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A Zestier Take on Cranberry Sauce

Karen D
Posted by Karen D on Nov 26, 2019


When you make a meal for others, do you ever find that they will try something you had no idea they don’t care for, only to have them announce that they really like the way you’ve prepared it? And then they go back for more? I love when that happens! And so it is with my cranberry sauce.

Cranberry sauce seems to be one of those things that is often set on Thanksgiving tables almost as an afterthought. Whether you’ve made it from scratch or scooped it out of a can, it lands on the table and your guests take a little bit, just to be polite. I have personally found it to be either cloyingly sweet, too thin (the “sauce” part being taken to the extreme), or just not interesting enough to warrant more than a passing taste, as I focus on everything else that makes up the bountiful meal we have come to know as Thanksgiving.

In playing with my cranberry sauce recipe over the years, those are the challenges that I’ve kept in mind as I’ve tried to find solutions. And in recent years, more often than not, I find my Thanksgiving guests going back for seconds – and that just brings me joy! It’s fruity and full of texture, since in addition to the cranberries, I also use fresh pears and tangerines, along with dried cherries.  It’s thick – no oozing all around the plate – because I don’t use too much liquid. It’s not too sweet, since I use about half the recommended sugar you’ll find in many other recipes. And it has a spicy/savory component, using fresh thyme, fresh ginger, and one of my favorite secret weapons: Sichuan peppercorns!

sichuan peppercorns

If you aren’t familiar with these little nuggets of flavor, they are not really a pepper at all. They come from the prickly ash shrub native to China’s Sichuan Province. Have you ever had a spicy Chinese meal where it’s not that a dish is particularly spicy-hot, but there’s kind of an almost numbing sensation happening in your mouth? Not unpleasant, but definitely unexpected? That sensation comes from Sichuan peppercorns! If you bite into one on its own, you won’t find intense heat. You’ll actually taste a bit of bitter-floral (think lavender), then a little tingle of numbing heat combined with a citrusy taste. There’s a whole science as to why it imparts the numbing sensation, but the bottom line it is won’t hurt you! And we’re not talking total numbness here, just enough to make things interesting and amp up the taste of everything else.  You likely will not find these at your local grocery store, but you will definitely find them at specialty spice shops like The Spice House in Chicago and Evanston, as well as other online sources.

I don’t know how big a group you’ll be feeding for Thanksgiving, but the recipe that follows is based around the usual 12-oz bag of fresh cranberries and will multiply easily. And although you’ll see approximate amounts for ingredients, feel free to adjust them to your own tastes. Maybe you want it a little bit sweeter, so add more sugar. For a bit more citrus, use more tangerine. For more texture, maybe a little more pear or dried cherries. And finally, if you read this and can’t get a hold of Sichuan peppercorns in time, by all means spice this up in a different way: maybe some freshly ground black pepper, a dash of cayenne pepper or a sprinkle of Aleppo pepper. You get the idea: as always, make this yours!

Here are the ingredients:

cranberry ingredients

From the top left, going clockwise, you’ll need:

  • 12 ounces of fresh cranberries
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup dried cherries
  • Slivered almonds (shown already toasted), for topping and serving
  • Tangerines: use the zest from one and then juice them to yield 1/2 cup. You’ll need 3 or 4, depending on size.
  • Fine sea salt: start with 1/4 teaspoon, adding more, to taste
  • Fresh thyme: about 1 – 1 1/2 teaspoons, once chopped
  • Sichuan peppercorns: stems removed and ground with a mortar and pestle. You may also use a spice grinder or crush them with the bottom of a heavy pan. Start with 1 teaspoon to see how you like the taste, adding up to another 1/2 teaspoon more, to taste.
  • Fresh ginger: about a 2-inch piece, peeled and cut into 3 – 4 chunks
  • Pears: peeled and diced. (The picture shows two, but once I started dicing, one was enough.)

And here’s how everything looks once it’s been zested, chopped, juiced, and ground:

cranberry ingredients prepped


  • Combine the tangerine juice and sugar in a saucepan. Stir well and bring to a boil to melt the sugar.
  • Add the cranberries, tangerine zest, and salt. Return the mixture to a boil and turn down the heat.
  • Gently simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. You will hear the cranberries begin to pop and see them start to soften.
  • Add the pears, ginger chunks, thyme, Sichuan peppercorns and dried cherries.
  • Gently simmer for another 5 minutes.
  • Remove from heat.
  • Taste for sweetness (sugar), brightness (salt), spice (Sichuan peppercorns).
  • Transfer to a separate bowl or pan to cool. Note that the wider the bowl or pan, the more quickly the cranberry sauce will cool down.

cranberry sauce

And here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way, so you don’t have to:

  • If you are accustomed to soaking dried fruit before using it, note that I used to soak the dried cherries first, but I don’t any longer. I find that adding them in without soaking, allows them to absorb some of the tangerine juice and keeps the cranberry sauce from being too thin.
  • Zest only the very outer layer of tangerine peel so you don’t get any of the bitter pith.
  • Cut the ginger into chunks large enough to see when you go to remove them from the cooled cranberry sauce. They will turn the same light pink color as the pears, so you’ll want to be able to easily tell them apart!
  • The pears will not shrink during cooking, so dice them into pieces that will easily fit on your dinner fork. No one wants to have to take a knife to their cranberry sauce!
  • For both the salt as well as the Sichuan peppercorns, start with the lowest amount noted on the ingredient list. Taste the cranberry sauce once you remove it from the heat. If the flavor needs a bit more of either to suit your tastes, adding it while the cranberry sauce is still warm will distribute and infuse the flavors better than waiting for it to cool.

Once cooled completely, the cranberry sauce will keep fresh for about a week in the refrigerator, making this a great make-ahead dish. I prefer to serve it at room temperature rather than straight from the refrigerator, so take it out a good hour or two before serving. Don’t forget to remove the chunks of ginger before turning it out into a serving bowl! The color is so pretty, putting it in a clear glass bowl will show it off from all sides. Top it with the toasted almonds just before serving and pass it around your table!

cranberry sauce bowl

From my table to yours, happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is within days and the rest of the holiday season will soon be upon us! Be sure to check out The Chopping Block's holiday-themed classes in December:

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Topics: cranberry sauce, cranberry, Recipes, thanksgiving, sichuan peppercorns

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