As Americans everywhere mull over what to include on their Thanksgiving table (and when), some will find themselves staring a quandary straight in the face. Of course cranberry sauce will be included. But should it be freshly made, or should it squirm out of a can?
What cranberry sauce adds to the Thanksgiving meal
For a discussion of cranberry sauce’s benefits, we turn to Samin Nosrat, chef and author of the Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat cookbook and star of the Netflix show it inspired. In 2018 Vox noted that Nosrat had diagnosed “the single biggest problem with most Thanksgiving menus”: a lack of acid.
“Everything on the Thanksgiving table tends toward the salty, the starchy, or the rich, or sometimes even the bland,” Nosrat said on the Vox podcast I Think You’re Interesting. “Often, the only acidic thing on the entire table is cranberry sauce, which is why most people just keep spooning cranberry sauce onto their plates.”
Where cranberry sauce comes from
To get more information about the cranberry sauce habits of my fellow Americans, I went to the source: Ocean Spray. While plenty of other brands make canned cranberry sauce in 2022, Ocean Spray was the OG.
“Cranberry sauce is celebrating its 110th birthday this year,” Dan Hamilton, Head of Marketing Center of Excellence at Ocean Spray, tells The Takeout. “It’s actually the first product ever marketed under the Ocean Spray brand, dating back to the three maverick farmers who started it all. Bonded by bitter cranberry love, Elizabeth Lee, Marcus Urann, and John Makepeace joined forces to form the agricultural cranberry cooperative.”
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The company is still a cooperative today, and it’s owned by more than 700 cranberry farmers, who contribute to the brand’s range of cranberry products.
That first product wasn’t can-shaped. Jellied cranberry sauce, which is the official name for what most of us refer to as “canned cranberry sauce,” was introduced in 1941. Hamilton told me it takes hundreds of berries to make each can.
Though Ocean Spray is headquartered in Massachusetts, its jellied cranberry sauce operation is housed in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where a “very specific recipe” is followed. Quality testing includes making sure the taste and “jiggle” of the cranberry sauce stay true to the product fans know and love.
As for the fresh stuff, Ocean Spray’s fresh cranberries, which have a limited harvest season, make their way to the produce section of America’s grocery stores from October to December. A simple recipe for making cranberry sauce can be found on the back of the bag.
That recipe is so ironclad I once asked my aunt for my great-grandmother’s cranberry sauce recipe, thinking it was a special family concoction, and when my aunt opened up the old recipe book and turned to the page for cranberry sauce, she found a plastic Ocean Spray bag taped to the page. This is why I’ll never try any recipe that tries to be more creative than the one on the back of the package.
Which is more popular: canned or fresh cranberry sauce?
Declaring a definitive winner might not be possible, but looking at Ocean Spray’s numbers might give us a little insight. According to Hamilton, approximately 77 million cans of jellied cranberry sauce are sold each year. Meanwhile, 20 million bags of cranberries are sold.
Of course, Ocean Spray doesn’t exactly have a monopoly on cranberries in jellied or fresh form, and it’s possible people are buying their fresh cranberries from other sources. But based on Ocean Spray’s numbers alone, we’re safe to declare canned/jellied the winner, which I found surprising.
I like fresh cranberry sauce, and I have my great grandmother’s age-old recipe at my fingertips. But there’s just something about the rungs formed by the can along the surface of the jelly, and how you can use these lines as a guide to cut a perfectly thick slice that wiggles a little as it hits your plate. Who doesn’t find that delightful?
Well, maybe you. Do you opt for fresh cranberry sauce? Does your family have an actual passed-down recipe that’s not the one on the back of the bag?