Why Cranberry Sauce Is The Most Divisive Dish On Turkey Day

Cranberry sauce continually lands at or near the bottom of the rankings for the most popular Thanksgiving sides. It's a relatively simple dish, and many people like to eat cranberries by themselves or in foods like quickbreads, cakes, and cookies. The sauce, however, is divisive and often the subject of debates about which type of cranberry sauce is best or worst — or whether the concept of the sauce itself deserves to be forgotten forever.

There's no simple answer to why this one dish has become the poster child for bad holiday food, especially when a lot of people actually do like it. A large part of it is personal taste, of course, but a couple of biological and neurological factors can also affect how people view both commercially canned, jellied, and homemade varieties of cranberry sauce. 

Whether or not you enjoy cranberry sauce, finding out why it's the most divisive dish on turkey day can help you decide if you should serve it at your next Thanksgiving meal, and if so, which type to serve.

The texture

Probably the most divisive aspect of cranberry sauce is its texture, which ranges from gelatinous canned sauce to lumpy homemade concoctions. In fact, one of the major complaints about homemade sauce texture involves the berries. One person on Reddit described how their family refused to try their homemade sauce because they didn't want the berries in it. On the other side of the debate are people who think that the canned sauce is too slimy, and some who even can't stand any kind of cranberry sauce due to its gelatinous nature. 

That's not that unusual, as texture plays a huge role in how we perceive food. Not only do we rely on past experiences with texture to tell us if a food is safe to eat (a slimy food that normally isn't so could be rotten), but we're wired to prefer crunchier, louder food. Two 2005 studies published in the Journal of Sensory Studies and Food and Quality Preference found that people were more likely to say potato chips and soda were good when the crunch of the chips and the fizzing of the soda's carbonation were louder. So, the softer, mushier texture of cranberry sauce could be less palatable to many. That doesn't mean the sauce is inherently bad, only that the texture of the sauce influences how some people view it. In addition, people can find mixed textures off-putting, which can influence how they view a homemade sauce with berry chunks still in the mix.

The quality and consistency of recipes

At first glance, it may look as if you have two types of cranberry sauce to choose from: the commercially canned, jellied kind, and homemade sauce. That's not quite accurate, however. You really have a choice between commercially canned sauce and about a zillion different versions of homemade sauce, all of which can turn out differently depending on the ingredients involved and who's making them. While that might seem like a nice amount of variety, the inconsistency of homemade cranberry sauce has traumatized some people so much that they insist on having commercially produced cranberry sauce. At least that way, they know what they're getting and can know what it will taste like and how it will look straight out of the can. When Food & Wine interviewed chefs and restaurant owners about their preferences for cranberry sauce back in 2018, Jacqueline Blanchard of Coutelier said just that, stating that she preferred canned sauce because she had encountered too many bad homemade versions.

It's not surprising that having so many different recipes that can yield inconsistent results could lead to people's hate of homemade cranberry sauce. It also makes the dish even more divisive, especially when the homemade sauce fans enter the chat. Go into any conversation about homemade cranberry sauce and mention that you hate it, and guess what? Instead of sympathy, you'll likely get claims that you've probably never had good cranberry sauce made by someone who knows what they're doing.

The presentation

Another quality of cranberry sauce that might contribute to its divisiveness is how it's presented at the table. This one really focuses on the canned sauce. An Instacart survey from 2019 found that 31% of people surveyed who use cranberry sauce bring it to the table still in the shape of a can. A further 46% of Americans in the survey group thought canned cranberry sauce was awful. That led to speculation that serving it in a can shape could be a major reason why people don't like cranberry sauce. This disgusted Redditor confirmed that the shape had a lot to do with their distaste for the "semi-transparent red slime" that still had the shape of a can.

