When I was a youngster, growing up in Indiana and Pennsylvania, some of my favorite food treats were jams and jellies. My brother and I could eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every meal of the day. One of our obvious favorites was the venerable peanut butter and grape jelly masterpiece, a staple of kids everywhere.
Of course, jellies and jams were great as standalone spreads on white or wheat toast. Winters were cold up north and nothing satisfied a starving kid, hungry from a hard day of snowball fights and sledding, as a steaming cup of hot cocoa and jelly or jam toast.
Jams versus Jellies
What is the actual difference between jams and jellies? There is a difference and the standard for them has actually been established by the Food and Drug Administration. Their close cousin, the preserve, has also been standardized by the FDA. This establishes a clear understanding of what consumers are actually buying when they pick up a jar at their local grocery store.
A jelly is made from the juice of the fruit and has a clear, shiny appearance. If you could peel away the jar, the jelly would retain the shape of its container. The juice of the fruit has been extracted and is cooked down with sugar, pectin and sometimes uses a citric acid, often lemon juice.
Jams, on the other hand, are made with some of the fruit intact, giving the spread a pleasing texture as well as an absolutely delicious flavor. The fruit is chopped or crushed, cooked down with pectin, sugar and fruit acid, giving it more of a gel-like texture than jelly. Marmalade is similar to jam; however, there are often suspended pieces of the fruit flesh and peel in the finished mix.
Pectin is used in recipes for both jams and jellies. A polysaccharide, pectin is found naturally in fruits such as citruses and apples. When combined with sugar and heated, pectin is the gelling agent that produces the firmness of the jam or jelly. Even though it occurs naturally in the fruit, additional pectin can be added to decrease the time necessary to cook down the recipe into a smooth, firm consistency.
Pectin is available commercially at supermarkets and grocery stores. Many home improvement stores will also carry pectin and other canning supplies on a seasonal basis. Pectin can be purchase in liquid or powdered form and is generally derived from orange peels or apples. An interesting side note is that pectin also may also have some medicinal benefits. We always told Mom that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were good for us; I guess we were right all along.
The amount of pectin needed and the ratio of pectin to sugar required vary with the fruit used and the recipe. Instructions for use are found both in well-written recipe books and on the pectin packaging.
Preparation, Cooking and Canning
There are a few subtle differences in making jellies and jams; however, the overall process is quite similar. Creating a jelly masterpiece will require one extra day of work since the fruit is crushed and allowed to drain overnight. A potato masher can be used to crush the berries or other fruit and dampened cheesecloth is used to allow the juice to separate. A jelly bag is available that is specifically designed for this purpose.
Onward we go to the cooking process. Before starting to cook your recipe you should prepare your canning utensils. Because fruits are high-acid foods, the hot water bath method is used instead of pressure canning. Heat the lids and jars in a pot of simmering water to prepare and sterilize them. Leave them in the hot water to prevent thermal shock when filling. If necessary, clean the rings and set them aside on a clean surface. Fill the boiling water canner and begin heating up the water to a light boil.
Begin preparing your recipe in a correctly sized saucepan according to the instruction. You will be adding the juice or jam base, combining it with the specified amount of sugar and lemon juice. Bring it to a full rolling boil and stir the mixture frequently to avoid burning. Overheating will cause the mixture to darken. However, keep the mixture boiling until you have reached a rolling boil that cannot be stirred down.
Quickly add the proper amount of pectin, either in liquid or powdered form. Continue to stir and boil the jam or jelly base for another full minute. After the minute is up, remove or shut off the heat source. If desired, you may skim off the foam from the top of the mixture. It is not harmful, but it may interfere with a smooth, clear product. It can be saved for use in another batch by placing it into another container and allowing it to cool.
Immediately ladle the hot jelly or jam into the heated jars. Leave one quarter of an inch of headspace in the jar for expansion. Place a warmed lid over the jar, centering it on the opening and secure it with a ring, twisting it until it is hand-tight.
Immerse the jars into the boiling water canner, adding water if necessary to cover the jars with an inch or two of water. Process the jars, boiling them for approximately 10 minutes. Remove the jars when finished and allow them to cool. The jars should seal properly within 24 hours. Any jars that did not seal can be reprocessed or refrigerated for immediate use.
Refrigerated jams and jellies will remain useable for up to six months, while frozen product will last indefinitely.
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