Making jams and jelly are a great way to preserve your fruits and prolong the flavor of the harvest. Jams and jellies are great for the home canner because of their high sugar and acid content. This means that they can be sealed using a hot water bath in a canning pot without a lot of concern for bacteria growth.
Jam and jelly can be a bit pickier than canning pickles and other vegetables. You have to think about things like the pectin content of the fruit, how much sugar needs to be added and if the jelly will set once it is cool. If you have a good recipe, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about these things but there are some things that you can do to give you a better chance at producing the best jar every time you can.
1. Use Undamaged Fruit
In order for your jelly to set, you must have the right amounts and concentrations of acid, pectin and sugar. As fruits ripen, they lose their acidity and pectin. Using over ripe fruits or fruits with soft or wet spots produces a jelly that will not set properly. Damaged and over ripe fruits increases the chances of mold in the final product and the jam or jelly will deteriorate more rapidly than jelly made with fruit at it’s peak. The acid content gives your jelly its bright color and also cuts the sweetness. Using over ripe fruit will result in a dull jelly that tastes more like sugar than the fruit that went into it and tasting the fruit is the ultimate goal here.
2. Use Only Non-reactive Pans for Preserving
A lot of the introductory pots that are on the market are aluminum or unlined copper. These pots are called reactive and when used in preserving foods will give off a metal taste in the food your are preserving. There is something about the acid and sugars in the fruits that reacts (hence the reactive nomenclature) with the metal. I’m not a scientist, but I know that isn’t good. If you want to avoid the metal taste use non-reactive pans for preserving. Stainless steel is great and easy to take care of while copper requires a bit more experience. Visions cookware is a glass based pot for use on the stove top that is non-reactive and may be a more inexpensive alternative to copper and stainless.
3. Don’t Double the Recipe
Canning is a lot of hard, repetitive work. You clean and chop and measure and boil. Then you can and seal and boil again. It is only natural to want to cut down on the amount of time you spend in the hot, humid kitchen slaving over a cutting board and stirring pans full of sugary fruit slush. But, no matter how big your pile of grapes or how many jars of blackberry jam you are going to make, DO NOT double your recipe. Sure, doubling or even tripling your jelly recipe would save you time and get you done a lot faster. It also requires longer cooking times for the fruits. The longer cooking times mean your fruit could overcook and disintegrate. That would lead to a lot of wasted time and wasted food. In the long run, it is better to keep your batches small for the prefect jar of jam or jelly.
4. Use Clean Sterilized Jars and Lids
This should really go without saying, but you would be surprised by the number of people who feel that the hot liquid will do a good enough job of sterilizing the jars. Wrong. Every precaution must be taken to kill all of the microscopic little beasties that are out there just waiting to destroy all of your hard work. There are a few ways you can sterilize your jars prior to canning.
- Pop them into a 350º oven for 10 to 15 minutes prior to filling. The heat will be enough to kill any tiny bad guys living on the inside of the jars.
- Wash your jars with hot soapy water and submerge them in a pot of boiling water for 15 minutes. Remove and place upside down in a warm oven until ready to use.
- Run your jars through the dishwasher on the sanitize cycle. Run them through by themselves(You don’t want last night’s dinner dishes in there). Leave them in the dishwasher until ready to use.
5. Keep Paper Towels Close at Hand
Canning can get messy. There will be spills and slops. If you haven’t realized by now from this article of other articles on the site, one of the big enemies of canning is bacteria. So as you are using your funnel pour your molten fruit slurry into it’s home for the next several months and you spill some down the side of the jar, reach for a paper towel to clean it up. Dish towels and kitchen sponges (gag!) are amusement parks for germs and bacteria. Keep them as far away from your canning process as humanly possible. Throw that paper towel away when you are done, too. Once it has touched the counter, it can become contaminated. They don’t cost that much and can keep you from getting sick in the future.
6. Have all of your Utensils Within Easy Reach
Successful canning depends a lot on timing. Before you start make a list of the tools you will need during the process like a canning funnel, jar lifter, lid lifter, knife, etc. and gather all of them in one place. This will serve two purposes. First, when it’s time to pour the jell into the jars, you won’t risk over cooking by having to find your funnel or spatula. Second, You are working with a lot of hot liquids. Great big pots of boiling water, bubbling vats of sticky syrup, and jars of lava like jelly are just waiting to get knocked over and burn you. The less movement the better from a safety standpoint.
