Well, summer’s winding down and harvesting the season’s bounty is now well underway.
And what better way to bring the wonderful colors, tastes and fragrances of summer into the darkening months than with homemade jams and jellies?
Few things are more effective at lightening up a dreary winter day by opening the pantry to shelves full of colorful preserves.
And, as it’s harvest time now, this is the time to get organized, and get jamming.
To take advantage of the season, and create the delightful taste and aromas of lovingly crafted, homemade jams and jellies, please read on.
We’re going to:
- Cover the basic skills in the art of jam and jelly making.
- Have a look at the ingredients and equipment needed.
- Go over the different methods for making jams.
- Discuss how to select and prepare fruit.
- Go over the 4 steps for fun and successful jam sessions.
And at the end of the post, there’s four recipes for you to try. One is for a clear jelly, another is a no-pectin-added jam, there’s a sugar-free recipe, and one for a no-cook freezer jam.
Jams, Jellies or Marmalade?
Sweetened spreads such as jam, jelly and marmalade are in a food class of their own and come in a brilliant array of colors, tangy flavors and jellied textures.
The common denominator is that all consist of fruit that’s been preserved primarily with sugar, and have been thickened or jellied to varying degrees.
Jelly is a semi-solid gelatinous mixture of clear fruit juice and sugar, and is firm enough to hold its own shape.
Jam will also hold its shape, but is less firm than jelly. Jam is typically made from a combination of chopped or crushed fruit and sugar.
Jams that have a mix of fruit or berries are referred to as conserves, and may also include citrus fruits, nuts, cranberries, raisins, or coconut.
Marmalades are fruit jellies that have small bits of fruit or citrus peel suspended throughout the colorful, transparent jelly, and will often have a tart tone to their flavor.
Fruit butters are sweetened fruit puree that is processed and cooked with sugar, until it reaches a creamy consistency that’s thick enough to spread with a knife. However, there is a German variety of apple butter which does have more of a smooth, jelly-like consistency.
Preserves consist of of small, whole fruits (cherries, plums, strawberries), or equally sized pieces of fruit in a thick, clear syrup that has a slight gel to it.
Fruit spreads are made from crushed or chopped fruit and usually contain less sugar – and their form is less jelly-like.
Fruit leather is another option at harvest time, a popular and healthy snack in kids’ lunchboxes. A natural or lightly sweetened puree is dried slowly in a low oven or food dehydrator, producing a thin, flexible sheet that somewhat resembles leather.
Fruit cheese is made by cooking and sieving the softened pulp, then cooking the juice with sugar. It’s then potted up in ramekins and the mold is turned out and sliced to serve – perfect on a cheese plate.
Fruit cheeses are usually made with intensely flavored fruits like quince, currants, damson plums, and rose hips.
Liqueurs are made by steeping fruit in alcohol for several weeks. The flavored liquor is then stained, transferred to an aging canister and mixed with sugar. It then needs to rest for 3 or more months before transferring to a serving canister and imbibing.
Syrups and cordials are made from fruit that has been cooked with sugar and citric acid, strained and then bottled up. They’re a lovely, old-fashioned way of preserving summer fruit juices and can be served over ice or diluted with sparkling water, soda water or lemonade for a fruit squash.
For jams and jellies to “set” properly, or achieve the desired texture, they require a precise combination of four ingredients: ripe fruit, acid, pectin, and sugar.
The fruit chosen will provide each spread with its unique color, flavor and fragrance. It will also furnish most, or all, of the liquid necessary (in the forms of water and juice) to dissolve the rest of the ingredients.
The fruit will also supply some or all of the requisite pectin and acid.
For the best color and flavor, fruits that are just ripe should be used. Irregular sizes or shapes can be used if they’re of good quality, as they’ll be cut up or mashed anyway.
Be sure not to use fruit that is overly ripe or rotting.
Pectin is a naturally occurring water soluble fiber found in many fruits and plants, and it will form a gel if mixed with the right combination of acid and sugar.
It’s a natural polymer compound of acids and sugars, and could be considered the glue that holds plant cells together.
