Grandma’s Cranberry Sauce From Scratch

THIS IS THE TIME OF year when nearly everyone in America entertains the thought of cranberries. Although it probably was not part of that first historic feast, most people think of cranberry sauce next to their Thanksgiving turkey.

Unfortunately it is more often than not sliced from a strange cylindrical loaf that slides from a can labeled “Ocean Spray.” This form of “cranberry sauce” had become so ubiquitous by the beginning of the 1960s that my mother-in-law actually received, as a gift, a Wm. Rogers Silverplate Cranberry set, designed specifically to serve a 15-ounce can of cranberry sauce.

Chances are that such finery was far from the minds of the Native Americans who first created cranberry sauce long before any European settlers had arrived on these shores. They would often eat cranberries raw, a practice which the modern inhabitants of the new world would probably find difficult at best. They prized the berry not only as a food but also as a fabric dye and a poultice for wounds. It is commonly used now to help control urinary tract infections.

The acid content of cranberries is extremely high, which made them extremely valuable as a winter food because their shelf life more closely resembles a half-life. To make their version of cranberry sauce, the tribes of the Northeast would sweeten it with maple sugar or honey.

The native name for the fruit is ibimi, or atoqua, or sassamanash, depending on which tribe you were to ask. The name “cranberry” is derived from the English settlers’ name for it: “craneberry.” The small pink blossoms of the bush bear a resemblance to the head of a Sandhill crane. Other sources attribute the name to the idea that cranes actually liked to eat the berries.

As far as I have been able to discover, there is no one farming cranberries here in Iowa, but I did find Regi’s Cranberries. Regi’s makes a collection of delicious prepared cranberry items like Cranberry & Gingered Pear Sweet Salsa and Cranberry-Jalapeno jelly at their small kitchen in Urbandale. You can find them at To find the nearest (and therefore freshest) berries themselves, we must look to our neighbors to the north in Wisconsin and Minnesota. One of the best is Alder Lake Cranberries (www.alderlakecranberry. com) in Wisconsin. They are a family-owned farm that’s been growing strong for 57 years.

There are, no doubt, as many recipes for cranberry sauce as there are holiday cooks. Below are two, first the one I grew up with, then my slightly more modern spin on the idea.

Grandma was famous in our family for writing out recipes that began with things like “Take a bottle of cream…” without any indication, for those of us who grew up in the post-milkman era, what the size of a “bottle” might be. And so here, in her own words, is her recipe.

Grandma Friese’s Whole Cranberries

1 cup water, 1 cup Port wine, 1 cup sugar, 2 cinnamon sticks, lemon rind, all together to a boil for about 10 minutes.
Then add 1 lb. whole cranberries. Cook slowly so berries do not burst too much. After mixture looks about right, add one more cup of wine and let cool.

That’s the whole thing. She used to make it way ahead of time and let it ferment; it had quite a kick.

My recipe is a bit more complicated, but is also quite tasty.

Kurt’s Homemade Cranberry Sauce 

2 lbs. fresh cranberries
2 cups sugar, or to taste
Water, to cover
1 orange, split
1 lemon, split
1 lime, split
2 whole nutmeg seeds, cracked
5 cardamom pods, cracked
2 sticks cinnamon
2 cups port wine
1/4 cup candied ginger, julienned

Place the orange, lemon, lime, nutmeg, cardamom, and cinnamon in a cheesecloth pouch. Place in the bottom of a large saucepan. Add the cranberries, the water, and the sugar. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and let simmer for about an hour.

Add the port and the ginger, simmer an additional 5 minutes, then remove and let cool. Serve hot or cold.