7. Blanch Sour or Bitter Fruits
I have talked about blanching vegetables in another article on prolongtheharvest.com. But there are some vegetables that should be blanched prior to using them in jellies or jams. Some melons, berries and citrus fruits are extremely bitter. Blanching the fruit first, will draw some of that bitterness out while still preserving the fresh taste of the fruit itself. Sure, you will be adding sugar to it, too, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Blanching is a simple process that involves immersing fruits or vegetables in boiling water for several minutes.
8. Add a Second Fruit to Offset Intensely Sweet Fruits
Sometimes fruit is really sweet and you aren’t looking for such a sweet jelly or jam. Don’t get me wrong, strawberry jam is great. There is nothing better than one of my mom’s home cooked rolls with a slathering of peanut butter and a big dollop of strawberry jam. But, sometimes that is too much sweet. By adding another fruit, something sour like maybe…rhubarb, you have toned down the overpowering sweetness while maintaining the taste of the strawberries and added another layer to the flavor of your jam.
9. Allow Jam to Settle Off of the Heat
Pouring your jam directly from the flame into your jars will cause your fruits to separate and float to the top resulting in an uneven jam. To remedy this, remove your jam pot from the heat and allow it to sit and cool for 15 minutes before filling the jars. This will give you an even distribution of fruit throughout your jam.
10. Test for Setting
You have been cooking your jelly for a while now and you aren’t sure if it is going to set once you put it in the jar. Here is a quick test to see if it is ready to can. Spoon out a tablespoon of your mixture onto a flat desert plate. Place the plate in the refrigerator. After 5 minutes push at the edges to check for set. If the jelly is set, it will “crinkle” up. If it isn’t set, continue the testing process every five minutes until it is set. You should start testing at the time your recipe calls for.
11. Use Butter to Prevent Scum
A lot of time when making jams and jellies, you will get a bubbly froth or scum that forms on the top of your liquid or in your jars. You can always skim this scum off or you can stop it before it starts. Simply add a tablespoon of butter (or margarine or vegetable oil) to your fruit while cooking. The oils will keep the froth down.
If you forget to add the butter, scrape the froth off of the jell with a ladle or large spoon. Place the scum in a bowl and put it in the microwave for two minutes. It will turn back into jelly. You can put the bowl in the refrigerator and use it fresh on your morning toast.
12. Know your Sugars
Not all sugars are created equal when it comes to making jelly, jam, and preserves. These sugars are all different and should never be mixed due to the different crystal sizes and melting points. The three most common sugars you will see are:
Superfine – Do not confuse superfine sugar with powdered or confectioner’s sugar. They are not the same. Superfine sugar has a consistency somewhere between regular granulated sugar and powdered sugar. It is a bit more expensive than granulated sugar, but don’t fear, you can make your own superfine sugar. To make 1 cup of superfine sugar, place 1 cup and 2 Tbs of regular sugar into a blender and run for 30 seconds. This will break up the crystals and allow the sugar to dissolve more rapidly. Superfine sugar is also known as castor sugar.
Preserving sugar – This sugar has larger crystals that dissolve more slowly. Preserving sugar is used in jams, marmalade and preserves where the fruit has a naturally high pectin level. Because the sugar dissolves slower than regular sugar, there is less chance of burning, less need to stir, and less froth on the jams.
Jam Sugar – AKA Gelling Sugar or Jelly sugar is a sugar used to make jams, jellies and preserves where the pectin level in the fruit is low. Jam sugar has pectin added to aid in the setting process and sometimes citric acid for a preservative.
13. Make Your Jam and Jelly on a Dry Day.
This little tip goes back some years. It was probably more relevant before central heat and air came into common use, but can still be a factor. When making Jelly and jam, your mixture can absorb extra moisture from the air. This extra moisture can cause your product not to set. Chances are, that making jell in this day and age if your jelly doesn’t set, there is another reason. But, if you have meticulously ruled out every other possibility. You have followed your recipe to the tee. You used the right amount of sugar and pectin. Then maybe, just maybe, you need to wait for a drier day.
I hope you have found these tips useful. If you have other tips for canning jelly, jam. Marmalade, and preserves, please feel free to share them in the comments section below. I would love to hear from you about what works in your kitchen.