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Fresher, Fruitier "Canned" Cranberry Sauce

Give thanks for customizable flavors and forms—and a touch of nostalgia.
By Published Sept. 28, 2021

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

Using a small spoon or ladle, press to extract as much liquid as possible from the solids. Scrape the bottom of the strainer with a clean spoon to remove the remaining puree.

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.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.