture
You can play with the texture of your finished sauce in a couple of ways. Cooking time has the greatest impact. Simmer them for less time for a chunkier sauce, and longer for less chunks.
If you’re after some chunks in an otherwise smoother sauce, a couple of authors suggest holding off adding some of the cranberries until towards the end, so that some are still more or less intact.
If you prefer a smoother cranberry sauce, Brandie from Home Cooking Memories suggests pushing your cooked sauce through a strainer to break down or remove the larger pieces.
And if you’re worried your cranberry sauce is too runny in the pot, be aware that it will thicken significantly as it cools, especially if you refrigerate it, which most authors recommend. Mine went from an almost soup-like texture to more like a jelly/jam.
Making cranberry sauce in advance
You definitely can make your sauce in advance, and in fact you should. Most of the authors recommend making your sauce a day or more before the meal to allow the flavours to develop. With the test batch I made, it was good on the day, but even better the day after, both in taste and consistency. This was also true of my test batch of relish.
If you want to make your sauce even further in advance many authors offer directions for freezing it as well.
Ingredients in a cranberry relish
The ingredient list for a cranberry relish is very similar to the one above for a sauce. After cranberries, it’s typically:
- Fresh oranges
- Fresh apples
- One or two additional flavourings or ingredients
The preference for fresh cranberries is unanimous with a relish – all ten authors recommend them. And, like with the sauce recipes, nine of these authors use a 12 oz (340g) pack of fresh cranberries. Christina from It Is A Keeper makes a significantly bigger batch with her recipe, using three pounds (1.4kg).
The only mention of frozen cranberries is from Katie at Healthy Seasonal Recipes, who says you could use frozen cranberries, so long as you thaw them fully first. This is what I did for my test batch, and it was great, both in taste and texture.
And if you’re hoping to make relish with dried cranberries I fear you may be out of luck. There’s no reference to it in any of these recipes, and I could only find a couple on Google, but both are really more like a sauce, cooked on the stovetop in order to rehydrate the cranberries.
Cranberry relish may as well be called cranberry-orange relish, because orange is an ingredient in every one of these recipes.
Fresh oranges are the mainstay here, with nine authors using them. And of these, five use almost the whole orange, including the skin. If you’re taking this approach, just make sure you fish out any seeds with a knife tip first.
One recipe, from Jessica at Swanky Recipes, uses orange juice in place of fresh oranges.
Every one of these recipes uses between three tablespoons and two cups of sugar, with the average being about three-quarters of a cup. White sugar is overwhelmingly preferred, with nine recipes using it, and the last using a combination of white and brown sugar.
Apples didn’t make an appearance in the sauce recipes, but they’re very popular in a relish. Seven authors include them in their recipes, mostly just cored, with a couple peeled as well.
The apples serve to add a bit of sweetness and a bit of body to the relish. Based on the batch I made, you don’t really taste them, but they have a noticeable impact on the texture.
Other flavours and ingredients
A few other flavours appear amongst the recipes. Two recipes each include the following:
- Lemon, with one using the juice and one the whole fruit
- Pecans, for those looking for a cranberry relish with nuts
- Ginger, either fresh or crystallised
- Canned crushed pineapple
And if you’re looking for other inspiration, Diana from Diana Rambles adds canned mandarins to her relish, and Katie from Healthy Seasonal Recipes includes a couple of tablespoons of raspberry jam in hers.
Unlike the sauce recipes, there were a lot fewer reader suggestions for your relish, mainly because it appears less readers had tried a relish before. The couple that did come up were walnuts and as splash of Grand Marnier.
How to make cranberry relish
Cranberry Relish is definitely the faster condiment to prepare. Quick and easy is almost an understatement. There’s no cooking to be done. The ingredients are blended together in a food processor to the consistency you prefer. About the only difference here is that some authors blend everything at once, and some blend each ingredient individually.
Because the relish is not cooked, the tartness of the cranberries tends to be more prominent, which is part of the reason you might choose a relish over a sauce. But because different batches of cranberries will have different levels of tartness, most of the authors recommend adding your sugar at the end, and only adding as much as you need to get the taste profile you want. Overall though, the relish recipes use less sugar than the sauce recipes.
Making cranberry relish in advance
Like cranberry sauce, most of the authors recommend making your relish in advance to allow the flavours to develop. And again, you can freeze it, but relish is more likely to change consistency as it thaws.
The essence of cranberry sauce and cranberry relish
Cranberry sauce is the more traditional condiment for your Thanksgiving or Christmas feast, but don’t rule out a relish for a fresher, lighter-tasting option. Either way, you’ll have a deliciously tart and sweet accompaniment to your turkey.
And whichever way you decide to go, you’ll be on the right track with the following ingredients:
- Fresh cranberries
- Fresh oranges, or orange juice
- White sugar
- Water for a sauce
- And if you’re making a relish, fresh apples
If you’re making a cranberry sauce, it’s quick and easy to cook:
- Bring all your ingredients to the boil.
- Simmer until the consistency suits you.
- Cool it and serve.
And a cranberry relish is even easier – blend all your ingredients in a food processor to the consistency you want.
So there you have it – the essence of two popular cranberry condiments. Hopefully this has helped you figure out which way to go for your next holiday meal, and made it easier to choose a recipe as well.