Nothing in the pantry or storage room looks more attractive than a shelf of clear, jewel-like jellies and jams. There’s also the satisfaction that you’ve preserved summer’s fruit in delicious spreads that brighten winter meals, whether a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich or an elegant conserve to go with a holiday ham dinner. Once you learn a few basics, they’re easy and fun to make, and don’t require a pressure canner.
First, let’s get our terms straight!
- Jam is made from chopped or ground whole fruit
- Jelly uses only the extracted juice of the fruit
- Preserves typically contain larger chunks of fruit or even whole fruit as in strawberry or gooseberry preserves
- Conserves are fruits mixed with raisins or nuts
- Marmalades are based on juice and finely-chopped orange or other citrus peel
- Butters are spiced, long-cooked, smooth spreads
Traditional jams, jellies, and preserves require long cooking times and the natural pectin that occurs in some fruits. I warmly recall dark, syrupy preserves of the hard sand pears that grew on our property in Florida. They were heavenly on hot biscuits or with bread and cheese! It seemed to me that Mom cooked those fragrant preserves all day to get them tender and perfect.
Quick-cooking or freezer jams and jellies need added pectin in order to achieve a “gel.” They’re easy to make—just follow a dependable recipe to the letter!
You will need:
- A heavy pot such as a flat-bottomed Dutch oven or the pot of a stainless steel pressure cooker. It’s best not to use aluminum, as the acid in the fruits and lemon juice can react with it, giving a metallic taste to your product and perhaps ruining the pan
- Hot, clean jars—probably pints or smaller—to bottle your product
- A wide-mouth funnel
- Hot, clean, new lids and rings
- Ladles, jar lifters, pot holders, a clean kitchen towel, and (if you like) a candy thermometer
- For jelly: a colander, cheese cloth or jelly bag, and large bowl
- A water-bath canner to properly seal the jars
- Probably bottled lemon juice or vinegar (don’t ignore these; they brighten the color and flavor, help the gel to set, and help preserve the product)
- Sugar (unless you have a sugar-free recipe), which preserves the color of the jam or jelly, enhances the flavor of the fruit, helps the gel set, and gives a glossy sheen to the product
- Fruit. Choose ripe fruit, but not overripe and mushy, for best results. Some cooks feel that jam is what you make from the overripe fruit that can’t be bottled, and that all they need to do is trim off the bad spots—but the truth is that unseen colonies of bacteria have reached deep into the fruit and can cause spoilage on the shelf. Also, overripe fruit has less pectin than slightly-under ripe fruit. A good ratio is 1/3 under ripe fruit to 2/3 ripe fruit to guarantee a good set.
Jelly challenges? We’ve got you covered.
It can be tricky getting jelly to set properly. Some jellies gel at once, while others seem a bit loose but firm up after a few days. If it never gels, use it as a yummy pancake syrup. Put a bow on the lid and give it to friends, letting them think syrup was your objective all along! You could also reheat it, add a little more liquid or powdered pectin, and try again!
Another challenge is keeping jelly clear and jewel-like. Cloudiness in jelly can often be avoided by warming the fruit gently before attempting to strain the juice off, then using several thicknesses of damp cheesecloth or a jelly bag in a colander to filter out pulp. Try to resist the impulse to squeeze or mash the softened fruit very much as that can produce cloudy juice. If it still clouds, don’t stress! It may not be as pretty, but the flavor will not be affected.
If you’re making a jelly without added pectin, such as one including apple juice, there are tests you can apply to see if your hot jelly has reached “gel” stage:
- Watch the bubbles. Tiny bubbles mean you’re not there yet. When they get larger and more numerous, you’re approaching a gel.
- If you’re using a candy thermometer, 220° F is the magic number.
- Or, you can dip a spoon into the jelly and see if it “sheets” together when you drip it from a spoon. When it coats the spoon, and the last two drops merge into one as they drip back into the pot, you’re there!
JAM AND JELLY RECIPES
Traditional-style Apple Jelly
- Wash and stem the apples, but leave the peel and core.
- Cut into chunks and put into a large stockpot. Add enough water to barely cover, bringing to a simmer.
- Cook until tender, about 30 minutes.
- Pour into a dampened jelly bag or a colander lined with dampened cheesecloth (dampening the cloth keeps it from wicking up and holding the apple juice) and allow the juice to drain into a large bowl overnight in the refrigerator. Do not squeeze or press the bag.
- Measure 1 quart of the resulting juice and add it to a large saucepan over high heat. Stir in the sugar and lemon juice. Bring to a full boil that you cannot stir down.
- Continue to boil until the gel stage is reached.
