Jellied cranberry sauce—indented by the ridges of the can from which it slithers—is my secret Thanksgiving love. It’s not the flavor that keeps drawing me back, since the overt, one-note sweetness dominates the fruity tang. I’m more captivated by its physical qualities: the alluring smoothness, the playful jiggle, and the way the semitranslucent ruby gel catches the light. This year I set out to create a DIY version with those attributes and more. I’d be in full control of the sugar, and the sky would be the limit in terms of flavoring and molding options.
I started by adding a modest amount of granulated sugar along with a little salt to a saucepan filled with 12 ounces of fresh cranberries. I poured in 3 cups of water, simmered the mixture until the berries popped, and then strained out the skins and seeds. After stirring in a whisper of vanilla to bring everything to life, I poured the garnet liquid into a mold and chilled it for 4 hours.
It gelled beautifully. That’s because cranberries are both rich in pectin and naturally acidic. Pectin is a polysaccharide found in the cell walls of fruit; these walls break down when the fruit is heated, releasing the pectin. In a sugary, acidic environment, the long-chain molecules interact and tangle, trapping liquid and dissolved sugar to form a gel as the mixture cools.
And yet, this attempt had neither the coveted smoothness nor the translucence of the canned stuff. Instead, it was somewhat grainy and as stodgy and opaque as tomato paste.
No Strain, No Gain
Increasing the ratio of liquid to solids in the final gel would dilute the mixture, resulting in a clearer jelly. But extra water would also dilute the acidity and therefore impede gelling. Cranberry juice was the answer. It not only preserved the acidic pH, allowing me to use more liquid and still achieve the degree of translucency I was after, but also boosted the tart fruitiness of the jelly. Four cups of juice produced a glossy gel that was absolutely delicious.
Along the way, I also learned that cooking the cranberry mixture at a full boil for 25 minutes helped extract more of the berries’ pectin, resulting in a more stable gel and the firm, sliceable consistency that came with it.
As a final test, I tried using an empty can as a mold. To my (perhaps childish) delight, I found that it resulted in a cylinder with perfectly imprinted ridges, hoodwinking my guests into thinking they were getting the canned type—until they tasted it, that is.