This post discusses Jam Making Basics, including the main ingredients of jams and jellies, why they are important, and the basic equipment for making jams and jellies. Additionally, we discuss the differences between various jellied fruits and vegetables.
I started my self-taught canning journey 15 years ago with a simple plum jam. Since then, I have made jam, jelly, preserves, conserves, and marmalade with many fruits and even some vegetables. I regularly make and can my own meat broths, soups, chili and tomato products.
The broths, soups, and tomato products are ‘necessities’ that we rely on, but the jams and jellies are treats…not only to eat but also to make.
Clear spreads made from the juice of fruit are known as jelly. The ‘juice’ can also be wine. Solids are typically removed by straining through a fine mesh colander or muslin. Jalapeño Wine Jelly, in which jalapeño pieces float in the jelly, help use up your bumper crop of jalapeños are two of my jelly recipes and Mulled Wine Jelly, perfect for the holidays, are two of my jelly recipes.
Jams are spreads that will contain pieces of fruit, either as small chunks, pureed, or mashed. Jams are also typically a bit looser and more spoonable than firm jellies. Some of my favorite jam recipes are this Easy Plum Jam, perfect for the new canner, Blueberry Jam with Chamomile, and this Strawberry Rhubarb Jam. For a Savory Jam, try this Onion Jam or this Spicy and Smoky Tomato Jam recipe. Fruit that contains a high level of natural pectin is perfect for jams. See the chart below which shows the level of pectin in various fruit.
Preserves will be ‘chunkier’ than jams or jellies as they typically container larger pieces, or even whole pieces, of fruit. The least gelled of the three are preserves.
Conserves are basically jams that contain several different fruits, including dried fruit, as well as nuts. Typically, conserves are served alongside cheese and meat. This Dried Fig Conserve is DE-lightful alongside cheese or on a charcuterie board, as is this Cranberry Conserve, which is perfect for the holidays.
Marmalade is similar to jam but is most often made only with citrus fruits. For a taste of sunshine year-round, try this Sunny Orange Marmalade.
For the sake of simplicity, we will call this entire group of treats ‘Jellied Fruits’ during this discussion of jam making basics.
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While there are subtle differences between all of these spreadable treats, they share some common traits. They all start with fruit (or vegetable), sugar, acid, and pectin of some sort. Understanding the role of each of these 4 ingredients is crucial in understanding jam making basics.
You can preserve just about any fruit and many vegetables. Slightly underripe or just ripe fruit is usually best for jam/jelly/etc. They provide the best natural color and flavor and are typically higher in acidity and pectin. Both pectin and acidity start to drop as the fruit ripens.
Canned or frozen fruit or fruit juice can also be used to make jellied products, though it is best if they have no added sugar and are canned in their own juice. Add pectin to canned juice and fruit as they are typically made from ripe fruit.
Jams made without any added pectin frequently combine fruits. A high fruit in pectin, such as the apple, combined with a low pectin fruit makes a perfectly set jam. I did this with my Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam. The fruits complement each other to make a better set for the jam.
Sugar is an important ingredient in all jellied fruit products and must be present in the proper proportion, along with acid and pectin, to achieve the proper gel. This ingredient also serves as a preservative, preventing the growth of microorganisms. Never cut down on the amount of sugar called for in a recipe.
Granulated white sugar is the most common sugar used. Artificial sweeteners cannot be swapped for sugar as sugar is needed for gel formation and its preservative qualities. Likewise, unless your recipe calls for sweeteners such as brown sugar, sorghum, and molasse not recommended given their strong flavor. Similarly, light corn syrup or light, mild honey can be used to replace the part, but not all, of the sugar and should be used in tested recipes that specify them.
Acid is needed both for gel formation and flavor. The acid content varies among fruits and is higher in under-ripe fruits. Use Lemon juice or citric acid when fruits are low in acid.
The acid helps extract the pectin from the fruit during the cooking process, which helps form a gel. This is true whether the acid occurs naturally in the fruit or is added. The gelling will not take place unless the mixture is fairly acidic.
Acidity varies from fruit to fruit and, to some extent, to the variety of a particular fruit. Two different varieties of apples may have different acidity.
Pectin is the substance that causes the fruit to gel. Some kinds of fruits have enough natural pectin to make high-quality products. Other fruits require added pectin, especially when used for making jellies, which should be firm enough to hold their shape. Just-ripe fruit contains the highest quality pectin. Pectin from under-ripe or over-ripe fruit will not form a gel.
Since jelly’s strongest characteristic is its thick gel, it is hard to make jelly without added pectin unless you use a high pectin content fruit.
In general, fruit falls into the falling categories of pectin content
High Pectin & Acid Fruit will most likely not need additional acid or pectin: Apples (unripe or sour), Blackberries (unripe or sour), Crabapples Cranberries, Currants, Gooseberries, Grapes (Eastern Concord), Lemons, Loganberries, Plums (not Italian), Quinces
Medium Pectin & Acid Fruit may need additional acid and/or pectin: Apples (ripe), Blackberries (ripe), Cherries (sour), Chokecherries, Elderberries, Grapefruit, Bottled Concord Grape Juice, Grapes, Loquats, Oranges
Low Pectin & Acid Fruit will need additional acid and pectin: Apricots, Blueberries, Figs, Grapes (Western Concord), Guavas, Peaches, Pears, Pineapple, Plums (Italian), Pomegranate, Raspberries, Strawberries
You can get a copy of this chart in the Subscriber Benefits Library or click the button below and I will email it to you.
Commercial pectins are made from apples or citrus fruit and are available in both powdered and liquid forms and may be used with any fruit. Many canners prefer the added pectin method for making jellied fruit products because fully ripe fruit can be used, cooking time is shorter and set, so there is no question when the product is done, and the yield from a given amount of fruit is greater. However, some canners avoid commercial pectin because of the bitter taste and the need for more sugar, masking the fruit’s natural flavor.
