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Backyard Gardener: Making jams and jellies

Hello Mid-Ohio Valley farmers and Gardeners. Labor Day weekend is upon us. We are officially saying goodbye to one of the hottest summers in memory and welcoming fall. Needed rains and cooler temperatures are here so enjoy.

Many home gardeners and others are making homemade jams and jellies this year. My Grandma Lang would make Concord grape jelly with grapes she picked on the farm. I am told canning jar lids and some sizes of jars are in short supply. I want everyone to enjoy homemade jams and jellies this winter, but we need to be safe for the sake of families and friends.

It is essential for safety reasons to use and follow a tested recipe. Do not simply reduce the sugar level on your own. Research tested recipes for over 40 jellied products as well as low-sugar recipes are available at the National Center for Home Food Preservation website “Making Jams and Jellies” at nchfp.uga.edu.

First, there is a difference between jams and jellies. Jellies are usually made by cooking fruit juice with sugar. Jelly should be clear or translucent and firm enough to hold its shape when turned out of the container. Jams are thick, sweet spreads, which will hold their shape, but are less firm than jelly. They are made from crushed or chopped fruits and sugar.

Making a great jellied fruit product requires the correct combination of fruit, pectin, acid and sugar. It sounds easy, but fruits contain different amounts of pectin and acid. For example, white peaches have a high pH and are not a recommended fruit.

Fruits provide jams and jellies with unique flavor and color and supplies water to dissolve other ingredients. It can (apples and crabapples are examples) supply all or a portion of the pectin and acid. Make sure you use high quality, flavorful fruits. Detailed information on the acid and pectin content of various fruits can be found at “Jellied Product Ingredients” at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Pectin is needed to form a gel when combined with acid and sugar. All fruits contain some pectin, but some must be combined with fruits high in pectin or with commercial pectin products to obtain gels.

Fully ripened fruit has less pectin, so one-fourth of the fruit used in making jellies without added pectin should be under-ripe. The use of commercial pectin simplifies the process, but jelly made without added pectin contains less sugar and tastes fruitier. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for using commercial pectin.

The proper level of acid is critical to gel formation. If there is too little acid, the gel will never set. If there is too much acid, the gel will weep and lose liquid. For fruits low in acid, add lemon juice or other acid ingredients as directed. Commercial pectin products contain acids that help to ensure gelling.

Sugar serves as a preserving agent, contributes flavor and aids in gelling. Granulated white sugar is usually recommended. Do not try to reduce the amount of sugar in traditional recipes.

Too little sugar prevents gelling and may allow yeast and mold growth. Tested recipes must be used to make jellies without added sugar, and these products usually must be stored in the refrigerator or freezer.

Always follow the recipe, making one batch at a time. Overcooking may break down pectin and prevent proper gelling. In addition, if a larger quantity of juice is used, it will be necessary to boil it longer causing loss of flavor, darkening of jelly, and toughening of jelly.

All jellied products should be processed in a boiling water bath to prevent mold growth. To process in a boiling water bath, pour the boiling product into a hot sterilized canning jar, leaving †-inch headspace.

Wipe the jar rim, and close with a treated canning lid and screw band. Place on a rack in a canner filled with boiling water. The water should cover the jars by at least one inch. Cover the canner. Bring the water back to a boil; boil gently for 5 minutes. Remove the jars to a protected surface and cool, away from drafts, undisturbed for 12 hours.

USDA recommends discarding jams and jellies with mold on them. DO NOT scoop out the mold and using the remaining jam or jelly. The mold could be producing a mycotoxin which is poisonous and can make you sick. When in doubt, throw it out.

In addition, jellied fruit products may ferment because of yeast growth. This can occur if the product is improperly processed and sealed, or if the sugar content is low. Fermented fruit products have a disagreeable taste. Discard them.

Most homemade jams and jellies that use a tested recipe and have been processed in a canner for the recommended time should retain best quality and flavor for up to one year. All home-canned foods should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place, between 50-70∂F.

Over extended periods of time, however, changes in color, flavor, texture and nutrient content of home-canned jams and jellies is inevitable. A typical full-sugar fruit jam or jelly should be safe to eat if the jar seal remains intact and the product shows no visible signs of spoilage from molds or yeasts. Contact me with questions at the WVU Extension Office at 304 424 1960 or at jj.barrett@mail.wvu.edu. Good Luck and Happy Gardening.

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