This traditional Thanksgiving condiment is often an afterthought. What factors can turn it into a Turkey Day star?
Published May 14, 2020. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 22: Turkey Two Ways
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...
The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Chase is an associate editor for ATK Reviews. He's an epidemiologist-turned-equipment tester and biscuit enthusiast.