If you are looking to make a lower sugar or a no sugar jellied product, no added sugar pectin or less sugar pectin are options. Search for recipes specific to no- or low-sugar jellied fruit or look in the package inserts for recipes.
Whether or not you use commercial pectin is entirely a personal preference. I prefer to use apples or homemade apple pectin stock when necessary or to be satisfied with a softer set. Apple Pectin Stock is really easy to make, you just chop up apples, including the peels, core, and seeds, and then slowly cook them down in a minimum of water. You can then water bath can the pectin stock along with your jams/jelly or freeze it. Easy Peasy!
I use this apple pectin stock in my Apricot Jam recipe.
Flavorings such as Herbs, Spices, Extracts, and Alcohol can add a little personality to your basic jam. I add Rosemary to my plum jam and Thyme to my apricot jam for a twist on the usual.
Now that we understand the Jam Making Basic Ingredients, let’s talk about the basic process.
Until you get comfortable with making your own recipes, it is important to follow recipes as written. But, making any of these jellied fruit products is as simple as combining the fruit or fruit juice, sugar, acid and pectin (if adding additional pectin) and cooking them with a long, slow boil. The fruit and sugar need plenty of time to cook, release pectin and thicken. A a slow boil drives the moisture out of the fruit, helping to preserve and thicken it at the same time. Fruit varies in water content as well, and some fruits may take longer to gel. Start checking the jellied fruit product for thickness after at least 20 minutes of a steady boil
If you are adding commercial pectin, follow the instructions that come in the packet as each pectin product has different requirements.
Knowing when your conserves, preserves, jam, marmalade, etc… are ‘done’ is something that you will figure out over time and is one of the basics of making jam. It is a little bit of an art. Recipes that use added commercial pectin typically have a specified time, so they are a little easier to determine. But if you are not using commercial pectin, you will need to rely on the acid and pectin in the fruit you are using to gel. Like we noted above, every fruit has different levels of pectin, make it often a batch by batch determination.
I typically rely on the frozen plate on to which I dollop a bit of jam. I let the jam sit for about 30 seconds on the plate and then move it with my finger. If the jam wrinkles a bit, I am confident it has reached the gel stage. Another way to determine if your jam has reached gel stage is to scoop a spoonful of jam and hold it 10-12″ above your pot. Turn the spoon on its side, vertically and watch how the jam flows off of the spoon. If the jam drips in several separate drips, then it is not gelled yet. If, however, it drips off in one bigger cascade, you can feel confident that it is at gel stage.
And still, another way to determine the set is with a candy thermometer. Once your jam reaches a rolling boil, watch your thermometer. Once it reaches 220°, it should be at gel stage.
There is some specialized equipment you will need when outfitting your kitchen with the Jam Making Basics.
A Maslin, Preserving, or Jam Pan is helpful to have but not a necessity. The qualities that make a Maslin Pan useful can be found in other pans as well. Specifically, you want a pan that has the following characteristics:
I regularly use Ball/Kerr Jars and Weck Jars for my canning. If you plan to can the jars so that they are pantry shelf-stable, you must use jars made specifically for canning. If you are freezing your jars of jellied fruit, you can use plastic containers as well. Proper canning jars are one of the necessary jam making basics. Glass jars can be used indefinitely as long as they are not chipped.
A Wide Mouth Funnel is a handy but not a necessary tool. It just makes keeping the jar rims clean much easier, which then makes getting a good seal more likely. I really like this one as it also has a mesh insert, which is very for keeping any sediment out of broths.
As noted above, another way to determine set is with a candy thermometer. Once your jam reaches a rolling boil, watch your thermometer. Once it reaches 220°, it should be at the gel stage.
And if you are going to water bath can your jellied fruit, you will need these tools:
Since I use both brands of jars, I have both a Weck Jar Lifter and Ball Jar Lifter. This is another non-negotiable if you are going to water bath can your jams/jellies/preserves. These tools lift jars out of boiling water, eliminating the risk of burning.
A Magnetic Lid Lifter is another jam making basic necessary to retrieve the lids from very hot water as you are preparing your jars for canning.
Headspace is measured in inch fractions. It is the distance between the top of your jam/jelly/preserve and the jar rim. You will be instructed to leave 1/4″ headspace for Ball/Kerr jars with most jam/jelly/preserves recipes. The lids of weck jars have a little divot, so you will leave 1/2″ from the top of the jar to the surface of the food. The headspace gauge is basically a ruler with notches for easy determination of headspace on each of your filled jars.
Leaving the specified amount of headspace in a jar is important to ensure a vacuum seal. If too little headspace is left, the jellied fruit may expand and bubble out when air is being forced out from under the lid during processing . The bubbling food may leave a deposit on the rim of the jar or the seal of the lid and prevent the jar from sealing properly. If too much headspace is allowed, food at the top is likely to discolor and the jar may not seal properly because there will not be enough processing time to drive all the air out of the jar.
It is a rare recipe when I have the exact amount of jam or jelly to fill my jars without a little leftover. Never add more jam to use up just that little bit or fill a jar with less than is needed to reach the designated headspace.
In addition to the jam making basics equipment listed above, I highly recommend these books:
Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving or The All New Ball Book of Canning and Preserving. I think I could can certain recipes in my sleep, but I ALWAYS open and refer to the recipe or guidelines in these canning bibles to be sure. Canning is a science and a safe one when done properly. I have been canning for 15 years, including chicken and beef stocks, tomato products and jams/jellies, and the like. I never ‘invent’ a recipe without making sure I keep the basics of the recipe intact. As such, we have never become sick from my canned products.
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