I’m all about growing, making, and preserving food. We have a sour cherry tree out back, and it’s harvest time! And that means it’s time for all things jam, jelly and wine. I’ve made cherry jelly for the past several years, but it always seems a little wasteful to just squeeze out the juice and throw the rest of the cherry away. This time I decided to try my hand at making jam instead. What’s the difference? Jam uses the whole fruit, and jelly just uses just the juice.
How pretty is that?! I’ve been picking some each day as they get ripe, but I think this was the last batch I’m going to get. I had to stand on a ladder and pick them with tongs, because I can’t reach the ripe ones anymore 😆 (that’s dedication…and a little crazy).
Saturday was cherry jam day. Most people buy boxes of pectin to turn fruit into a gel. I used to be most people. But then I got to thinking, “Why are you buying pectin? There’s pectin already in the fruit!” Fair point, Casey. Fair point. Alright, let’s skip the pectin. No more pectin. If I wanted to buy something I can make myself I’d just buy the finished jam, right?
As it turns out, all fruit has pectin, but some kinds have more than others. Pectin works by forming a sort of “pectin network” – in order for the pectin to stick to itself, you have to get the water out of the way. Sugar is one way of doing that (it pulls the water out – put some sugar on a cut up strawberry and walk away for an hour if you don’t believe me), and heat is another way to remove water by evaporation. If you get it to the perfect temperature (220 F), it makes a jam or jelly with the “standard” grocery store consistency. A little lower temp and you get a thinner, easier to spread jam (perfect for stirring into yogurt or putting on ice cream). A little higher temp and you get jello (not literally, but you get the idea). And if you don’t have a good thermometer (or just want to double check that it’s set), just drop some on a frozen plate and stick your finger in it when it’s cool. It’s all about how much water you get out of the way, which dictates how strong the pectin network becomes.
So what if you don’t want to add a ton of sugar? Basically, you just have to boil the fruit for longer to evaporate the water, which gives you a more concentrated sugar solution. Most recipes without added pectin call for 1/2 – 1 cup of sugar for every pound of fruit you’re using. There’s no need to use the massive amounts of sugar (usually equal amounts of fruit and sugar) found in the recipes inside the pectin box. Powdered and liquid pectin are designed for fast jam formation (people are impatient). Because of that, it relies primarily on sugar, rather than boiling, to reduce the water concentration around the pectin molecules.
One additional note here. Pectin likes acid. As a way to ensure that you don’t have any problems with your jam or jelly setting, I like to add some lemon juice to the pot. You usually don’t need a ton (and if you want to get technical about it, it’s only actually needed for fruits that aren’t acidic – if it could be considered “tart” then you likely don’t need it). I usually add the equivalent of 1/2 – 1 lemon’s worth of juice to a batch of whatever I’m making. It won’t be sour because of all the sugar, and it doesn’t contribute anything to the flavor profile.
So basicaly, fruit + sugar (and maybe a little lemon juice), boil it until you get jam. I find it way easier than using boxed pectin. With the stuff in the box, you need to be very exact with your measurements, put the sugar in at just the right moment, and watch the clock closely. Also, I happen to think that the longer cook time results in a more flavorful jam (and you’re able to control the consistency much more easily by boiling for a longer or shorter period of time).
“But wait, didn’t you say that different fruits have different amounts of pectin? Do you need to do something else to get low-pectin fruit to gel?” I’m glad you asked! Yes, you DO need to add something else! No, not boxed pectin. We don’t do that anymore. But you CAN add a small amount of high-pectin fruit as a sort of “pectin supplement.” Check out this list! (You guys, seriously, I’m really into jam right now. You don’t even know how much fruit/pectin/canning research I’ve done this season.)
Low pectin fruits: apricots, blueberries, sweet cherries, figs, table grapes, kiwis, nectarines, guavas, peaches, pears, pineapples, raspberries, rhubarb, strawberries, and ALL fruits that are very ripe – these will all need some help to become jammy.
High pectin fruits: apples, sour cherries, crab apples, blackberries, elderberries, gooseberries, cranberries, currants, wine and concord grapes, grapefruits, lemons, limes, melons, oranges, plums and pomegranates
In the picture above, I’m making a rhubarb jam. Since rhubarb is very low in pectin (but I didn’t want to add a different fruit that would change the flavor), I added lemon. FUN FACT: lemon juice primarily add acidity (never a bad idea when you’re making jam), but the pith and the seeds are where the majority of the pectin resides in your average citrus fruit. I have the seeds tied up in a little sack of cheesecloth so I could extract the pectin while cooking without losing them in the jam. I removed the lemons from the jam once it jelled.
Since all fruit loses pectin as it ripens, it’s never a bad idea to include some fruit that’s just shy of being fully ripe. You can go up to 1/4 of the batch being under-ripe without it affecting the flavor.
So get out there! Make some jam!
But make sure you get all the cherry pits out before canning it, ok?