Making homemade jam and jelly at home is something every homesteader should know how to do. It helps preserve our fruit for year round eating, doesn’t contain high fructose corn syrup or other icks in store bought varieties, it’s frugal (especially when you grow the fruit yourself) and most importantly, it plain tastes amazing.
Because as much as I love making things healthy, frugally at home, and from scratch, if it doesn’t taste good, then no one is going to want to eat it, and that kind of defeats the purpose, right?
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Making jams and jellies is a great beginning canner project because you can make small batches and they’re safe to be water bath canned. And nothing will give you a boost of confidence to keep growing as a canner like looking at a beautiful jewel toned jar of home canned jam.
There’s a bit of a science behind getting your jam and jelly to set. Because there’s nothing worse than setting out to make jam and ending up with syrup. Though both are tasty and pair with ice cream like no bodies business.
One of the biggest culprits of jams and jellies not setting is trying to make up too big of a batch at once. It’s not generally recommended to double a batch, even though the ratio of ingredients is the same, because more often than not, you end with a runny end product. However, if you’re using Pomona’s Pectin, they give directions for double or tripling batches.
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To understand why jams and jellies don’t set, we have to look at what creates them to gel or set in the first place. It’s a trinity of three things, the amount of sugar, pectin, and acid working together to create the gelling point. You can read the exact chemistry, including molecular structure here. If you missed part 1 in this series, check it out for a link to the ph levels in fruits to see which are higher in acid and have naturally high pectin levels.
Some fruits have enough pectin in them we don’t have to add any extra, like grapes and apples, but others needed more, like blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries, so we add another form of pectin, either from citrus, currant juice, or green apples to boost the pectin levels. You can also add store bought pectin, which I do on occasion, but I prefer to use old-fashioned methods when possible.
Do I have to use sugar? I personally use sugar because my raw honey is too expensive to use in a cooked product, but you can use honey. In fact, Pomona’s pectin gives directions for using honey. I personally haven’t so I can’t give you advice on that end, but it is possible.
Another option is to use frozen concentrated unsweetened fruit juice. My canning bible, The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, gives several recipes using only frozen concentrated juice and no sugar.
The only store bought pectin I use is Pomona’s Pectin as it’s a natural citrus pectin and doesn’t have questionable ingredients added to it.
Not only do we have to have the correct amount of the three main ingredients, but we have to get them to the correct temperature in order for them to set. Jam and jelly set at a temperature of 220° Farenheit (104 °C)
The easiest way to gauge this is to use a candy thermometer. I use mine all the time from making yogurt, candy making (shocker there, right?) and when making jams, jellies, syrups, and fruit spreads. For less than a $7 it’s one of my most regular used kitchen tools–> Glass Candy Thermometer
It’s important to note that if you’re at high altitude, 1,000 feet above sea level, then you need to subtract 2° for every 1,000 feet above sea level.
I make sure and use a heavy-bottomed pot when making my jam and jelly so it doesn’t scorch. Sugar will scorch and you’ll need to keep a close eye on your jam as its cooking, stirring often. Because trust me, no one likes the taste (or smell) of burnt sugar in their house or jam.
If you don’t have a glass thermometer or it breaks, there’s a few other ways to see if your jam is set.
1. The sheet test and the one I use most often. Take a large metal spoon and put it in the fridge or freezer when you begin making your jam. Dip the spoon into the boiling jam and hold it up so that the spoon is sideways and the jam can drip off the side/edge of the spoon. If it just runs off, it’s not ready. Large drops mean you’re almost there, and the sheeting is when the jelly/jam drips off the spoon in one sheet, instead of individual drops, hence the name “sheet test.”
2. Cold plate test. Put a saucer or small plate in the freezer. Put a small spoonful of jam on the chilled plate and put it in the freezer for a minute. Pull it out and push against the edge of jam with the tip of your finger. If you can run your finger through it and it stays separated and/or the surface shows wrinkles where you’ve pushed it, then it’s done.
When you’re doing these tests, pull your jam onto a cool burner so you don’t over cook it if it’s indeed at the gel stage.
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Want to get started making homemade low sugar jam without store bought pectin now? I’ve got 5 of my favorite old-fashioned traditional recipes in the Ultimate Home Food Preservation Guide for you right now! Click here for immediate access and let the jam making begin.
Remember, old-fashioned jams and jellies will “set up” as they cool.
If you do the gel stage tests and your jam isn’t quite there, you have a few options. The first is to simply let it cook for 5 minutes and test it again. I generally have to let my no store bought pectin recipes cook for 20 to 25 minutes.
If you’ve let your’s cook for 20 minutes and it’s not showing signs of gelling, I would suggest adding a 1/4 to 1/2 cup of sugar or a tad more acid such as lemon or lime juice by way of a teaspoon or two. Cook for another 3 to 5 minutes, if it’s still not gelling, I’d add another 1/2 cup of sugar. This is especially true with the lower sugar recipes I stick with.
If you thought your jam/jelly had set, but upon cooling realize it’s not really “set” you have two options. Go ahead and can it up as syrup. Or, put it back in the pot, bring it to a boil, and add more a 1/2 cup more sugar or more of a natural pectin source, such as more grated citrus peel or grated up green apple.
Verse of the Week:
If your Facebook feed and news are anything like mine, they’re filled with things that make me apprehensive and if given enough time, to make me flat out worry. We’re in a drought here in the Pacific Northwest and fear of well’s going dry if we don’t get enough water or fires is real. I worry about having enough food put up to feed my family, water, especially in these conditions, and what the state of our country will be in years and even months down the road.
And just about the time I get myself worked up, the Lord is good to remind me not to worry about these things. This is where I decide if my faith is real. If I will trust Him. Not just trust Him with somethings, some situations, when things are going right or good, but in ALL things. And so I want to leave you with this verse.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding: in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. Proverbs 3:5-6
Melissa K. Norris inspires people's faith and pioneer roots with her books, podcast, and blog. Melissa lives with her husband and two children in their own little house in the big woods in the foothills of the North Cascade Mountains. When she's not wrangling chickens and cattle, you can find her stuffing Mason jars with homegrown food and playing with flour and sugar in the kitchen.