Engineering a Canned Cranberry Sauce
With fall ending and winter beginning, the holidays are approaching, along with all of the delicious food to be had. Here at Shoestring Science, we found ourselves wondering--can we bring STEM into our holiday celebrations? Cooking is like building a whole new thing out of its basic parts, so why not become food engineers?
So, we decided to put our engineering skills to the test, and try to recreate that iconic turkey companion-- canned cranberry sauce.
Like scientists, engineers follow a basic process when they’re solving a problem, called the Engineering Design Process. The Engineering Design Process has several variations, but the overall path is similar: you ask a question or state a problem, do some research, imagine and plan out a solution, test your solution, make improvements, and test again until you think you’ve got the best solution you can make. The variation we used comes from TeachEngineering, and comes with a nifty visual aid:
A diagram of the Engineering Design Process in a circle shape, containing seven circles with the steps Ask, Research, Imagine, Plan, Create, Test, and Improve arranged in that order from the 12 o’clock position clockwise around the circle. Found at https://www.teachengineering.org/k12engineering/designprocess.
As food engineers, we wanted to use the Engineering Design Process to guide us in our challenge.
The First Steps
Our first tasks involved the Ask, Research, Imagine, and Plan steps:
Ask: Can we recreate the canned cranberry sauce in flavor and texture using at-home ingredients and cookware?
Research: We looked up some cranberry sauce recipes online and read the cranberry sauce ingredients. We could get most of the ingredients as listed, and making the sauce just required a stove and saucepan, so totally possible to make at home.
Imagine: The ingredients list gave us a vague idea of ingredient proportions, so we came up with a basic recipe based on those ingredients.
Plan: We went grocery shopping and discovered that we couldn’t get two of the listed ingredients, so we made adjustments and substitutions as needed. Then we formalized our first test’s recipes and started cooking!
Our shopping basket containing canned cranberry sauce, a bag of cranberries, lemon juice, corn syrup, and some caffeine for the chefs
Our ingredients arranged artfully with the canned cranberry sauce in front of a white board displaying our progress in the Engineering Design Process. The steps so far read “Ask- How can we make canned cranberry sauce? Imagine- Read back of can, research recipes, and explore the sauce. Plan- We don’t have all those ingredients--improvise!”
Create and Test 1
For our first Create step, we decided to use the same recipe for two different batches of sauce, and then before cooling strain one batch and blend the other. We wanted to see which method would give us the iconic weirdly stiff texture we wanted before going for a flavor recreation. We couldn’t find the citric acid or high-fructose corn syrup the canned ingredients listed, so we substituted lemon juice and increased the proportion of regular corn syrup to compensate.
The recipe we decided on:
2 cups cranberries
¾ cup water
A little more than ¾ cup corn syrup
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon lemon juice
The whole concoction was boiled for about 5 minutes before being left to cool to a warm temperature.
Boiling the cranberry mixture, stirring occasionally.
One batch was then strained and the liquid portion cooled in the fridge while the other batch was blended before being put in the fridge as well.
A video of a hand using an immersion blender to blend the cranberry sauce. At one point the saucepan is tilted to get a better angle on the sauce.
After cooling for a couple hours, it was time to Test our sauces for flavor and texture. We found that our blended sauce had started solidifying into a jello-like texture, while the strained sauce had just turned into a slightly thicker liquid.
The two sauces in question. The strained sauce is a thick, red liquid inside a round, clear container being held by a hand. The blended sauce is a round red disc sitting on a black plate.
The two sauces were both found to be pretty tart, and the blended sauce had a bit of bitterness as well. We guessed that the cranberry skin and seeds blended into the sauce had added the bitter flavor, and decided to tweak the recipe to address the flavor problems while keeping with the blending technique, as it turned out pretty close to the canned texture!
The canned and blended sauces in direct comparison. On the left, the canned sauce sits upright on a black plate surrounded by cranberries. On the right, the blended sauce sits on another black plate.
In our second round of sauce-making, we decided to once again make two different batches. This time, one batch had more sugar added (3 tablespoons) while the other batch had less lemon juice added (½ teaspoon). All other ingredients kept their same measurements and the cook time, blending, and cool time stayed the same.
Create and Test 2
We made our two new cranberry sauce batches following our new recipes, and after cooling we found that both sauces were setting pretty fast and once again looked and felt pretty similar to the canned sauce. The taste tests found that the More Sugar batch was really sweet at first with a tart and bitter after taste, while the Less Lemon Juice batch was less tart, less sweet and less bitter, but when we looked at it we saw that it was less blended than the More Sugar batch so that may be why it was less bitter.
We concluded that while the More Sugar Blended Batch was the closest to canned cranberry sauce in setting texture, the Less Lemon Juice Blended Batch was the closest in taste. Maybe the solution involves combining the two?
...and a Challenge!
What do you think? Does a combination of more sugar and less lemon juice hold the answer, or is there a different copycat recipe you think will successfully mimic the canned stuff? Spend some time this season being food engineers, and see what solutions you come up with! Tell us all about your engineering escapades in the comments below, or tag us @shoestring_sci on Instagram or Twitter!