The secret behind the jiggly sauce
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what is in canned cranberry sauce
Credit: Photo by DebbiSmirnoff via Getty Images

Bright bowls of cranberry sauce are so common on the American Thanksgiving table that 5,062,500 gallons of the stuff is consumed each holiday season. Some households make their own stovetop cranberry sauce, but for others, it’s just not Turkey Day without the plate of canned cranberry sauce, sliced into neat rings. Also known as jellied cranberry sauce, (a term coined by cranberry colossus Ocean Spray), this jiggly addition to the Thanksgiving meal has been available at grocery stores since 1941. Although the canned sauce was created in order to extend the shelf life of berries, it’s still most regularly eaten during fresh cranberry season, which runs from mid-September to mid-November. Considering that if you make cranberry sauce from scratch, the final product looks more like pie filling than Jello, there’s clearly more to canned cranberry sauce than fruit. What’s inside?

One of the most popular brands of canned cranberry sauce is, of course, Ocean Spray. Their jellied cranberry sauce is made with cranberries, high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and water. Woodstock Farms also makes a jellied cranberry sauce, containing organic cranberries, organic sugar, filtered water, and organic lemon juice concentrate. Interestingly enough, neither brand uses gelatin to get their cranberry sauce to hold its shape outside of the can.

The secret to the wiggly nature of the sauce is actually completely natural. It’s pectin, a gelling agent that occurs in the fruit. Pectin is actually often extracted from fruit and sold as a standalone ingredient for use in jams and jellies to cut back on the need for a larger amount of fruit. It’s also a common addition to vegan and vegetarian cooking, as it can thicken sauces, soups, and puddings on its own.

As cranberries, sugar, and water boil, the cranberries pop and release all their pectin into the mixture. After the berries completely break down, they’re mashed to ensure all their liquid and pectin come out. Finally, the sauce is strained to ensure a smooth consistency. It’s poured into cans, which act as a mold; as the sauce cools, all that pectin helps it gel into a mostly solid tube. There’s so much pectin throughout a serving of cranberry sauce that it will hold the shape of the can even after it has slid out of the can and onto a plate.

Homemade cranberry sauce tends to look more like a sauce than a gelatinous tube simply because it often calls for more liquid than a recipe for jellied sauce. The pectin in the cranberries still acts as a thickening agent, but the final sauce will still be much looser.