Thanksgiving

Our Most Popular Thanksgiving Recipe for 2 Years Running

The untold story behind "Mama's Cranberry Salad."

by:
November  5, 2019
Photo by Bobbi Lin. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

You'd probably think I was yanking your chain if I told you our most popular Thanksgiving recipe the last couple of Novembers wasn't a turkey, or a mashed potato, or even a pie—but a cranberry sauce.

Yep, you heard that right.

In 2017 and 2018, as our traffic numbers show us, the recipe page you all visited the most in the month of November was this beauty by longtime community member Kayb:

Mama's Cranberry Salad, uploaded in 2010, is reminiscent of the American jello salads that pervaded kitchens in the 1960s (though an earlier version called "Perfection Salad" can be cited back to 1904). Whether you serve it as a mold or in a bowl, it's a delicious alternative to canned cranberry sauce.

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Top Comment:
“To date, it is the best cranberry salad ever ; but, I couldn't find the right recipe until now...thanks.”
— Linda D.
Comment

To learn more about the popular recipe, and the "Mama" behind it, I reached out to Kayb via email.

"It goes back at least 60 years," she wrote me, "and I can never remember being without it. My grandmother lived with us, so I don't know if she brought the recipe with her, or if it was something Mama discovered or came up with. I just know it was a constant.

"The best sign the holidays were getting near was when the sausage grinder came in from the smokehouse. It was a massive thing, mounted on a 2x10 board that rested across two kitchen chairs. All the fruit and nuts would go through it into a big dishpan. I would sit astride the board on one chair and Mama on the other to crank. When I got older, I'd take my turn cranking. We'd sit and talk while we ground the fruit, or she would sing ... that's where I learned the lyrics to Roger Miller's 'King of the Road' and Marty Robbins' 'El Paso.'

"Once we got through with the cranberry salad and got it in the refrigerator, we'd wash the grinder and then grind the coconut for fresh coconut cake, more nuts for whatever holiday baking she was doing, and candied fruit for other sweets. She loved to do 'fancy' baking and candy making, oddly enough (because she was a Type 1 diabetic and couldn't eat any of it!)."

It goes back at least 60 years, and I can never remember being without it.
Kayb

And the jello is important here, distinguishing it as a gelatin "salad" versus just a sauce.

"Mama was always quite insistent on raspberry jello," Kayb says. "I used cherry one year when I couldn't find raspberry, and it decidedly tasted different. The raspberry's tartness plays well with the tart elements of the other fruit. Cherry and strawberry are too sweet."

Have you made this recipe before? Let us know in the comments below.
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Eric Kim is the Table for One columnist at Food52. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he is currently working on his first cookbook, to be published by Clarkson Potter in Spring 2022. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can find his bylines at Saveur, Bon Appétit, and The New York Times and follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho. Born and raised in Georgia, Eric lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson.

28 Comments

Elaine W. December 14, 2019
Many years ago, Sunset magazine had a cranberry recipe almost like this. Instead of Jello, it called for a can of crushed pineapple and the addition of a chopped pear.I substituted a tangerine for the orange. It was called cranberry fruit compote and my kids still make it for their families.
 
c December 7, 2019
I have made this twice, once with frozen cranberries and once with fresh cranberries. In both instances, the jello never set up, and it was just runny. I served it after I strained the jello mixture out of it. What am I doing wrong? Or is it supposed to be soupy?
 
Connie K. December 7, 2019
I used 3 of. Of orange jello and 3 of. Of plain just a little less water to compensate the orange juice. And I do not thaw my berries.
 
Connie K. November 26, 2019
I just made this using 2 kinds of apples, walnuts, a bag of frozen cranberries, left whole, they pop when you eat them! 1 orange and zest.
Then I used 1 3oz. Box of orange jello and 3oz. Of plain jello
I was just told best salad ever!
Thank you
Oh and I used lime over the cut up apples...yummy 😋
 
Connie K. November 26, 2019
I think next time I would like to use honey, not sure if it will work... Can you use honey to make jello?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 27, 2019
Hm, interesting. I don't see why not? The sugar isn't stabilizing the gelatin in any way. I imagine it would add a pretty pronounced flavor. But if you like honey, go for it. (And report back!)
 
Beccaone November 25, 2019
Wow! Have been doing c-berry salads since '70. Just found this recipe! Question:. Okay to use frozen instead of fresh c-berries? Just wondered, as "fresh" is listed here.
Thanks!
 
insan_art November 25, 2019
Probably could get away with it.
 
