Key Ingredients for Great Homemade Jam and Jelly

Key ingredients for successful homemade jam or jelly -

11 Sep Key Ingredients for Great Homemade Jam and Jelly

Key ingredients for successful homemade jam or jelly -

So, now that you have all the preserving equipment at hand, what goes into a delicious, properly set — and safe — batch of  jam or jelly? Other than a recipe written and tested post-1989? Not all that much. You actually require more equipment than ingredients and more patience than skill.

Keys Ingredients for Homemade Jam and Jelly

Top-Quality Fruit: Old fruit or “seconds” aren’t a good choice for jam. Old fruit has less pectin, a thickening agent that occurs naturally in fruit. While a couple of dents, and bruises are okay, you don’t want to use rotting or moldy fruit. The spores have likely worked their invisible way through the fruit and won’t necessarily be killed during the canning. For the best jam, pick the best fruit. Since under-ripe fruit has the most pectin, if possible, use about 1/3 slightly under-ripe fruit and good-quality ripe (not over-ripe) for the remaining 2/3. This will give excellent texture without sacrificing taste.

Sugar: Obviously, sugar adds sweetness to the jam, but it does far more than that. It helps set the jam, increases the shelf life once the jar is opened, aids in preserving colour and contributes to the final texture. Not bad for one simple ingredient.

Acid: Without getting too scientific, the pH level plays a role in food safety. Acid, usually in the form of bottled lemon juice (or vinegar for pickles) is essential. Don’t skip it. Most jam recipes call for bottled lemon juice since it’s manufactured to be consistent. Unlike fresh juice, its acidity level won’t vary.  To recap (because the food snob in me resists): Use bottled for preserves. Save the fresh lemon for other cooking.

I know what you’re thinking. That’s it? What about pectin? Should I use liquid, powdered or make my own? When it comes to jam, added pectin isn’t always necessary. Jelly requires it since it’s made with juice and not the pulp. But when it comes to jam, whether or not pectin is on the ingredient list depends on how you cook the jam.

Long-Cook versus Quick-Cook Jam

Long-Cook Jam does not require added pectin, even with low-pectin fruit. As the name indicates, long cook jams aren’t to be rushed. Cooking times vary but you can expect to spend anywhere from 40 minutes to 2 hours standing at the stove stirring. All this time spend bubbling away concentrates the flavours and caramelizes the sugars (both natural and added). As a result, long-cook jams taste more like the roasted fruit than  fresh. Whether this is desirable is a matter of taste. Visually, long-cook jams are darker than their quick-cook, pectin-added counterpart. And when you spread them? They have a tender, almost silky texture. On the plus side, they require less sugar than jams with added pectin. On the down side, you don’t get as many jars per pound because the water has been cooked out.

Quick-Cook Jams require far less time on the stove and produce a preserve that’s more fruity than caramelized. They’re brighter in colour than long-cook jams and produce more jars of jam per pound of fruit. However, they require pectin to set. And pectin can mean you need to increase the sugar. Some “light” pectins allows you to reduce the amount of sugar, but don’t swap pectins willy-nilly. They’re very specific and you could wind up with runny or gummy jam. If low-sugar or sugar-substitute versions appeals to you, follow the recipe on the box.

So, which is better? It’s apples and oranges. Or strawberries. Or blueberries. Each has its virtues and limitations. Which do you prefer? Long- or quick-cook jam? Got any jam-related questions? Leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer it during this week’s series.

Up next: Sterilizing and Processing Jars

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