Making Jam Without Tears

Many years ago there was an incident with some damsons.

The end result was supposed to be  ‘damson cheese’. It went catastrophically wrong in some way I can’t quite recall – I might have cooked it too long – but it was enough to put me off messing around with fruit and sugar for a long time.

More recently, my veg box provider offered a pack for making marmalade, and I decided to have a go, because I like marmalade, and I like a challenge. I followed the instructions, such as they were, and what they turned out to be was a bit lacking. The first batch of marmalade was ok, if a little runny. The second batch was rather runnier. I decided not to try again for a while. Also, there was a lot of marmalade to eat up.

Somewhere in all this I made four perfect jars of strawberry jam from a recipe I now can’t find.

I also made twelve jars of something I decided I would call bramble syrup because it certainly wasn’t bramble jelly.

Last Christmas, among my presents was a sugar thermometer, which I had requested because I was growing increasingly frustrated with my attempts to make a particular kind of chocolate fudge I remembered from childhood. It kept going wrong because I couldn’t get the sugar to the right temperature.

It turns out that fudge-making and jam or jelly-making are not dissimilar in that there are many recipes that claim to be foolproof. Actually, the same is true of cooking rice. Everyone has a foolproof recipe for that too. But each recipe – be it for jam, fudge or rice – is not so much foolproof as a distillation of what works for the author. Often, they leave something out. It’s generally something so obvious to the recipe’s author it simply doesn’t occur to them to mention it. Sometimes it is something that makes sense once you have made jam or fudge, or cooked rice, but only once you’ve done it and got it right. Either way, foolproof recipes are often anything but.

Also, and I cannot stress this enough, just because it works for the writer of the recipe, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone else. This is especially true of rice, where the age of the rice, the size of the pot, and god knows what else, can make all the difference in the world. Thus, while I have foolproof rice recipes for steamed and pilau rice, they’re foolproof insofar as you need the same saucepan I’ve got. Sometimes I forget, and use the wrong saucepan. It’s a disaster.

But today we are talking about jam. Jam-making is easy, apparently. You just heat the fruit and mash it a bit to get the juices out, then add sugar, bring to the boil, do that testing thing with the chilled saucer, and it’s done.

You’d never know that from my trail of failures. After some thought, I concluded that my problem probably lay in being so afraid of overcooking the jam I was in fact undercooking it. Clearly, a sugar thermometer would solve this problem.

And thus it has proved.

I am very fond of quinces, especially quince jelly. We went to Brogdale’s Apple Festival a few weeks ago, and in between sampling many delicious varieties of apple, I also bought a kilo of quinces, and a pound of so of medlar (we’ll come back to them in a bit). I had a recipe that involved simmering quinces, making jelly from the resulting strained liquid, and membrillo, or quince paste, from the pulp. I decided to give it a try.

Setting jam or jelly is all about getting enough pectin, or setting agent, into the mix. Some fruits are high in pectin, among them quinces and apples, especially crab apples. Some  fruits have an average amount of pectin, while some are notoriously low in it, strawberries being the prime example. I can only marvel at those four pots of perfect strawberry jam I produced that time. The luck of the innocent was clearly with me that day.

Jelly-making is, I think, a little easier than jam-making because it is all about producing a liquid that can be mixed with sugar and then boiled to the correct temperature, somewhere around 105°C, at which point the jelly will happily set when cooled. Quince jelly can’t wait to set once it gets there. Indeed, it helps to have an assistant to wash and dry those jars and get them on the counter ready, before the wretched stuff sets in the pan.

A kilo of fruit, barely covered with water, simmered for an hour, yields about 800 millilitres of liquor. Add 75g ordinary granulated sugar per 100 millilitres, heat until the sugar dissolves, boil to the correct temperature, test for setting properties by putting a spoonful on a chilled saucer, leaving for a minute and then seeing if it wrinkles when pushed with a clean finger, take off the heat, and pot in cleaned warm jars. There are websites and books which explain the business with the waxed discs and lids/cellophane covers. Also, books that explain the thing with the cooling liquid on the saucer. Once you know what to do, it really works. The sight of that jelly cooling and wrinkling when you push – it’s very satisfying.

Jam is more difficult in that you are boiling actual fruit as well as juice, and the endless reams of advice about skimming scum become more pertinent, at least until you’re trying to skim it off floating strawberries. None of my books mentioned this; I eventually discovered you have to leave strawberry jam to cool for a bit before you can take off the scum, and incidentally be assured that the strawberries do not float to the top of the jam pots. My four less-than-perfect pots of strawberry jam testify to this ignorance, but I don’t care – they taste fabulous. My loganberry jam (eight pots) is amazing. (I tossed the fruit harvest into the freezer until I could figure out what to do with it. My top tip – process the fruit before you freeze it. You avoid a world of pain and stained fingers that way.) I used sugar with added pectin when making the jam, and it seems to have worked well.

Jam-makers seem to be divided between those who warm the sugar beforehand, those who don’t. I tried it each way and noticed no discernible difference. Another division comes between those who use jam sugar and those who use plain granulated. The argument is that using the latter gives you a softer set while using jam sugar gives you a ‘commercial’ set. As I am of the school of thought that believes jam’s place is on the bread or scone, not dripping off it, I’m happy to use jam sugar if necessary. Either that or you must permit me lick my tea plate in polite company so as not to waste that jam.

My biggest triumph, however, came when I decided to deal with that bramble syrup. By this time I had learned that the point of all this boiling is to drive off sufficient water to allow the sugar to do its thing, and set. I reasoned, therefore, that if I reboiled the syrup I might be able to turn it into jam if I could drive off sufficient water. And if it failed hideously, I was no worse off than before.

It turns out that if you take your two-year-old bramble syrup and boil it to the right temperature, you can drive off the equivalent of four pots of water and turn it into eight pots of properly set bramble jelly. Who knew?

I said I’d come back to the medlars. I came back to them after leaving  them in a cool place for a while so they could get on with bletting – that is, becoming ripe to a point very close to being rotten, but not quite. I discovered a couple of days ago that they had reached the point where something needed to be done with them. Medlars are not very high in pectin, which would mean using jam sugar, but as I had so few I wondered if I could combine them with some Bramley apples for extra bulk, and pectin, and make jelly from that mix.

It turns out I could. A pound of medlars and two large Bramley apples, barely covered with water, then simmered for an hour with the juice and zest of half a lemon, yields 800 millilitres of a liquor that tastes vaguely of pear. Once boiled with sugar (I used half jam sugar, half ordinary granulated), however, it turns into something else altogether. I have four and a bit jars of an exquisite golden jelly that tastes vaguely of the rose hip syrup of my youth. I’m going to have to eke this out because it is astonishing stuff.

As it’s the end of the fruit season, I’m running out of things to turn into jam and jelly, except I heard yesterday that my favourite local plant nursery still has pick-your-own chillies for sale, so clearly it’s time for chilli jelly.

In conclusion, do I have any advice for novice jam and jelly-makers? Absolutely.

Buy a sugar thermometer.

Seriously. You can get a perfectly adequate sugar thermometer for under a tenner. You may get to the stage where you don’t need it because you have learned to recognise the sounds of jelly boiled to the right temperature, or the way the bubbles change size, or any one of the other arcane ways of assessing the readiness of a pan of boiling fruit and sugar, but until you get there, a sugar thermometer will keep you on the straight and narrow. I’ve made more jam and jelly in the last week than in the entire rest of my life, and not a single boiling has gone wrong.

(Coming soon – adventures with membrillo.)

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