Shape aside, the widespread hate for the appearance of canned sauce is evident. For example, Peter Genovese of NJ.com called the stuff "jellied slime" and "alleged fruit" while reminding readers that writer and broadcaster Alistair Cooke likewise called it "pink goo." Mike Jordan of the It's a Southern Thing blog didn't hold back when he wrote that canned sauce resembled a "gummy bear made of beef liver" and was nothing short of "canned Hades." Keep that in mind if you're planning to serve canned cranberry sauce and aren't going to at least slice it up before serving.

The nostalgia

A lot of people keep serving cranberry sauce because of the nostalgia factor. It's what their families did when they were growing up, so they feel that they must continue the tradition. That shouldn't be news. What is odd, and what leads to a lot of divisiveness, is not only that many people continue to serve cranberry sauce when no one wants it, but some refuse to switch the type of sauce they serve even if they like another sort. Some home cooks note that their family sticks with the canned, jellied sauce out of nostalgia even though they have tried serving homemade and all thought it was delicious. The nostalgia for the canned stuff overruled any positive feelings toward homemade sauce.

But other people had the opposite view. One shunned canned cranberry sauce in favor of homemade because homemade is what their grandmother served (and they named that as the reason they didn't like canned, not the flavor or texture). On Reddit, one person's wife even tried making homemade sauce, only to have her entire family ask for the canned instead due to the force of nostalgia. At least those families liked sauce in one form or another. Some diners have admitted to not really liking cranberries and just eating the sauce out of tradition.

The overall sweetness

Possibly one of the more frustrating disagreements that people have over cranberry sauce is the level of sweetness. The consensus, at least on Reddit, is that the canned stuff is incredibly sugary, although some don't think canned cranberry sauce is sweet at all. Some consider all cranberry sauce, even commercially canned jellied varieties, to be just too tart for their tastes. Of those who do think the canned sauce is sweet, it's not always a good thing. One Redditor calls the store-bought sauce "offensively sweet."

Homemade sauce doesn't get off so lightly here, either. Some claim that canned sauce can be so sweet that homemade sauce in turn seems much too bitter, in part because it usually contains whole cranberries. This can mean that, even if the sauce around the berries has a lot of sugar, the berries themselves may counter that with too much tartness. If this is making you start to wonder how you'll ever find a cranberry sauce that everyone can agree on, you can always take the extra time to prepare and serve both.

The combination of the sauce with other foods

People are heavily divided on whether cranberry sauce in any form should be combined with meat and other popular Thanksgiving foods. Sometimes this is due to a general distaste for combining sweet and savory flavors, meaning sweet cranberry sauce on savory turkey is just one of many combinations a person won't have. Some just can't stand the mix of flavors, while others don't like the concept of mixing jam and meat.

But yet more insist that cranberry sauce is a perfect foil for fatty foods due to its acidity. There's a bit of food science backing up this pairing, as fatty foods can help to cut the bitterness of tannins in acidic foods like cranberries. Meanwhile, the tannins counter the overly rich quality of some fats. It's the same reason why tannic wines pair so well with rich steak or cheese. 

Yet others like how cranberry sauce combines with Thanksgiving desserts such as cake. This is again a matter of both flavors benefitting the other. The sweetness of the cake tames the tartness of cranberry sauce, while the fruit's acidity gives other flavors in the cake a boost.

The way the canned stuff blorps out of the can and onto the plate

One last characteristic of cranberry sauce that people either love or hate is how it sounds. Canned cranberry sauce makes a distinct sound as it drops out of the can in one piece. That one little bloop can be the best or worst thing you've ever heard in your life, depending on who you ask. Some people mention the sound as one of the reasons why they dislike the canned version and prefer making fresh cranberry sauce to avoid it.

Yet others love the noise, consider it a part of their Thanksgiving tradition, and lament that preparing fresh sauce doesn't give them the satisfaction of hearing it. Some home cooks even take extra steps to copy the sound, by molding homemade sauce in a clean can so they can still hear the sound as it slides out of the containers. Those who need their cranberry sauce ASMR but can't or don't want to spend the time washing out old cans still have the ability to turn to YouTube, where some people post videos of themselves opening cans of cranberry sauce and letting it hit a plate.