canned vs homemade cranberry sauce

Canned cranberry sauce—it obviously comes from a can, it might contain cranberries, but it sure doesn’t look like a sauce. Yet for all my striving to consume more fresh vegetables and other whole foods, I still have a special place in my heart for that sweet jellied cylinder and its signature can-lines.

But, in the past few years, I’ve noticed homemade cranberry sauce beginning to show up amongst my family’s Thanksgiving dinner dishes. And it’s sometimes, heaven forbid, replacing the canned cranberry sauce I’ve grown to cherish. Is this a big deal? What makes these two variations so different?

Texture and Shape

Canned cranberry sauce has a ‘bite’ like firm jelly. And, while most dishes can’t be characterized by a ‘shape’ (what’s the shape of mashed potatoes?), canned cranberry sauce is immediately distinguishable by its cylindrical, ridged shape, and its telltale hockey-puck slices.

Homemade cranberry sauce is effectively a sauce. Depending on the recipe, there may be more fresh bites of cranberry, or the fruits may have been cooked down to a saucier consistency. Homemade cranberry sauce fills a pretty Thanksgiving bowl gracefully, whereas canned cranberry sauce stands obstinately in the center, neither conforming to the bowl’s shape nor to society’s definition of a sauce.

Color

Canned cranberry sauce is the color of red wine. Some homemade cranberry sauce is, too, but it might have some pops of citrus orange. Or it might be darker, if a recipe calls for bourbon and brown sugar, like this recipe for Homemade Cranberry Sauce. With homemade, the colors may deviate from the steadfast, smooth maroon created with machine-canned precision.

Taste

Like color, taste all depends on the recipe you are using for homemade cranberry sauce. Many concoctions introduce citrus flavors, like our Cranberry and Citrus Sauce recipe. Orange and grapefruit elements make cranberry sauce a little more interesting and fragrant. Very sweet or not-so-sweet is up the cook—I tend to incorporate less sugar than most recipes call for, in favor of focusing on the tangy fruit flavors.

Convenience

Opening a can and shaking canned cranberry sauce out of its tin home seems pretty easy, but is it really easier than our Easy Cranberry Sauce recipe? The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. Canned cranberry sauce is probably the lowest effort Thanksgiving thing-that-can-still-be-considered-a-dish. We’re talking a matter of a few minutes to go from pantry to table with the aid of a can-opener, though 35 minutes and one saucepan isn’t too shabby, either, in this battle of man vs. machine.

Nostalgia Factor

This will be different for everyone. For me, it’s the factor that defies logic and perhaps even taste buds. I just can’t quit canned cranberry sauce, even though its real fruit ingredients have been pulverized beyond recognition and blended with not-my-favorite-sweetener: corn syrup. Truthfully, I have had some really tasty homemade cranberry sauces, but the heart wants what it wants, even if what it wants has been stripped of all nutritional value through processing.

We’ve covered the basic aspects of both types of cranberry sauce, but for a concise guide touching on most of the above topics, feel free to note down some of the below differences (and please also feel free to use these in your office’s next PowerPoint presentation about cranberry sauce):

Canned

canned cranberry sauce on Thanksgiving table

Shutterstock

  • Jiggly, jellied texture with classic can ridges
  • Very sweet
  • Made from cranberries and corn syrup
  • Utterly convenient
  • My first love

Homemade

homemade cranberry sauce

Shutterstock

  • More sauce-like (perhaps truer to the name) with some bites of cranberry
  • As sweet as you choose
  • Made from cranberries, sugar, and other citrus or sweet additions
  • Versatile, relatively easy to make
  • On paper, the superior cranberry sauce

So, you can see these two versions are quite different, and probably shouldn’t even be called by the same name. I’ll concede that homemade can keep the title of ‘cranberry sauce,’ and perhaps we can rename the canned version to…‘holiday cranberry jelly’ or ’cran-gel’ or maybe ‘crandy can’—who’s with me???

Emily, a Chicago native (okay, okay, born and raised in the 'burbs), loves being able to bike to and from her job at a tech company. After hours, you can find her walking her rescue pup (he's a good boy), taking French classes (voulez-vous un macaron?), and thoroughly enjoying her city's excellent restaurants and bars. She lives for the Chopped-style thrill of creating the perfect meal from limited and oddball ingredients.
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