Jam making technique

Jam and Jelly Making Tips

There are a number of reasons why people contemplate making jam. Often it is forced upon them by a vast quantity of fruit with no other obvious use. This may be the result of growing soft fruit at home or from a day trip to a pick-your-own farm. The idea pops into people’s heads quite readily as it is an obvious solution and a tried and tested way to preserve fruit for long periods in a way that is still appealing to eat. However, not everyone who has had this gem of an idea will then go ahead and make the jam. Firstly, they may not know how to make the jam and just the thought of having to find out could be enough to stop the process before it has started. Secondly, they may know how to make jam (or have found out) and realise that they do not have
the time, equipment, skill or another necessary component to see it through. However, if all these obstacles are overcome and the jam is made, then the maker will feel a huge sense of achievement and will have a useful product to show for their efforts rather than a depressing pile of rapidly decaying fruit.

I have been making jam for a number of years now and here I present my tips for the equipment you will need, an explanation as to why each step of the jam making process is necessary and a collection of recipes for the jams I make on an annual basis. Please read the first section of this book before trying the recipes as the information it contains will help you greatly.

Equipment and Technique

Preserving pan
It is essential that you get yourself a preserving pan to make jam in. You may think that any old large saucepan will do but even large saucepans are not big enough to accommodate jam when it is boiling vigorously. My first experience of making jam was in what I thought was a large pan. I set the jam
to boil then went to water some plants on my windowsill and when I looked back sticky red liquid was gushing onto my cooker hob. It looked like someone had been murdered! Preserving pans have a huge capacity and are very useful for jam making, chutneys, sauces and soups and just boiling up large quantities of
vegetables in one go. Check to see whether a relative such as your mother or grandmother has one that they no longer use. Failing that, you can buy them from a variety of places such as ironmongers, large department stores (e.g. John Lewis), or mail order catalogues (e.g. Lakeland Limited). Remember: the sooner you wash up the preserving pan, the easier it is!

Pectin is a substance found naturally in fruit and it is the stuff that makes the jam set. Some fruits are low in pectin (e.g. strawberries), some have medium pectin content (e.g. plums) and others are high in pectin (e.g. currants and gooseberries). Making jam with high pectin fruit is easy and it becomes progressively more difficult the lower the pectin. High pectin fruit will need to be boiled with water, whilst low pectin fruit will require no water to be added. High pectin fruit requires different ratios of fruit to sugar than low pectin fruit, and low pectin fruit will often require the addition of acid, such as lemon juice, to help extract the pectin, particularly if the fruit is itself low in acid. Low pectin fruits will take longer to reach their setting point than high pectin fruit. Don’t worry about all this because the recipes in this book have the quantities and ratios worked out for you. Not only do the recipes provide you with quantities suitable for making reasonable amounts of jam, but also the ratio of fruit to other ingredients is given so that you can adjust the recipes to suit the quantity of fruit you have harvested.

By following these recipes you should never have to buy pectin to add to your jams to make them set. Should you need additional pectin you can make your own by boiling up apple cores and peelings in water for an hour or so. After straining the bits out of this liquid you can test the quality of the pectin you have extracted by putting a teaspoon of the liquid in a cup and adding 3 tablespoons of methylated spirits or rubbing alcohol to it. If after a few minutes a jellified ball has formed then you have successfully extracted pectin from the apples. This can be frozen in ice-cube trays and added to low pectin fruit jam before adding the sugar.

Low pectin fruit include: dessert cherries, rhubarb, pears and strawberries.

Medium pectin fruit include: apricots, blackberries, raspberries, tayberries, loganberries and

High pectin fruit include: apples, plums, currants, damsons, cranberries and green gooseberries.

Although damaged fruit is fine to use, do discard any mouldy or overripe fruit. In general pectin levels decrease as the fruit ripens so over ripe fruit makes a poor jam. A combination of under ripe and ripe fruit is ideal for flavour and setting ability. It is not usually necessary to wash fruit, although you may wish to,  particularly if it has been sprayed with chemicals. However, ensure that the fruit is dry when it is weighed so
that the water does not affect the recipe. Fruit that has been previously frozen is perfectly fine for use in jam making and in some cases seems to make a better jam. If you plan to freeze fresh fruit for a while before turning it into jam ensure that you prepare the fruit into the condition you would normally use it in the jam before freezing it.

For example, remove stalks etc. from currants, remove the stones from stone fruit, and/or chop the fruit to the correct size. Once fruit has thawed it goes mushy and trying to prepare it properly at this stage is much harder. When using frozen fruit, it is normal to defrost it first but it is worth noting that no matter how perfectly sealed the freezer bag appears to be, as inevitable as helium leaking from a balloon, juices will seep from the bag so place it in a clean container to thaw or even in the preserving pan itself. Note that apples and some plums (such as Victoria) can brown during the thawing process, which results in a brown jam. Although the flavour remains the same the appearance is compromised. These fruits should either be used fresh or slowly heated from frozen.

It is important to heat fruit gently to remove as much pectin as possible from it. Always simmer the fruit until tender before adding the sugar because it will not soften further once the sugar is added.

