Mastering Food Preservation: Jams & Jellies

I came away from our first hands-on lab with a new-found appreciation for homemade jams and jellies, the topic of our next class in the Master Food Preserver Program. Timed to coincide with strawberry season, flats of fragrantly ripe strawberries from Fairwinds Farm in Bowdoinham, ME, awaited us for processing.

We began the class by examining a sample jar of strawberry jam (above) made by our teacher, Kathy Savoie. We noted that it lacked headspace, and that the fruit fiber had separated from the juice, both problems common to homemade jams, particularly those made with strawberries. To gel properly, jams and jellies need to contain the right combination of fruit, pectin, sugar and acid. Even so, fruit can be fickle and have differing levels of naturally occurring pectin that may affect the end results.

If you’ve ever looked at a jam or jelly recipe, the amount of sugar required can be off-putting. In a nod to modern tastes, we tested and compared different ways of making strawberry jams and jelly using low/no sugar pectins, including one method using no added pectin.

The first group made strawberry-rhubarb jam, sweetened with honey and using Pomona’s Universal Pectin. Since Pomona’s doesn’t need sugar to gel, jams and jellies can be made with less or no sugar, or an alternative sweetener.

Pomona Universal Pectin:
• Pros: Little or no sugar needed; may use alternative sweetener; allows doubling of batch; indefinite shelf life.
• Cons: Tendency to separate (need to stir before eating); doesn’t hold color.
• Contains: Citrus pectin, calcium (monocalcium phosphate).

The second group made low-sugar strawberry jelly with Sure-Jell (pink box), another pectin that sets with little or no sugar. After washing, crushing and simmering the strawberries, the juice was strained off with a jelly bag. Instead of sugar, the jelly was sweetened with fruit juice, which made for a more subtle tasting jelly.

Sure-Jell:
• Pros: Little or no sugar needed; may use alternative sweetener.
• Cons: Shorter shelf life, advise replacing yearly.
• Contains: Dextrose, fruit pectin, fumaric acid (for tartness), sodium citrate.

The third group was assigned making no/low sugar strawberry jam using Ball’s No-Sugar Needed Fruit Pectin (green box). The process was the same as when using regular pectin, but allowed us to use honey as a sweetener, though we could have also used fruit juice.

Ball’s No-Sugar Needed Fruit Pectin:
• Pros: Little or no sugar needed; may use alternative sweetener.
• Cons: Shorter shelf life, advise replacing yearly.
• Contains: Dextrose, fruit pectin, citric acid (assists gel), calcium ascorbate (retains color).

The last group made a classic strawberry jam with no added pectin. The recipe from So Easy to Preserve required 6 cups of sugar to 2 quarts of crushed strawberries, and was rapidly boiled until thick, about 40 minutes, before canning.

No added pectin:
• Pros: No pectin necessary; even dispersal and consistency; true strawberry color.
• Cons: Large amounts of sugar; tendency to scorch while cooking.

The lineup for comparison (left to right): low sugar strawberry jelly (Sure-Jell), low sugar strawberry jam (Ball’s), strawberry jam (no added pectin), and low sugar strawberry rhubarb jam (Pomona’s).

What I learned: Read the recipe or package directions; follow the recipe or package directions; make one batch at a time; don’t reduce the amount of sugar or make a substitute unless the pectin is designed for it.

It’s a matter of individual taste which method you end up choosing, each has its own set of trade-offs. This recipe for Small Batch Fresh Strawberry Jam is a good alternative. For larger batches, my personal preference is Pomona’s Universal Pectin; I’m willing to overlook its drawbacks in terms of consistency and color for something with a more natural set. Another choice would be to use homemade pectin.

This is second in a series of posts following the Master Food Preserver Program, offered through the University of Maine Cooperative ExtensionNext: “Drying & Herbs”

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17 Responses to Mastering Food Preservation: Jams & Jellies

  1. Chris says:

    Thanks, that was very informative. My mother used to make an excellent orange marmalade from her neighbor’s oranges, down in Houston. What I find with orange marmalade is that the real British ones have about one-third less sugar per serving, so it seems our biggest issue is not sugar per se, but too much sugar.