All fruit and berries contain some level of pectin. Citrus peel has the highest levels, followed by tart apples, citrus pulp, carrots, cranberries, guavas, loganberries, currants, quince, elderberries, blackberries, Concord and wild grapes, and gooseberries.
Most varieties of plums also contain enough naturally occurring pectin to set a gel on their own.
Other fruits – such as apricots, peaches, pears, strawberries, cherries, most grapes and blueberries – contain only small amounts of pectin.
So, in order to obtain a gel, these fruits will need to be combined with other high pectin fruits, or a commercially produced pectin.
Sure-Jell Premium Fruit Pectin, 1.75-Ounce Boxes (Pack of 8) available on Amazon.
Pectin levels are at their greatest in fruit that is just ripe.
Because fruit that’s fully ripe or overripe will have less pectin, about one quarter of the fruit used for making jams and jellies without any added pectin should be a bit on the green side.
Acid is also of primary importance to proper setting.
If acid levels are too low, the liquid will never set. And, if there’s too much acid, the jelly will “weep” after it’s set, which is an open invitation for bacteria and mold to set in.
The addition of sugar serves a few purposes. It acts as a preserving agent, contributes sweetness to balance tart flavors, and assists in the gelling process.
Replacing sugar with other sweeteners such as honey or corn syrup is one of the leading reasons for gelling failure in home preserving projects.
So, please, for the best chances of success, follow the recipe.
Sugar is essential in the process of gelling. This happens when fruit juices are entangled in an invisible web of fibers, until the target consistency and firmness are achieved.
This only happens when pectin is in contact with sugar and acid – the sugar acts to first attract and then retain the water as gelling happens.
Sugar also provides protection from spoilage of jams, jellies, and preserves after the jar is opened. If processed properly, jams and jellies are free from microorganisms and yeast cells, until the jar’s been opened and exposed to air.
After a jar is opened, the sugar thwarts bacteria through its ability to attract water. It does this via the process of osmosis, pulling water away from the germs and toward the fruit juice.
The bacteria then become dehydrated and compromised, they can’t multiply and spread, and food doesn’t spoil.
Don’t try to replace and adjust the sugar in traditional recipes, as that’s just a problem waiting to happen. You might get lucky and have the batch set, but chances are better that it won’t.
Too little sugar prevents a gel from forming, and contributes to the growth of unfriendlies: yeasts and molds.
So, stick to the recipe or you may find yourself wondering what the heck to do with 14 jars of “kind of thick,” sweet juice…
Low Sugar Jams and Jellies
Low sugar jellies and jams are made with a low calorie sweetener rather than sugar, and will usually require a modified pectin to set.
They’re also commonly made with more fruit pulp and less natural juices, which are often quite sugar dense.
In texture, they’re closer to that of a fruit spread than a jam, and flavors may not have quite the clarity of top notes that sugar brings out.
But, for anyone with dietary restrictions or if you’re just counting calories, low sugar spreads offer a delicious, sweet treat without the guilt.
If you plan on trying a batch of low sugar spreads, look for a modified pectin that will gel with one-third less sugar (such as Pomonas Universal Pectin), and follow recipe directions for specific amounts of acid, fruit and processing time to ensure the best results.
While sugar helps significantly to preserve spreads, it’s still possible for mold and bacteria to grow on the surface of some jars.
Because of the common occurrence of contamination, paraffin or wax seals are no longer recommended for sealing jams and jellies.
To minimize chances of mold growth, hot jam, jelly and marmalade should be ladled into hot, sterile jars, leaving 1/4″ of headroom.
A Note on Canning Jars
Older jars (i.e. 30 years or so) that contained factory foods are okay to can with, but newer jars that were originally sold containing pre-packed food are much too thin. You’ll want canning jars – either new or old – for optimal results.
Rims and threads need to be wiped clean with a damp, sterile cloth. Jars should be sealed with a new, unused, self-sealing lid and band, then processed for 5 minutes in a boiling water bath.
A Tale of Two Methods
There are two standard methods of making sweetened preserves.
