How to easily hack canned cranberry sauce and upgrade your Thanksgiving dinner

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  • Canned cranberry sauce is delicious on its own, but there are ways you can dress it up for any meal.
  • Adding fruits like oranges or berries brings different flavors and acidity to the sauce. 
  • Folding in crushed nuts at the end adds texture variety.
  • Get creative, but make sure you're tasting along the way. 
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Cranberry sauce is a staple side dish and a particularly popular one at holiday meals from Thanksgiving to Christmas. While there's always the option to make cranberry sauce from scratch, many people choose to spend their energy on other, more time consuming side dishes and opt for the ready-made canned cranberry sauce instead.

While that option may conjure up images of can-shaped cranberry jelly cylinders plopped on a dish, there are plenty of fast and simple ways to dress up canned cranberry sauce.

When I was growing up, my mom loved to elevate the canned cranberry sauce she served with roast chicken, potatoes, and, of course, Thanksgiving turkey 

While I loved opening the plastic, bowl-shaped Ocean Spray tub and digging my spoon right into the sweet, tangy cranberry sauce, my mom often had bigger plans for jazzing it up.

For a regular weeknight meal, she would open up a can of cranberry sauce (typically the whole cranberry variety) and simply heat it up in a pot. She'd then defrost a bag of frozen mixed berries and add it to the sticky stuff simmering on the stove. It really was that simple.

The blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries that typically come in a mixed-berry medley add their own flavors to the sauce, but they also add texture. Each berry brings something unique — strawberries hold their clunky but soft integrity, blackberries and raspberries add some seeds, and blueberries are always a welcome burst of sweetness.

While you can use fresh berries, I prefer frozen for a number of reasons. First, I only have to buy one bag of frozen mixed berries, which is usually cheaper than buying packages of four different kinds of fresh berries from the produce section. Second, when frozen berries defrost, the juices melt and become sauce-like on their own, making for an easy marriage of the berries to the cranberry sauce. 

If the sauce was being prepped for a holiday meal, Mom would get a little more creative. Adding diced apples and a can of mandarin oranges (with half of the juice from the can) to cranberries as they cook down was her go-to. She'd then fold in chopped pecans for some crunch after pulling the mixture off of the stove. 

The first and most basic step is knowing how to heat up canned cranberry sauce

Sure, you can just slice up your cranberry sauce straight out of the can and serve it that way, but where's the fun in that?
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It's perfectly fine to serve up cranberry sauce — whole berry or jelled — straight out of the can. But in my experience, heating the canned sauce up takes its flavor to the next level. Plus, it becomes a little more aesthetically pleasing. 

When you're dealing with canned whole cranberry sauce, you can pour it into a small pot and bring it to a low boil. Once it starts to boil, I lower the heat and let it simmer until I'm satisfied with the temperature and texture. 

If you're opting for jelled sauce, I'd recommend cutting it up into large cubes and stirring them with a wooden spoon or spatula to break down the chunks. Then, you can heat it the same way as the whole-berry sauce. 

You can use a microwave instead of a stovetop, but make sure you cover the microwave-safe bowl loosely with either a paper towel or a lid so that the sauce doesn't end up exploding all over the inside of the appliance. Microwave the sauce in 30-second intervals, stirring in between each interval so that you get an even cook.

Experimenting with easy cranberry sauce mix-ins is a great way to take the dish up a notch  

The list of possible cranberry sauce mix-ins is endless.
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If you're into ginger, you can peel and dice the root, letting it boil along with the sauce. The ginger adds fresh spice to the flavor and a little bit of bite to the texture.

Just because you bought the jelled cranberry sauce doesn't mean you can't add whole cranberries to it for texture and tangy flavors — though you'll want to boil the whole berries first in some water with a bit of sugar. 

Have some nearly overripe oranges or stone fruit lying around your kitchen? For a fruity twist, you can cut them up and throw them in the pot.

Lemon, lime, or orange zest are also great sources of bright, citrusy flavors.

If you want to make it boozy, try mixing in some Champagne after you've let it cool. If you add it to the boiling pot, you'll cook off the alcohol — which is great if you want the flavor of Champagne but not the boozy aspect.

You can also crush pretty much any meaty nut (pecans, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and even Brazil nuts are great options) and fold it in once your sauce reaches room temperature. 

Have fun with your canned cranberry sauce, but make sure you're tasting what you mix as you cook it

You'll want to periodically taste your mix along the way to make sure you're adding needed components, though. If your sauce is tasting too tangy, then add something sweet, like sugar, to balance it out. If it's too sweet, you can add lemon juice the acidity will cut the sweetness.

Let creativity be your guide, but also get your palate involved. It can be all too easy to get carried away with flavors when you're boiling a sauce — trust me on that one. 

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