    • leduesorelle says:

      Hi, Chris — I like imagining your mother’s orange marmalade, delicious I’m certain. Citrus has a lot of natural pectin, with much more leeway in amount of sugar needed for it to gel. Strawberries are low in natural pectin, and the sugar helps it to set. I can’t bring myself to use the proportions called for, often 2:1 or even 1:1, strawberries to sugar. I’ve added grated apple for its pectin, and that’s allowed me to cut down on the amount of sugar with some success.

  2. The jam looks delicious! I canned my first jams this year – blueberry and strawberry rhubarb – it was so much fun!

  3. Really interesting post especially as I’m just back from a study day at the cookery school at The School of Artisan Food in the UK which included jam making. I’ve not heard of any of the products you mentioned for using low/no pectin. We do have sugar especially for jam making which is available to buy in the supermarkets here and which I have used in the past for jam using fruit with low pectin levels however our tutor on the course was very against them and instead very much advocated using only natural ingredients. I very much enjoy hearing about different ways of producing jam-so much to learn!

    • leduesorelle says:

      Thanks so much for your comments, its really great to hear about what you’ve learned and compare cross-Atlantic notes! I’ve some UK cookbooks on preserving, and I find it fascinating to learn how your process and equipment differs from ours. I often see jam sugar with pectin mentioned, but had no idea it was an actual product! Sounds like it has the same additives as our gelling agents: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gelling_sugar

  4. Liz says:

    I always make jam via the fruit and sugar method, usually lemon pips in a muslin bag when making jams with things like strawberries that don’t naturally set well. Having said that I am also quite happy to eat runny jam – it can be quite versatile to cook with too.

    • leduesorelle says:

      Brilliant, thanks for the tip about adding lemon seeds! I’ve found a number of recipes that recommend adding a grated apple and some lemon juice, but this sounds more like something that won’t alter the taste as much.

  5. kate @ bbf. says:

    Thanks for the write-up of your jam and jelly class, Debra!

    • leduesorelle says:

      Hi Kate, thanks for visiting! I found it helpful as a way to process all of the information we’re getting in our training. So much to can, so little time!

  6. I am a partner in the small company that sells Pomona’s Pectin. This sounds like a fun and interesting class — comparing the different pectins and no pectin at all. Just wanted to say that Pomona’s is now available in the U.K. from this website: http://www.creamsupplies.co.uk/pomona-39-s-universal-pectin/prod_5699.html?category=

    • leduesorelle says:

      Hello, Mary Lou, thanks so much for visiting! Any suggestions on how to get a more consistent dispersal in strawberry jam using Pomona’s?

      • Hi,
        Below is a question and answer from the FAQ page of our website: http://www.pomonapectin.com that I think addresses your question. Unfortunately, fruit float is a common problem with strawberry jam and can be more common with low-sweetener strawberry jam. It isn’t something you have done wrong, but there are things you can do to help remedy it. Thanks for asking!

        My jam has separated. I have all the pulp at the top of the jar and juice underneath. What did I do wrong and how can I fix it?

        What you have is called “fruit float.” When the jars of jam are very hot and there is no jell yet, the pulp, which is lighter than the juice, is able to float to the top of the jar. Strawberries are prone to fruit float although it doesn’t always happen. Other fruits can have fruit float also. You are not doing anything wrong. In the future, when you take the jars out of the water bath, leave them for about an hour to start cooling and seal. Then come back and check to make sure they are all sealed. If you see that you have fruit float, turn the jars upside down to force the pulp to redistribute through the jar. Come back in about 45 minutes and turn the jars right side up to once again force the pulp to redistribute through the jar. Check again in another 45 minutes and if you have a distinct dividing line, turn the jars upside down again. Turn the jars right side up again in about 30 minutes. You always want the jars to end up right side up. By keeping the pulp well distributed throughout the jars, there will not be a dividing line when the jell finally starts and locks everything into place. If your jam has jelled in a separated state, you can gently stir the pulp and juice back together when you open the jar to eat it. Separated jam in sealed jars will store safely.

  7. Blayne says:

    You should check out the Blue Chair jam book!

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