Best Jellied Cranberry Sauce: Ocean Spray
Just right on the tartness scale. Ocean Spray sure knows how to make cranberry sauce! This one actually tastes like cranberries! (Always a plus.) Even if there are no pick-out-able berry bits in that wobbly mass, you know it was made from real cranberries. "This is classic," agreed tasters. As far as texture goes, it's smooth and spreadable, like jelly on toast. 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, this one's tart but not to puckering extremes, and it's loaded with cranberry bits and skins. Smooth too, "almost verging on pudding texture," said one taster. It comes in a jar, complete with bonnet-wearing cranberry farmers on the label.
Storebought Stuffing: Stovetop
Stovetop is arguably the most familiar-tasting, for better or worse. It beat out the other brands we tried (Pepperidge Farm, Bells, Trader Joe's, Mrs. Cubbison's, Arnold), probably because it tastes so nostalgic, and who can argue with nostalgia. The Stovetop mix is comprised of ground-up breadcrumbs and tastes exactly the way you'd expect boxed stuffing to taste: herby with a fair amount of salt, but not as salty as other brands we tried. "Only one I took a second bite of," said one taster, which was a huge compliment given the onslaught of stuffing that transpired. It'd also work great as a base to doctor up with other add-ins (like sausage, nuts, dried fruit, and fresh herbs).
Storebought Stuffing: Martin's Potatobread Stuffing
We also gave top scores to Martin's brand of stuffing. Hey, we love our burgers on Martin's potato rolls so it made perfect sense that we'd love Martin's Potatobread Stuffing. It's made with the same just-a-smidge-sweet potato bread, and there are discernible chunks; it's not bread dust like many of the others. Thankfully, it doesn't come out soggy or dry. It's on the sweeter side, and may even be a little too sweet for some but there's something addictive about the flavor. If you like Martin's potato bread as much as we do, you'll be a fan of this one. (That is, if you can find it at a grocery store near you! Martin's is a Pennsylvania-based company so distribution is mostly limited to the Northeast, but you can call 1-800-548-1200 to order any of the products.)
Chicken Stock: Swanson's Chicken Cooking Stock
We should clarify: this is not Swanson's regular chicken broth. It's a newer product, "the Cooking Stock," and far superior. It has a pronounced chicken flavor with sweet carrots and onions. Though flavorful, it's a tad on the salty side.
Chicken Stock: Kitchen Basics
This was the least salty of all the brands we tried in the chicken stock tasting but also not flavorless. There are notes of black pepper, bay and thyme. It tastes clean.
Instant Potatoes: Betty Crocker Yukon Gold
Our taste-testers liked the texture of these insta-spuds more than other brands we tried. It's also the only brand we tried that uses both starchy Idaho spuds and smooth, creamy Yukon Golds, which may explain the better texture. Some tasters noted a slight fake buttery flavor to it, but others found it pretty "natural tasting." Nice to see that real butter is the first ingredient listed.
Gravy in a Jar: Heinz
The Heniz lid says "so close to homemade," which is a bit of a stretch, but of what we tried, it tasted the best. It's kind of a Stovetop stuffing situation: while the Heinz doesn't taste like the real-deal, it's a welcome alternative and comforting in a served-on-a-cafeteria-tray kind of way. You could really taste the carrots, herbs, and poultry flavors. Texture-wise, it's thick but flowed nicely; not too gelatinous. [Note: The fat-free version is not recommended.]
Frozen Pie Crust: Trader Joe's
The Trader Joe's crust was the best of the frozen crusts we tried. It was strong enough to hold up to a hefty pie filling but not in the least bit tough, heavy, or leathery. Rich and buttery, it tasted "real," said tasters. You might even be able to fool people into thinking it's homemade. We also appreciated that it's a roll-out crust instead of the kind that's already in its own pan. Plus, you can crimp the edges yourself (and who doesn't love crimping?), and you have the option of doing a true double-crusted top-and-bottom pie.
Frozen Pie Crust (Runner-Up): Pillsbury
Pillsbury also sells a roll-out crust, usually stocked near the refrigerated tubes of biscuits and croissants. It could have been flakier. It also had an interesting savory flavor (cheesy even?) and was by far the saltiest of the frozen crusts we tried (though Ed didn't mind this). It got points for not turning soggy when baked with a filling. If you don't have the time for homemade and don't live near a Trader Joe's, this is your next best option.
Frozen Apple Pie (Lattice Topping): Marie Callenders
If you're on the west coast, you can pick up a Marie Callenders pie fresh from one of her chain restaurant locations, but for the rest of the country, Marie has made an oven-ready frozen version. We tried the Marie Callenders Lattice Apple Pie (runs about $7-8). Though a little sweeter than we like our pies to be, man, it sure was good. We're almost even willing to say it tasted homemade, though the slight jelly-goo filling, a common frozen pie offense, gave it away. Well-spiced with a nicely browned, crumbly crust, this was an office favorite. And those cinnamon specks on the box's photo? Those are no joke. Cinnamon haters might not appreciate the cinna-burst involved here but you can still taste the apples underneath, which is nice.
Frozen Apple Pie (Double Crust): Vermont Mystic
Judging by the box's lovely illustrations of barnyards and apple trees, this had great potential. Some of Vermont's best pastry chefs perfected the recipe for this pie (which we purchased from the frozen section at Whole Foods) using King Arthur flour, Cabot Creamery butter, and other wholesome ingredients. They get points for figuring out how to make a frozen pie without any gloopy texture. The apple chunks are crispy, tart, spritzed with lemon juice, and they actually taste like apples. The kind that grow on trees! The box says it's made with a blend of Empire, Cortland, and Northern Spy apples (how often do you actually know what kind of apples are in your frozen pie?). The crust is flaky, buttery, and held its shape when sliced.
Frozen Pumpkin Pie: Trader Joe's
Of the five frozen pies we tried, the Trader Joe's (21-ounce pie for about $5) had the best flavor (not too sweet and full of cinnamon and spice) with a custardy texture. Maybe it's too sweet, but it gets the job done. Especially if you have no time to bake one from scratch.
Pumpkin in a Jar: Trader Joe's Pumpkin Butter
Note: it doesn't actually contain butter, just cooked-down pumpkin "meat" with just enough spices and sugar. Stock up on these jars because you'll want more in April when they don't sell them anymore. Spread it on toast, swirl it into porridge or yogurt, add it to a grilled cheese...the possibilities are endless. Endless!