- Remove from heat and quickly transfer to clean, hot jars, as apple jelly sets up fast. Cap and refrigerate or process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes.
- For a boiling water bath, turn off heat and allow jars to rest in water for 5 minutes. Remove jars and set aside for 24 hours, then check seals and store for up to a year.
Nice to do: Add a few fresh mint leaves to the apples as they cook for a delicious mint jelly.
Red Currant Jelly
If you’re fortunate enough to have access to fresh red currants, you can make this beautiful and delectable jelly for your own table and as gifts. For Christmas, consider giving a small jar of this red jelly and a matching one of green pepper jelly with a package of cream cheese and some crackers—delicious!
- Place the currants into a large pot and crush them with a potato masher.
- Pour in 1 cup of water and bring to a boil.
- Simmer for ten minutes, and then strain through a dampened jelly bag or cheesecloth.
- Measure out 5 cups of the juice into a large saucepan and stir in the sugar.
- Bring to a rapid boil over high heat and stir in the liquid pectin. Return to a full rolling boil for 30 seconds.
- Remove from heat and skim foam from the top.
- Ladle into clean hot jars and wipe rims. Cap with new, sterile rings and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Green Pepper Jelly (Paula Deen’s recipe)
- Process bell pepper and hot peppers in a food processor or blender until finely minced.
- Combine pepper mixture, vinegar, and sugar in a saucepan and bring to a rolling boil.
- Remove from heat and add pectin and food coloring.
- Pour into hot, sterilized jars and cap, then process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.
- In a saucepan, combine the rhubarb, sugar, orange zest, orange juice, and water.
- Bring to a boil, and then cook over medium-low heat for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally until thick. (It will thicken more as it cools.)
- Ladle into hot, sterile jars and seal with lids and rings.
- Store in the refrigerator.
Makes 2 pints.
One of the most creative and fun things to do in making jams and jellies is to mix compatible fruits—and most fruits are compatible! Some popular combinations are apricot-pineapple jam, cherry-apple jelly, currant-apple jelly, and apple-grape jelly. If you are mixing fruits without a specific recipe, your safest bet is to be sure that you are using the amounts of pectin and lemon juice called for in the recipes that come in a package of pectin for whichever fruit in your mix requires the largest amount of each. For example, if you’re mixing plums (which are naturally low in pectin) with peaches (which are high in pectin) use the amount of lemon juice and pectin recommended for the plums to be sure of a good set.
Golden Mixed Jam
- Mix the juices, fruits, and sugar in a large, heavy (non-aluminum) saucepan; let stand one hour.
- Bring to a full, rolling boil and boil 1 minute.
- Remove from heat and immediately blend in the pectin. Stir for 5 minutes.
- Ladle into hot sterilized jars and seal.
- Process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.
Makes six half-pint jars of jam.
Cherry-Blueberry-Rhubarb Jam (so good!)
- In a heavy pan, combine rhubarb, blueberries, cherries, lemon juice, and water.
- Cook for 2 minutes. Remove from heat, add pectin, and stir thoroughly.
- Add sugar, stir well, and return to heat. When it reaches boiling, allow to boil for 4 minutes.
- Remove from heat, skim off any foam, and ladle into hot, sterilized jars.
- Cap and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.
Use a variety of hard pear, such as Kiefer, Southern Sand, or Chinese Sand Pears, as they will keep their texture in a preserve and not turn to mush in the cooking process. The ingredients are simple:
- Layer pear pieces and sugar in a heavy pot and allow to sit overnight to release the pear juice.
- Place over medium heat and simmer, stirring often until desired color and consistency is reached. Color can range from pale to dark amber.
- Ladle into hot, sterilized jars and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath to seal.
Strawberry Freezer Jam
- Mix lemon juice into strawberries. Sprinkle pectin over berries and stir well to dissolve.
- Add Karo syrup, stir in.
- Add sugar and mix well until it’s dissolved.
- Ladle into clean jars or plastic freezer containers and fill to within ¾ inch of top.
- Cap, allow to sit on your counter for several hours, and then freeze.
Traditional Cooked Strawberry Jam
- Mix berries and sugar and allow to sit for a while on your counter and then overnight in your refrigerator to allow the fruit to soften and the juices to be drawn out.
- Transfer berries to a large stainless-steel or enameled pot and bring to a boil, crushing and stirring the berries. Add lemon juice and stir well, continuing to cook for about 20 minutes or until the jam reaches the desired consistency.
- Remove from heat and allow jam to sit for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Ladle into hot, sterilized jars, cap, and either refrigerate or process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Jam and jelly-making is as much an art as a science, and with practice, you’ll soon gain confidence in your ability to create colorful and delicious spreads!