The first, which requires no additional pectin, works only with fruits that have naturally high levels of pectin. This process also requires cooking the fruit and sugar for a longer time in order for it to release the pectin and bring about a proper set.
The other method does require the addition of extra pectin, usually commercially prepared in liquid or powdered form, and is a much quicker process.
The amount of gelling that occurs from various pectin sources will vary considerably. To ensure that your products achieve a uniform gel, be sure to add the precise quantities of pectin, fruit and sugar that each recipe calls for.
For either method, rather than doubling up batches, it’s better to make one batch at a time as per recipe directions.
Sterilizing jars and preparing the fruit can be done for a double batch, but cooking the fruit and processing the jars should be done in single batches.
Why? Because increasing quantities means a longer cooking time, which often results in soft gels – this happens when the pectin breaks down from overcooking, and prevents proper setting.
Another point to remember is that recipes have been developed to hold their set within specific jar sizes. Jams and jellies that are poured into larger jars may result in soft, runny results.
Follow the Recipe
It’s a mantra worth repeating when it comes to preserves, be they sweet or sour:
“Follow the recipe. Follow the recipe. Follow the recipe…”
You can wing it and add a dash of this or a splash of that in other cooking endeavors, but for jams, jellies, pickles or relish, follow the recipe. This is for food safety as well as ensuring the best flavor, set and texture.
Selecting the Fruit, Preparation, and Extracting Juice
Select the best fruit for the job. Approximately one-quarter of your fruit should be slightly under ripe and the remaining three-quarters should be fruit that’s just ripened.
Measure and prepare the fruit in small batches, portioning out enough for one recipe at a time. Discard any overripe, bruised or damaged pieces.
Wash and drain the fruit, but don’t remove skins or cores, as pectin is more concentrated in these areas. Cut into small pieces.
Pick clean and wash berries carefully to prevent juice loss. Drain, then remove any remaining caps or stems.
Add the prepared fruit to a large saucepan with a wide, flat bottom and add cold water.
Foodal recommends “175 Best Jams, Jellies, Marmalades and Other Soft Spreads”
For apples, pears, plums, peaches and other hard fruits, 1 cup of water per pound of fruit is a good rule of thumb. For soft fruit like berries and grapes, use just enough water to prevent scorching.
Mash or crush any soft fruit and bring to a boil on high heat, stirring to prevent scorching. For soft and hard fruit, once boiling, reduce heat but maintain a low boil and stir frequently to prevent sticking.
Soft fruits will need only 10 minutes or less to soften, while hard fruits may need up to 20 or 25 minutes, depending on their texture. Follow the recipe, as overcooking will damage flavor and color as well as the pectin.
Pour the fruit slurry into a damp jelly bag and suspend the bag to drain the juice. For the best clarity, juice should drip freely through the jelly bag without pressing or squeezing.
If using a fruit press or sieve and pestle to extract the juice, it should be restrained through a jelly bag to clarify and prevent cloudiness.
Jam and Jelly Making Tips
• For the best set, use fruit that is fresh and slightly under ripe. The ideal proportions are one-quarter under-ripe fruit to three-quarters ripe fruit.
• Soft berries such as strawberries, raspberries and blackberries will have a fuller flavor if first layered with the amount of sugar called for in the recipe, then left for a couple of hours before cooking.
• Hard berries and hard fruit such as currants, gooseberries, blueberries, cherries, and plums should be lightly poached to release the juice before sugar is added.
• As mentioned above, pectin is crucial to making your jam set. You can help out low-pectin fruits like strawberries by adding pectin-rich fruits like gooseberries, or by using a commercially produced jam sugar that has added pectin and citric acid.
• To prevent overcooking, watch for your jam to reach the set point. The initial fast, active boil will slow to a more relaxed boil, the surface will take on a glossy appearance, and the mix will feel thicker. It’s better to undercook rather than overcooking, as a runny batch can be cooked up again.
• To remove foam (trapped air) at the end of your processing time, stir rapidly in the same direction until the bubbles break down. A pat of butter added to the fruit will also help to reduce foam.
