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Pantry Essentials: Canned Cranberry Sauce

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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

What is turkey without cranberry sauce? That tart, ruby-red jelly is a vital adornment to a brined and roasted turkey—after all, turkey is not always the most... characterful of meats. Of course, we know you'll make your own cranberry sauce this year, especially when it's so easy, right?

Well, yes, but that hasn't held back the popularity of the store-bought version, which is served in almost three-quarters of American homes. Many Americans actually prefer it. With so many other things to prepare for the feast, sometimes homemade sauce just doesn't make the cut. So just to be on the safe side, just as insurance, you might pick up a can of cranberry sauce.

It's not the worst idea. And canned cranberry sauce is a kind of American tradition, having been sold for over a hundred years now. The Cape Cod Cranberry Company of Massachusetts sold the first canned cranberry sauce in 1912, branding it "Ocean Spray." The product was such a hit that when the company joined forces with two others, they named their cooperative "Ocean Spray" as well.

That evocative brand name, and the popular image of cranberries floating around, might give the impression that cranberries are aquatic. In fact, flooding is just an efficient way to harvest the fruits from the sandy, peaty vines in the bogs they grow in, because they float up to the surface and can be skimmed off. These "wet harvest" cranberries are used in products that contain cranberries, whereas whole cranberries are dry-harvested using a mechanical picker. For more on cranberry history and harvest, check out our Know Your Sweets column on the subject.

Harvested cranberries are cooked in water in giant kettles. A sweetener is added and the cranberries are cooked again, and then poured into cans and cooled in a water bath. Nothing else needs to be added, as the natural pectin in the cranberries allows the sauce to set in the can. That's why cranberry sauce takes on the same ribbed shape as the can it's sold in!

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Canned cranberry sauce on a silver platter! [Photograph: Robert S Donovan on Flickr ]

If you are going to buy a can of cranberry sauce, what should you look out for? The major variation you're likely to come across is "whole berry" versus "jellied." The only difference between them is that the jellied sauce is cooked until the berries have completely broken down. They both slide out of the can as a wobbly red cylinder.

Canned cranberry sauce is usually sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. Some varieties contain lemon juice or extra fruit pectin. In a taste test in 2010, we judged Ocean Spray as our winner—it has an ideal balance of sweet and tart cranberry flavor, plus a pleasantly smooth texture, even if there are no discernible whole cranberry bits to pick out.

If you do decide to make your own cranberry sauce this year, you may be left with an extra can of back-up sauce. You could hold on to it for next year, or you could use it up in other ways.

Half a cup of cranberry sauce adds moisture and flavor to cakes or scones. You can also stir it into batter for sweet and zesty pancakes or waffles, or mix it into the filling for a pie, turnover, or tart. It's a useful ingredient for savory dishes; stir it into salsa or sauce for a tangy kick, mix it into minced beef for delicious burgers or meatballs, or use it as a glaze on a roast, like we do in this cranberry-glazed chicken recipe.

You might already use cranberry sauce in leftover turkey sandwiches; it goes just as well with other cold cuts, and you can change the flavor by stirring it into mayonnaise. Or vigorously shake or whisk cranberry sauce with ice and liquor (whisky, rum, or tequila will work just fine), add a squeeze of lime or a slice of orange, top up with some soda water or ginger ale, and it's an amazing cocktail for the holidays (or check out some slightly more involved recipes from these Portland bartenders).

Perhaps the best suggestion of all is to serve it with cheese. Canned cranberry sauce is very similar in composition to membrillo, the Spanish quince jelly that's served with hard cheeses like manchego. The tart flavor of cranberries makes it a perfect substitute. Whatever you do with your canned cranberry sauce, you surely won't regret having it in the pantry.

Especially when you forget to make your own.

About the author: Andrew Wheeler is a freelance writer born in England and based in Toronto. You can find him on Twitter @Wheeler.

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