Preparing and executing a memorable Thanksgiving meal is hard work, and buying a quality canned or jarred cranberry sauce is an easy way to streamline things. Prepared cranberry sauces come in two different forms. “Jellied” sauces are smooth and gelatinous, with varying levels of firmness and no cranberry solids. “Whole-berry” sauces or “relishes” can vary in texture, but all include cranberry pieces or whole cranberries. (For this testing, we referred to these simply as “whole-berry” sauces.) We sought a winner in each category that could complement Thanksgiving mainstays and add zing to your Turkey Day plate. We purchased 10 sauces (three jellied, seven whole berry), priced from about $2.00 to roughly $8.00 per container (about $0.10 to roughly $0.70 per ounce), online and from supermarkets and specialty stores. Panelists sampled the sauces plain and with roast turkey breast to evaluate flavor, texture, and sweetness.
No matter what the end product looks or tastes like, all cranberry sauces start in the same place: the humble cranberry bog. Cranberries grow on small shrubs with vine-like stems in beds of wet, boggy soil mixed with sand and peat, which are flooded come harvest season. Harvesters use water reels, devices that agitate the flooded bogs, to dislodge the berries from their stems. Ripe cranberries contain air pockets, causing them to float in the bogs. Booms skim the surface and corral the berries, which are then sent to manufacturers for processing.
What happens next depends on the style of cranberry sauce. For a basic jellied sauce, manufacturers grind the berries into a puree and pass the mixture through a filtration screen to remove the solids. Cranberries are naturally quite tart and have a low sugar content, so manufacturers sweeten the puree with corn syrup or cane sugar. The sauce is then poured into cans and heated, causing the cranberries’ pectin to form a jelly that takes the shape of the can (ridges and all). Whole-berry sauces, on the other hand, are either not sieved or have cranberry solids added back into the puree.
In either case, sauces with higher percentages of pectin by volume set more rigidly, whereas sauces that are diluted with extra water, juice, or other ingredients have less pectin and are often looser. Added sugars can also affect the setting process: The sugar molecules will bind with water and allow the pectin to form a firmer gel. Many sauces contain other ingredients, such as tapioca starch or additional pectin for thickening and spices, citrus juices, or citric acid for flavor and tartness.
The texture of the sauces—determined by the liquid content, thickness, and amount of cranberry solids—varied markedly within each sauce category. We were surprised to discover that many of the sauces’ names did not accurately describe their textures. Some jellied sauces didn’t hold their containers’ shapes at all and were much looser than the firm, jiggly cylinders of jelly we were anticipating. Some whole-berry sauces were firmly gelatinous with only a few cranberry pieces or skins present. Another supposed whole-berry sauce was a thin, translucent syrup with only a few cranberry pieces floating in the can.
All in all, sauces were thick and thin, coarse and smooth, and everything in between—and rankings all came down to personal preference. Some tasters preferred one style to another across the board, while others were drawn to both styles. Among the jellied sauces, tasters enjoyed those that offered “smooth,” “melt-in-your-mouth” textures. Some jellied sauces, however, were “grainy” and “mealy” and scored lower in our ranking. For whole-berry sauces, tasters preferred choices that offered consistently sized, discernible cranberry chunks with no competing textures or tangly skins. Our favorites had “jammy” textures interlaced with the “pop of whole berries.” Other whole-berry sauces were less successful; their “inconsistent,” “chunky mishmash” of textures “distracted” from the turkey.
Flavor preferences among our tasters were clear and consistent across both styles: the less sweet and the fewer added ingredients, the better. Our top three finishers contained only cranberries, sugar or corn syrup, and water, and they were among the tartest in our lineup. Tasters praised their “classic” and “straightforward” flavors, noting that their “bright,” “tart,” and “balanced” notes were “great foil[s] for salty, savory, fatty holiday foods” and complemented turkey well.
In contrast, sauces with added fruit juices, warm spices, and nuts generally performed poorly. Tasters “lost the cranberry” flavor in those “aggressively spiced” mixtures and noted that a few tasted the way “air fresheners,” scented “candles,” or “potpourri” smell. Tasters also didn’t like sauces that were too sweet. Instead of tasting like cranberry, they reminded us of “cough syrup,” “liquid candy,” or simply “sickly-sweet goo.” Interestingly, our perceptions of sweetness didn’t always match up with the amount of added sugar. Many tasters perceived the sauce with the most sugar per serving to be among the tartest in our lineup, likely due to the natural tartness of the many intact cranberries it contained.
In the end, we picked a favorite in each style. Ocean Spray’s traditional jellied sauce earned our top spot among the jellies. We loved its “classic,” “smooth” texture and “fresh” flavor. One taster summed it up by saying that it tasted “just like Thanksgiving.” For those interested in a more coarsely textured sauce, we recommend our whole-berry winner, New England Cranberry Colonial Cranberry Sauce. It had a “good mixture of sweet and sour,” and tasters noted that the whole berries and jam-like sauce “don’t compete with each other; they blend together nicely.” Either of these sauces would add depth and variation to your Thanksgiving menu, so choose the texture that seems right for you and your guests. Cranberry sauce doesn’t always get the attention it deserves, but your choice could just make or break Turkey Day.