Toast with jam.
If you’ve been making jam for years, you may be in a jam rut. And if you’ve never made jam before, you may be about to fall into a rut, and it all starts with where you do grocery shopping. A little known fact: Which brand of commercial pectin you buy matters in terms of taste, texture, and how fast you are likely to get in and out of the kitchen.
Pectin is what makes a jam or jelly gel. It is naturally found in the cell walls of most fruit and is particularly concentrated in apples and citrus, from which it is derived. Before commercial pectins, our grandmothers made jam by cooking down fruit, slowly, slowly to keep it from scorching. Today, we can get higher yields and spend less time in the kitchen by using commercial pectins.
If you shop in a supermarket, you are mostly like to find Certo liquid or Sure-jel powdered pectin. If you shop at a natural foods store or food co-op, you are likely to find Pomono’s Universal Pectin. If you shop in a hardware store, you are likely to find Ball’s Classic Pectin or Low-Sugar or No-Sugar Pectin, but only if you shop early in the season (hardware stores usually don’t restock preserving supplies once they’re gone).
The way to make a jam that tastes vividly of fruit is to sweeten to taste, and that means adding a modest amount of sweetener. I don’t recommend going no-sugar or extremely low-sugar, because the jam won’t taste as wonderful as it can taste, and it won’t keep long at all after the jar has been opened.
A low-sugar jam has about a 3-week shelf life before it becomes moldy; no sugar jam will have an even shorter shelf life. And, as I have found out, jams that are too low in sugar will linger in the fridge because salty peanut butter needs a sweet balance of jam to make that perfect sandwich.
If you are in the habit of making jams with Certo or Sure-jel pectins, you know you must follow the manufacturer’s recipes in order to activate the pectin properly. Certo, for example, requires 5 cups of mashed strawberries to 7 cups of sugar, making a jam with a long shelf life. That’s crazy sweet, but I don’t judge you if you go that route.
Pick-your-strawberries went for about $6 a pound in Vermont this year while sugar costs about $0.65 per pound. If you are on a tight budget, sugar is a way to stretch that expensive fruit.
Certo pectin made the sweetest jam with the softest set. Pomona’s universal pectin and Ball’s low-sugar or no-sugar-needed pectin are comparable in taste and texture. The apples provided the thickest jam with the dullest color and flavor.
If you want a jam that tastes like fruit, then use a pectin formulated for using less sugar. In my opinion, Ball’s low-sugar pectin is the most convenient commercial pectin to use; it is found wherever canning supplies are sold and online.
You will use about 6 tablespoons per batch; the jars hold enough pectin for three batches or so. Full instructions are found on the jar, but basically you combine the fruit and pectin, bring the mixture to a boil, and then add sugar to taste. Return the jam to a boil, then can.
Pomona’s Universal Pectin is less convenient to use, because you have to make up a calcium solution and add that separately from the powdered pectin. You make up 1/2 cup of calcium solution and then only use about 1/2 teaspoon per batch. The calcium solution can hang out in your fridge, taking up valuable real estate, but I usually end up throwing it out or losing it in the depths of the fridge, then making up more solution, taking up more real estate and further crowding the already crowded fridge.
Pomona’s is sold in natural food stores, so it has more credibility among natural food foodies, but it isn’t purer or better than Ball’s. To make a jam using Pomono’s, basically you make the calcium solution in a jar, combine the sugar and pectin in a bowl, combine the fruit with the calcium water and bring the fruit to a boil in the saucepan, then add the pectin and sugar combination, return to a boil, then can.
There’s another way to add pectin and that’s by adding pureed apples (I use about 2 apples per 8 cups fruit). The apples provide the pectin and you can just sweeten to taste. The apples, I will admit, do dull the flavor of the fruit, but can’t be detected as a separate flavor.
Speaking of separate flavors, you can use honey, maple syrup, or whatever alternative sweetener you want with either Pomona’s or Ball’s low-sugar formulas. But I don’t recommend it, because those sweeteners mask the flavor of the fruit.
Think about making jams sweetened to taste instead of following someone else’s formula. Besides, the fruit really does vary from year to year. This past June, for example, the strawberries in the Northeast tasted waterlogged and tart; there wasn’t enough sunshine to develop their sugars. The solution was to use a little more sugar that usual — to sweeten to taste.
Photos by Andrea Chesman
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