Jams and Jellies

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IMG_3302Fall is a great time to enjoy fresh fruits. Right now, I’m enjoying figs and muscadine grapes. When I finally get my fill of fresh fruit, I like to preserve some of summer’s bounty to enjoy through the fall and winter months. An easy way to get started is by making jam.
Jam is really just crushed fruit that is set in some way. Traditionally jam is made by cooking fruit with sugar until the natural pectin in the fruit causes the jam to gel. Pectin is a naturally occurring substance that helps hold the fruit’s cell walls together. As the fruit cooks and concentrates, the natural pectin causes the jam to gently set. The level of pectin varies naturally between different types of fruit. Sour apples, crabapples, and sour blackberries are naturally high in pectin while blueberries, figs and peaches are relatively low in pectin. So some fruits are better suited to this technique than others. Unripe fruit has higher levels of pectin than ripe fruit does. So sometimes jam made with just fruit and sugar sets and sometimes it doesn’t – depending on the fruit used and its natural pectin levels.
For this reason, some people prefer to make jam with a commercial pectin. An example of one such product is Sure-Gel. Adding pectin makes it easier to ensure that the jam will set consistently and the fruit does not need to be cooked for as long a period of time. The drawback to commercial pectin recipes is that they tend to call for a lot of sugar and this can sometimes overshadow the flavor of the fruit itself. Measure all of your ingredients carefully and don’t cut down on the sugar in a jam recipe or you risk your jam not setting. If you want to reduce the amount of sugar or use an alternative sweetener, look for pectin that is advertised for “low sugar” or “no sugar” recipes or one that is marketed as a “universal” pectin. These products will come with recipes that allow you to reduce or eliminate the amount of sugar used or use an alternative sweetener.
Cooked jams should only be stored in the refrigerator for a month or so. If you want to store them for longer than that, jams are easy to can in a water bath canner. Look for a good recipe such as one from the University of Georgia’s Center for Home Food Preservation (you can find them online here:http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can7_jam_jelly.html) or by using an up-to-date canning reference like the University of Georgia’s book “So Easy to Preserve” or the “Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving”. Once you have followed the recipe and your jam is ready to set, you will pack it in clean, sterile jars and process it in a water bath canner. Remember to follow all of the directions and process for the amount of time listed in the recipe to ensure that your jams are safely preserved.
There is another option for jam making that doesn’t require you to cook the fruit at all. In these “no cook” or “freezer” jam recipes you simply clean and crush the fruit and mix it with the prescribed amount of sugar. The pectin is mixed with water and heated. Once it achieves a boil and boils for a minute, it is added to the prepared crushed fruit and you stir. The fruit retains its bright, fresh, just picked flavor and the pectin causes it to set. Pack the jam in freezer containers, allow it to sit out for 24 hours to achieve its gel, then pack away in the freezer. This technique is great if you want to involve kids in the process.
If you have fruit to harvest in your yard, consider putting up a batch or two of jam. If you don’t have any fruit of your own, consider visiting your local farmers market. When winter time rolls around, you’ll be glad you did. So go grab some fruit and get jamming!