• To speed up the flow of juice being strained, place a water-filled jar on top of the fruit pulp. But, make sure to restrain the juice through cheesecloth to clarify before processing.
4 Steps for Making Jam and Jelly
1. Wash half-pint or pint-sized canning jars in hot, soapy water and rinse well.
If the recipe you’re using calls for jars to be sterilized, do so by submerging them for 10 minutes in boiling water.
To save time and energy, use your hot water canner (read our guide here)– stand the empty jars upright on the rack for your canner and fill with boiling water to one to two inches above the jar tops.
Adjust the heat to maintain a low boil. When finished, empty the jars back into the canner, then invert onto a clean tea towel.
Leave the hot water in the canner for processing the jars later, and keep the heat on low to keep the water hot.
Put the lids and bands in a pot, cover with water and bring just to a boil, keeping the water at just a hint of a simmer until ready to use. Or, prepare two-piece canning lids as per the manufacturer’s instructions.
2. Prepare jam and jelly ingredients according to recipe directions. Cook as per the recipe directions, and skim any foam from the top if needed.
Quickly fill the clean, warm and sterilized jars quickly with the hot fruit or jelly mixture, leaving 1/4” of headspace.
3. Wipe the rims and threads with a damp, clean cloth or a clean, damp paper towel. Set lids and bands in place, working quickly to keep the ingredients as hot as possible until ready for processing.
But please remember, you’re working with a very hot liquid – take all necessary safety precautions so as not to burn yourself.
Load the sealed jars into the canner, keeping them upright and use a jar lifter if needed.
4. When all the jars are loaded, the water level in the canner should be one to two inches above the tops of the jars. Turn the heat to high, cover and bring to a vigorous boil.
Begin the processing time after the water has begun to boil.
As the canning water needs to stay at a boil for the entire processing time, keep the heat on high and the lid tightly on the pot.
When jars have been processed for the recommended time, turn off the heat and remove the lid. Wait five minutes, then remove jars with a jar lifter. Carefully place them on a clean tea towel or cooling rack, and leave an inch of air space between the jars.
Allow jars to cool in an upright position for 12 to 24 hours. As a seal forms, the center of the lid is drawn down and you may (or may not) hear a “popping” sound. Don’t tighten the bands or push the lids down at the center, and allow the jars to rest undisturbed while setting.
And that’s the skinny on how to make your own jams and jellies in four simple steps. Simple but a bit time consuming, so make sure you give yourself enough uninterrupted time to finish.
And I know you’ve heard it before, but it’s important, so don’t forget – follow the recipe!
Foodal recommends “Jam On: The Craft of Canning Fruit”
To get you started, here are four recipes to ward off winter and stock the pantry with. And remember, homemade jams and jellies are popular, so make lots – they make a great gift for the holidays, or any time of year.
Old Fashioned Blackberry Jelly
Of all the wonderful aromas that came out the family kitchen at harvest time, the fragrance of Mum’s blackberry jelly was my favorite.
Heady, fragrant and with its intense, deep purple color, it seemed to be an elixir of the kitchen gods… and the taste of this simple recipe is equally delicious.
A good way to use up any type of plums, the pectin found in the skins will set this jam nicely without having to use additional pectin. Jams and jellies that don’t require additional pectin should reach a temperature of 220°F when cooking, in order to ensure a good set.
Sweet and tart, this jam is always a favorite on toast, with bagels, or as a condiment for pork and poultry.
Honey Blueberry Jam
A tasty low-cal alternative to traditional blueberry jam, this one uses raw honey for its sweetness.
Goes very nicely on crackers with soft goat cheese and a sprinkle of pecans or walnut pieces.
Strawberry Freezer Jam
The ultimate in easy, no-cook jams, this strawberry freezer version is also delicious – you’ll never want to buy commercial strawberry spread again. Wonderful on toast or crackers with cream cheese or soft goat cheese.
This jam can be kept in the fridge for up to 3 weeks, or in the freezer for one year. Allow jam to thaw in the fridge before using.
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.