Beccaone November 25, 2019
Thanks!
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 27, 2019
Yeah, I think both are totally fine.
 
insan_art November 23, 2019
My husband's family makes this and we starting making a vegan version of it a few years ago for his cousin! We just use cranberry juice (perhaps a little apple, too, for sweetness) and agar powder for a vegan jello alternative. Still just as yummy!
 
insan_art November 23, 2019
Forgot to add that we use "cranberries" (they are actually lingonberries) that we harvest wild near our home. Sooo much better than store bought.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 27, 2019
Thanks for the tip! A few people have been asking about how to make this vegan. How did you incorporate the agar, and how much? I'm sure many would love to know.
 
insan_art November 27, 2019
Eric, my husband usually handles the agar part since it's his family recipe and he rarely gets to cook.
If you just google how to make vegan jello, there are many recipes. I see folks saying substitute 1:1 and I see others that say don't....so I think you'd just have to experiment to see what works best.
This looks like a nice guide (not sure if you can post links here): https://www.connoisseurusveg.com/vegan-jello/
 
Brad R. November 23, 2019
The cranberries aren’t cooked at all ?
 
JOELLYN P. November 23, 2019
No....its a fresh fruit type salad
 
Mary F. November 27, 2019
I just made it for the first time, and cooked about 1/3 of the whole cranberries in the sugar and water until they popped and it just began to boil, and then added the jello. Seems like it gives a little variety and interesting texture. I tried a little as I was doling it out into a couple of smaller bowls to put in the refrigerator. Loved the way this tastes, and looking forward to serving it tomorrow!
 
meryl November 23, 2019
Yup - my mom made it too and as a grandmother now who’s made some different cranberry relish every year - including gelatin based so I could use her green Tupperware jello mold - sometimes you just have to go with the recipe- (or substitute unflavored gelatin & add right amount is sugar) It’s 🦃day after all - we’ve updated the original Campbell’s mushroom soup green bean casserole- added tater tot stuffing (last year’s CBS Sunday Morning pre Thanksgiving show) - but never replace our original family favs - left over stuffing makes a great breakfast sautéed with eggs!!)
Enjoy!
 
Beverly S. November 21, 2019
You had me till I read "Jello".
 
JOELLYN P. November 23, 2019
Beverly S....I detest Jello brand Jello, it pretty much ruins a healthy, tasty dish. I have made my moms version of this relish for just about 30 years now, but instead of Jello I reduce organic fruit juice...usually cranberry or raspberry...to a thick syrup and add unflavored gelatin. You really need gelatin to "bind" all the juices of the fruit. You should try it, You won't be disappointed!
 
insan_art November 23, 2019
Bev, see my comment above about using agar.
 
Jason P. November 21, 2019
I'm planning on making for Thanksgiving. I assume "large box" means the 6 oz one?
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 21, 2019
Yep, exactly! Or you could use two small 3-ounce boxes.
 
Jason P. November 30, 2019
We’ve tried various cranberry sauces and salsas over the years and have never been thrilled about any of them. This, however, totally loved up to the hype. Even family members who don’t particularly like cranberries or Jello loved this. Just the perfect balance of tart and sweet with a nice crunch from the apple. It’s a refreshing contrast to all the rich and creamy sides on your plate. This will be on our Thanksgiving menu from now on. Thanks!
 
Steph November 18, 2019
I have a question. I’m making this to serve to, I pray, a large crowd. How far in advance can I make it?
 
JOELLYN P. November 23, 2019
Hi Steph... this can be made several days in advance. It is one of those dishes that gets better after sitting a while. I have not made this exact recipe but something very similar with a few added ingredients that makes it a super healthy version. It is from a recipe that my mom made, perfecting it over the years. When she passed it was handed down to me to keep the tradition. I am proud to say that even though I still make it several times a year, my daughter now is making it a part of her Thanksgiving and we are hoping that her daughter, age 17, will someday become interested. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
 
Linda D. November 6, 2019
When I was a little girl, we always had this cranberry salad at Thanksgiving at my Grandma's house. Then when my Mom took over the meal, she too, made the salad when it came my turn, the recipe got lost somehow. To date, it is the best cranberry salad ever ; but, I couldn't find the right recipe until now...thanks.
 
Author Comment
Eric K. November 21, 2019
I’m so glad, Linda. Happy Thanksgiving.