Best Jellied: Ocean Spray
Best Whole Berry: Trader Joe's
Making cranberry sauce from scratch isn't too hard. Open a bag of cranberries, throw them into a pot, add water and maybe some orange zest, stir it all up until it reaches a boil. (We're fans of Pioneer Woman's easy recipe.) But going the canned (or jarred!) route saves a few steps on the crazy T-Day, and some people even prefer the taste. And I'd argue that a subset of others just buys it just for that priceless plop noise the gelatinous cylinder makes when it enters the world.
We tried nationally available brands (Ocean Spray, Whole Foods 365, Trader Joe's, and Williams-Sonoma) in both the jellied loaf and whole berry categories. There are plenty of other grocery store house brands out there but not surprisingly, Ocean Spray is the leader of the market, so it was hard to find many widely available competitors.
- Sweetness-to-Tartness Ratio: This needed to be balanced. We were looking for one with enough zing that gets your mouth's attention, but also doesn't make you wonder, did they forgot to add the sugar?
- Texture: Not rubbery, nor too bouncy. This ain't a 1960s Jell-O mold! Spreadable is ideal.
- Flavor: Cranberries. It should taste like cranberries. Not too dolled-up with extraneous spices.
Find out which were tastiest, and which did the best jiggle dance.
Why the Losers Lost
Before we get into the winners, let's talk about those that were eliminated. We really only liked three of the six varieties we tried (and one technically falls under the relish category). The rest suffered from texture and flavor issues. Some were too grainy, watery, or rubbery. Others were too jiggly, like Jell-O that hasn't entirely set yet, then breaks apart into chunky pieces. Some were so cloyingly sweet, you couldn't taste the cranberries.
Best Jellied Cranberry Sauce: Ocean Spray
Just right on the tartness scale, Ocean Spray ($1.79 for 14 ounces) knows how to make cranberry sauce. It tasted like cranberries! Always a plus. Even if there are no pick-out-able berry orbs in that wobbly mass, you know it was made from cranberries. "The classic," agreed tasters. As far as texture goes, it was smooth and spreadable, like jelly on toast. It's like drinking cranberry juice, but in jellied form. Very refreshing, and would be great with turkey. This also won the "Best Jiggle Dance" award.
Best Whole Berry Cranberry Sauce: Trader Joe's
This one from Trader Joe's (shouldn't it be Pilgrim Joe's?) tasted the most homemade of the whole berry competitors. Not too sweet, tart but not to puckering extremes, and loaded with cranberry bits and skins. Smooth too, "almost verging on pudding texture," said one taster. It comes in a jar ($1.99 for 12 ounces), complete with bonnet-wearing cranberry farmer illustrations on the label.
Not a Cranberry Sauce: Williams-Sonoma
Kenji would like to clarify, this is not a sauce. It's a relish. It should be judged in a separate relish tasting. But for what it's worth, we have some thoughts on this Apple-Orange Cranberry Relish (its official name). At $10.50 for the 18-ounce jar, it was the priciest of the bunch. And the least cranberry-tasting. Overpowered by all the cinnamon and orange zest, it had tasters very split. For some it tasted the most homemade ("oh, yum") but for others, the very resolute cranberry purist crowd, it was an abomination. "Doesn't taste like cranberries!"... "Weirdly spicy? Any cranberries underneath all that cinnamon? Not really a fan."
This one really depends on how doctored-up you want your cranberries. And if you want to hand over a ten-spot to pay for it.