Know Your Sweets: Cranberry Sauce

Kerry Saretsky

"It has been an unchallengeable American doctrine that cranberry sauce, a pink goo with overtones of sugared tomatoes, is a delectable necessity of the Thanksgiving board and that turkey is inedible without it." [Alistair Cooke]

Kerry Saretsky

The Basics

The cranberry (alias: bearberry) is one of only a few fruits—including blueberries and Concord grapes—that can truly claim roots in North American soil. Why, then, did it take the sweet-tart side dish cranberry sauce almost a century after settlers arrived to find its way to our thanksgiving tables?

Similar Sweets

Lingonberry Jam, Redcurrant Sauce

Key Ingredient: Cranberries

Cranberry Harvest. Wikipedia

Cranberries were eaten by Native Americans—who also used cranberry juice for dye, medicinal purposes, and ink—long before European colonists arrived in the United States. One of the most popular dishes created with cranberries by Native Americans was pemmican, which combined crushed cranberries, dried deer meat, and melted lard. Legend has it that cranberries were named by German settlers, kranbeere, because when the plant flowered, the blooming cranberry resembled the head and bill of a crane.

Contrary to popular belief (and any propagation by these guys) cranberries do not grow in the water. Rather, they grow in marshes and bogs, where the vines of the cranberry plant are laced through impermeable beds of sand, peat, and clay. The crop fields are then flooded in order to make harvesting the berries an easier job. When the "egg beater" machines loosen the cranberries from the vine, they float to the surface.

Key State: Wisconsin

While New England is largely associated with cranberry crops, the Midwest reigns supreme in their production. With its generally cool climate and boggy surroundings, Wisconsin is the largest producer of cranberries in the United States, making up about 57% of our country's total yield.


Joshua Bousel

While we all know the can-shaped, jiggly version that slides ever-so-smoothly onto so many Thanksgiving plates, there are many ways to make homemade cranberry sauce a unique, less Jell-O like experience. The addition of port or sherry adds a depth of flavor and richness to cranberry sauce, while dotting the sauce with your favorite citrus, such as the zest of a blood orange, will help accentuate the tanginess of the dish.

While cranberry sauce is a Christmastime favorite in the United States and England, the consistency and taste are quite dissimilar. English cranberry sauce is a good deal more tart, and much less condensed than its American counterpart, resembling a cranberry confit more than a cranberry jam.


J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

While its widely rumored that cranberries made an appearance at the first Thanksgiving in 1621, there's no fact to support the claim that any specific foods appeared outside of venison, wildfowl, and corn. It wasn't until 1864, when General Ulysses S. Grant ordered cranberries to be served to soldiers as part of their holiday meal, that cranberry sauce was first recorded as a necessary part of the Thanksgiving experience. After the arrival of Ocean Spray in 1912, the company now synonymous with cranberries ensured that the side dish was cement as part of our holiday tradition.

Pop Culture

Want to know if your cranberries are fit for consumption? Bounce them down a staircase. If the fruit bounces well, like a rubber ball, it's ready to be eaten, but if it stays put where it lands, the berry has gone bad.

Get the Recipe

From orange-cranberry sauce to a spiced sauce with red wine, try our 10 recipes for cranberry sauce.