Granulated or caster sugar is the most commonly used sugar. You may see so called jam sugars in some shops. These have pectin added to them and really aren’t necessary – ordinary sugar will do. Equally, preserving sugar is simply designed to dissolve well but isn’t necessary if you follow the recipes correctly. It greatly helps the sugar to dissolve if it is warmed in the oven first at 50 to 100°C.

Once it is added to the fruit it is absolutely essential to make sure that all the sugar is dissolved before bringing it to the boil. Scrape your spoon along the sides and bottom of the pan checking for any grittiness that tells you it is still not fully dissolved. If you don’t take the time and trouble to do this then the sugar will burn and stick to the bottom of your pan and your jam will be tainted.

Setting point
There are a number of ways to know when a jam has reached its setting point and it is usually worth doing more than one test to be sure. Firstly, if you have a jam thermometer then jam reaches its setting point at 104°C, 220 °F. Secondly, when you start the jam boiling, place a saucer in the freezer to make it cold. When you think the jam is set, put a small teaspoon of jam on the saucer, wait for a moment for it to cool then push it with your fingernail. If the jam surface wrinkles then the jam is set. With experience you will also notice a definite change in the appearance of the bubbling jam once it has reached setting point. Once it has reached this point, remove it from the heat. If you make a mistake and bottle a jam that hasn’t properly set, all is not lost. The jam can be emptied from the jars and brought back to a rolling boil until the setting point is reached. This is, of course, a bit of an inconvenience that leads to additional washing up so it is worth avoiding it if you can!

Warmed jars
Once you remove the sugar from the oven, put your jars in (without lids) to warm. There are a few reasons why you need warm jars to pour jam into. Firstly, pouring hot jam into cold jars could cause them to crack, secondly, once the lid is on and the jam cools down a very good seal is made, and thirdly, heating the jars kills any spores that might be lurking on them.

Transferring to jars
The easiest and safest way to transfer hot jam into hot jars is to use a ladle and a jam funnel. Jam funnels are like ordinary funnels with the bottom spout cut off to give a wider neck for chucks of fruit to fit through. They can be purchased from the same sort of places that supply preserving pans and are useful whenever you are transferring things into jars. Because the jam is hot, this is the most dangerous part of the process. Do not attempt to tip the jam from the pan into the jars. It is also worthwhile wearing appropriate shoes and an apron so as to avoid scolds from any minor spillages. Always handle the pan and the jars with oven gloves.

You can buy special jars for jams and preserves and some people like to seal jars with waxed disks and plastic films. However, I feel this is unnecessary. Instead, if the jam is just for personal use then I save jam and honey jars and ask my friends and family to do the same (perhaps in return for filled jars once the jam is made!). It is important to wash them thoroughly, in a dishwasher if you have one or in very hot (boiling, even) water. They should also be thoroughly dry and dust free when you come to use them. When I want a more professional appearance and if I want to sell my jams then I buy brand new jars. There are many online companies that sell jars.

Where the number of jars is indicated in a recipe, this is assuming the use of conventional 1 pound (454
g) jars. However, it is useful to have a variety of different sized jars because jam never comes out in exact quantities and the odd small jar will help you save every last drop of jam as well as provide a useful “sampler” jar. However, you can decant jam into pretty much any container if you intend to use it up quickly, so sometimes my last blobs of jam go into a plastic food tub. A rough rule of thumb with jam recipes is that you will make roughly the same number of pounds of jam as the pounds of fruit you have used – weirdly, the reduction of fruit during cooking and the addition of sugar seem to balance out.

Jelly making
Please read the jam making section as well because everything in there applies to jelly making too. However there are some extra points about jelly making as follows.

Jelly bags
If you intend to make a lot of jelly then it may well be worth investing in a jelly bag. These can be bought in the same places as other preserving equipment. At its most basic level, all a jelly bag comprises is a fine mesh with a mechanism for suspending it over a bowl overnight. On this principle, it is easy to improvise a jelly bag using a piece of muslin and some string. Before I was given a jelly bag, I used to use a large square of muslin in which I would put the pulped fruit. I then tied the square up in a bundle, tied a piece of string securely around its neck and suspended it from the handle of a kitchen cupboard over a bowl. Other people have used old tights as their mesh and have suspended it from the legs of an upturned stool.

The sieving technique
Whichever method you employ, always scold the mesh with boiling water first because this helps the liquid drain through as well as killing microbes on its surface. Because the jelly bag extracts only liquid from the fruit, it is unnecessary to puree the fruit first. It does, however, need to be mashed or pulped. It is also important to never be tempted to help the liquid through by squeezing it. The liquid that drips through is very pure and will give a clear jelly. Squeezing the bag will result in a cloudy jelly. Once you have allowed the clear juices to drip through, it is worth squeezing the bag and using this liquid to make something else such as ice cream or fruit cheese.

Transferring to jars
Use the jam making technique as your basic method for transferring jelly into jars with a couple of additional points. Firstly, tip the jar to one side as you pour in the jelly as this will help prevent air bubbles being trapped, which will spoil the appearance of your jelly. Secondly, do not move jelly whilst it is cooling down as this too can spoil the smooth appearance of your jelly.