Autumn is coming and I feel it’s great season for making jam! 😀 The Thane Prince’s cookbook was recommended by a foodie friend to me last winter. This chapter is purely about making jams, jellies and sweet preserves, from choosing ingredients, equipment, cooking the jam, to potting, labeling and storing. 🙂
My passion for jam-making started young. With legs still scratched and bleeding from picking raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries, I would pick over the fruit and then help my mother turn it into jars of jewel-bright jams and jellies with which to fill our larder shelves.
We were making a virtue out of a necessity in those far-off post-war years, and you might wonder whether, in these days of farmers’ markets, small producers and high-end delis, making your own jam is still worthwhile.
I would say an emphatic yes. Home-made preserves such as jams, jellies, curds and preserved fruit are more than special – they taste delicious, give a wonderful sense of satisfaction, they are a link with everyone in years past who ever gleaned and preserved food, and they will amaze and delight your family.
There are a few simple rules and techniques that will help get you off to a good start.
Only make jams with top-quality fruit. This rule really applies to all preserving, but with jam it is especially important. Fruit is at its peak in flavour when just ripe, but many fruits lose acidity when overripe, and it’s the correct balance of acidity, sugar and pectin that allows you to achieve a good, easy set. It really doesn’t matter where you get your fruit from, whether garden, allotment, farmers’ market or supermarket. Just look for firm ripe berries, stone fruit that are highly scented but unbruised, and fresh juicy citrus. One thing to avoid at all costs is fruit marked ‘berries for jam’. These will usually be a mix of hard unripe or bruised overripe berries, neither of which make good jam.
Most fruits are good for jam-making once you have understood the process. The idea is simply to cook fruit and sugar together for the shortest possible time to achieve a set. The boiling process eliminates much of the water found naturally in the fruit, and this allows the sugar to act successfully as a preservative. Obviously, fruit with a high water content will need longer boiling than more condensed fruits.
Another point to consider is how the fruit cooks. Apples will need a longer time to break down than, say, raspberries, so a little extra simmering is needed. Small hard-skinned berries, currants, blueberries and cranberries, for example, need cooking until tender before any sugar is added.
Once you have bought your fruit, you need to prepare it. I prefer not to wash berries unless they are very dusty. If you do need to rinse, then allow them to drain on a clean tea towel (dish towel).
I peel stone fruit, such as peaches and apricots, before I use them. To do this, drop the whole fruit into boiling water for a few minutes before removing and slipping off their skins. Then halve to remove the stones and chop the flesh into an appropriate size. Apples and pears will need peeling and coring in the usual fashion. I have recently been using tropical fruit to make preserves, and these I prepare as I would if I were going to eat them fresh.
I like to cut large fruit into cubes of about 1cm/½in. This size I find works well in the finished preserve, giving good-sized chunks on toast or as a cake filling.
The standard recipe for jam is that you use 450g/1lb/2¼ cups of sugar for each 450g/1lb/3 cups fruit. For jellies, the proportions are 450g/1lb/2⅓ cups of sugar to every 600ml/1 pint/2 cups of juice.
The Magic Ingredients for Setting
The ‘set’ in jams and jellies is brought about by getting three things in the right proportions: acidity, sugar and pectin.
I have found that almost any white sugar works well when making preserves. There are three main types.
Granulated sugar: This medium crystal sugar can be processed from either cane or beet and is the least costly to use. Golden granulated is made from raw cane sugar and, whilst it has a lovely flavor, I find it too strong for jam-making (although it is good for marmalades).
Caster (superfine) sugar This is a fine crystal sugar. Again it can be made either from cane or beet, but is more costly than granulated sugar. It, too, can be made from raw cane sugar, and the same flavor consideration applies.
Preserving sugar This very large crystal sugar, as its name suggests, is sold for jam- and preserve-making. It dissolves easily and is said to reduce scum forming on the jam during the cooking process. Preserving sugar is the most costly of the options and, in practice, I find it an unnecessary expense. I have used granulated sugar for all the preserves in this book with no problems.
‘Sugar for jam’ The final sugar option is a mix of sugar and pectin which allows an easy set. I tend not to use this sugar, as, once you understand jam-making it’s better to add your own pectin if needed in the correct quantity. I sometimes use it, though, when making marmalade with sweet oranges.
Pectin is the wünderkind of jam-making, for it is really pectin that makes jam set. When combined in the correct ratio with sugar and acid, pectin forms a gel that goes firm when cold.
Many fruits are naturally high in pectin: apples, plums, gooseberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants and quince are the most common. Citrus fruit are high in both acid and pectin, so are very useful in the jam-making process, particularly marmalades. Fruits low in pectin include berries like strawberries, blueberries and blackberries. Stone fruit, including apricots, peaches and cherries and most tropical fruit except guava, are also low in pectin.
As pectin is essential to achieve the set, it must be added to jams when necessary, so you may need to use a commercial brand of prepared pectin. This comes in two forms: either as a powder or a liquid. Both come with full instructions and should be used accordingly. Pectin is available in most supermarkets.
You can, of course, combine low- and high-pectin fruits such as blackberry and apple, gooseberries and strawberries or redcurrants and blueberries to give a good result.
The third part of the trinity is acidity. It is not always necessary to add extra acidity to jams and jellies. For instance, when using very tart fruit like gooseberries, no extra acidity needs to be added. A simple rule is to taste the fruit, and if it is as sharp as lemon juice, no extra needs adding.
As you can imagine, most fruits do need extra acidity, and this is usually added as lemon juice. An alternative I now use is citric acid, which is easily obtained at food grade and is simple to use. A general rule is that a level tablespoon of citric acid powder gives the same acidity as the juice of one lemon. While some chemists do stock citric acid, I usually buy it from shops which specialize in home brewing. If there is not one near you, the Internet has a host to choose from.
As a footnote, you can make excellent wine jellies, using sugar, acid and pectin. The usual proportions are (for each bottle of wine) 750g/1lb 10oz/2½ cups sugar, juice of 2 lemons, and 1 sachet powdered or 150ml/5fl oz liquid pectin.
Reference: Thane Prince (2015). Pickles, Preserves and Cures: Recipes for the Modern Kitchen Larder. London, UK: Pavilion Books.