The Meatwave

Cranberry Barbecue Sauce

Cranberry Barbecue Sauce View Recipe

Thanksgiving time is upon us, and I'm in the process of plotting out my menu, making recipe swaps and adjustments to ensure this year is an improvement over the last. As I was working through this, I realized one recipe that has held strong and seen no changes over the years was my cranberry sauce—if you're not making your own, your missing out on how just a few ingredients and about 10 minutes of effort is a huge improvement over store bought. This got me thinking about what I could do different with cranberry sauce, and while I'll likely always opt for my tried and true recipe, the slight off topic thought of a cranberry barbecue sauce entered my mind and I just had to act on it.

Cranberry Barbecue Sauce

I more or less built this recipe off my my base cranberry sauce, which starts with fresh cranberries. This time of year that's an easy prospect as produce shelves are lined with them, but once we're out of Thanksgiving season, frozen cranberries will work just as well.

Cranberry Barbecue Sauce

My cranberry sauce recipe is basically just cranberries, orange juice, orange zest, and sugar. It's simple, but the balance between sweet and tart is just right, and orange seems to be the perfect bright citrus accompaniment to cranberries, so I kept that component in.

Cranberry Barbecue Sauce

Before getting to the cranberries though, I began with a barbecue sauce norm for me—sautéing onions. I like a background onion flavor in barbecue sauce, it's a bit of complexity that's hard to point out is there, but would be missed if absent. Onion powder is often a go-to to accomplish this, but I find that flavor a bit too harsh and artificial. Softening and browning real onions though adds a unique sweetness to barbecue sauces that I think works really well on the whole.

Cranberry Barbecue Sauce

After browning the onions, I added in the cranberries, orange juice , orange zest, and sugar. I did swap in brown sugar for the white sugar to bring in that molasses flavor that's ubiquitous in barbecue sauces. Once the liquid started boiling and the cranberries simmered for a bit, they began to pop.

Cranberry Barbecue Sauce

I then used the back of my spoon to smash the now softened berries against the side of the pot, releasing their innards which are high in pectin, the substance that thickens the liquid and gives it a jam-like consistancy. In my normal cranberry sauce recipe, a rest after all the berries are smashed is the last step, but since I was building a barbecue sauce, I began adding in the long list of ingredients to build both a complex and harmonious end product.

Cranberry Barbecue Sauce

Since the cranberries were already tart, I used a mix of the less acidic rice vinegar and apple cider vinegar for tang. Next, ketchup added to the already fruity based while a little extra molasses went in for good measure. Then the complexity was upped by way of Worcestershire sauce and mustard, and a healthy amount of spice and heat were built by way of a barbecue rub, red pepper flakes, and cayenne. All of this simmered for about 15 minutes until it was slightly thickened.

Cranberry Barbecue Sauce

I could have left the sauce as is at this point, but I like smoothing it out and incorporating the onions by blending everything together. The immersion blender makes quick and easy work of this, but a regular blender is just as good if you don't a have an immersion—it's just a little more clean-up in the end.

Cranberry Barbecue Sauce

My end sauce tasted fully realized, with the layers upon layers of flavors you'd expect from a great barbecue sauce. It started off with a balance sweet and tart profile that had a distinct cranberry flavor with a background molasses adding to the initial complexity. Then some nice pungency came into play with the mustard and increased vinegar tang which got a mellow spice boost that brought a mild heat to the party, rounding out the entire experience. So now that I had a pretty good sauce on my hands, it was time to put it to use, and what better use for a cranberry sauce could there be than smoked turkey! But that's a story for next week...

Print Recipe

Cranberry Barbecue Sauce

  • Yield 3 cups
  • Prep 5 Minutes
  • Cook 35 Minutes
  • Total 40 Minutes


  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 3/4 cup finely chopped onion (about 1 small)
  • 1 tablespoons minced garlic (about 3 medium cloves)
  • 8 oz fresh or frozen cranberries
  • 3/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 1/3 cup honey
  • 1/4 cup rice vinegar
  • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard
  • 1 tablespoon barbecue rub
  • 2 teaspoons Kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper


  1. Heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add in onion and cook until softened and lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add in garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  2. Add in cranberries, brown sugar, orange juice, and orange zest and bring to a boil. Cook, stirring occasionally, until berries begin to pop, about 5 minutes. Press berries against side of pan with wooden spoon and continue to cook until berries have broken down and sauce thickens to a jam-like consistency, about 5 minutes more.
  3. Add in ketchup, rice vinegar, cider vinegar, honey, molasses, Worcestershire sauce, yellow mustard, barbecue rub, salt, red pepper flakes, and cayenne pepper and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer until sauce has slightly thickened, about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  4. Puree sauce with an immersion blender, or transfer sauce to the jar of a regular blender, and process until smooth. Let cool to room temperature, transfer to a jar and store in refrigerator for up to a month.

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  1. Nelson Made this for Christmas dinner. Barbecued a spatch-cocked 12 pound turkey.

    Turned out fantastic! People who find bbq sauce too sweet enjoyed this. Almost no left-overs. I used 1 cup (8 oz) of fresh cranberries and will increase that by 50% when I make it again. I think this would make a perfect sauce for bbq turkey pizza.

    Thanks for sharing

  2. Melissa Hello, could this be used on smoked tri tip at Thanksgiving? Also what bbq run did you use? Thanks!

  3. Josh @Melissa Yes, I think this would be nice on a tri tip and give it more of a Thanksgiving-like flavor. You can use your favorite barbecue rub here, I personally used one similar to this recipe.