There are lots of punchlines to the query posted in the title (one of the less rude of them is “you can’t jelly a banana in your ear”), but this post is focused more on the actual question of how one makes home-made jam (or jelly; I’ll cover that, too).
This week’s little project, for me, was homemade cherry jam. Growing up, my parents had a sour cherry tree in the backyard. I was the only one out of all the kids in the neighborhood who actually enjoyed eating the cherries straight off the tree (then again, I probably had no taste buds left after eating all the hot chili peppers straight out of the garden). For most everyone else, the cherry tree was but one ingredient in a multitude of heavily sweetened delights: cherry pie, cherry cake, cherry tarts, and of course, cherry jam. I liked the cherry tree so much that I even did a grade 2 science report on the subject (complete with cherry jam-filled cookies for everyone in the class to eat … yeah, even then I’d learned the value of brownie points).
Those days are long gone, now — the cherry tree’s been cut down, I rarely visit home, and I’ve developed an allergy to raw cherries (like many other raw fruits including apples, pears, and peaches, they cause nasty reactions and make my mouth hate me). But fortunately for me, cherry jam is still on my list of edible eatables (cooking destroys the protein to which I’m allergic). And there’s a farmer’s market every week just up the street from me where I can purchase pints upon pints of fresh, local deliciousness. So last weekend I picked up two baskets of cherries: step one in the process of creating enough jam to last all winter.
A Brief History of Fruit Preserves
Jams and jellies have been around for a really long time. No one’s really sure who first came up with the idea, or how this jam concept was spread (pun intended). What we do know is that the oldest known cookbook, “The Art of Cooking” by Marcus Gavius Apicius, contains references to fruit preserves. Apicius, of course, is better known for being a gourmand somewhat akin to the Futurama character Hedonism Bot — his favourite dainty, apparently, was flamingo tongues, and he died a premature death related to his gluttonous habits (although not, as would be poetically judicial, by being pecked to death by tongueless flamingos). But this has little to do with jam. My main point here, is, that jams and jellies were already well-known by the time Apicius was writing, during the reign of Tiberius (1st century).
Before the days of refrigeration and easy global transport, jams and jellies served an important purpose besides just making toast un-boring. Up until the 20th century, preserves were one of the few ways in which people living in non-tropical countries (or those traveling on ships) could get year-round fruit and prevent the onset of diseases like scurvy. Where I live in Canada, you’re lucky to get fresh fruits for 6 months out of the year (starting out with strawberries in the spring, and carrying on until the last apples are harvested in the fall). Between November and April, you’re unlikely to see fresh fruit growing anywhere outside of a greenhouse. So in the days before “grown in California” fruits were common on grocery store shelves, jam was a good way of keeping fruit in your diet all year.
Modern jams are usually made using refined sugar, and the makers of home-made jam will often use shortcuts like boxed fruit pectin to ensure the perfect jam consistency. In the past, conveniences like this were not available. Honey and molasses were more likely to be used as sweeteners, and getting enough pectin into your jam often required some trial-and-error. Many traditional jam recipes include apple peels: not for flavour, but because the skin of apples contains a very high amount of natural pectin, and this would help make your jam set up nicely. For budding jam-makers, I suggest starting out with the refined sugar and boxed pectin — it makes the whole process a lot, lot easier. But once your jamming skills are more refined, please do try making a traditional recipe or two — not so much because they’ll come out better (often they don’t, since it’s hard to predict the amount of pectin in a particular batch of fruit), but because it’s worth seeing how preserves used to be made. Plus, the old ways are the ways we’ll have to revert to once the zombie apocalypse arrives, so it’s good to have some practice.
Simple Cherry Jam, with Help from Refined Sugar and Boxed Pectin
The recipe for this one is just three ingredients: 4 cups pitted sour cherries, 1 box fruit pectin crystals (don’t substitute liquid pectin; liquid and crystal pectins work differently and require different acid/sugar ratios), and 5 cups of white sugar. If you can’t get sour cherries, the sweet ones will work, too, but you’ll also need to add about a half cup of lemon juice to make it set up right. Most boxed pectins come with a recipe guide inside that goes over the recommended ratios: do check this, because some brands of pectin work a little bit differently from others. I generally use Certo or Bernardin canning products — they’re widely available and have served me well in the past.
Before you start cooking everything up, though, you need to get your kitchen ready for canning, so let’s take it back a step and go over the sterilization process. A boiling water canner (basically just a really big pot with a wire rack in it to put your jars on) is a necessity, as are clean (I sterilize mine with vinegar) canning jars (you’ll need enough to hold 6 to 7 cups of jam). Sterilize all the surfaces in your kitchen, and carefully wash all of the utensils you’ll be using during the canning process: canning is chemistry, after all, and science works best when you can avoid any outside contamination. There’s nothing more disappointing than opening up what you thought was a delicious jar of jam, only to find that you’ve got a lovely little mold colony growing in that jar instead. Well, okay. There are probably worse things — a baby alien facehugger might jump out and lay eggs inside you, for example — but it’s still a pretty unpleasant thing.
I find that the easiest way to avoid contamination is to wash everything in hot, soapy water, rinse with vinegar, and then put all of the jars and utensils into the boiling water canner. Fill the canner with water and put it on the stove. Heat it up until the water is boiling, then remove your utensils. Leave the jars in there, though: you’ll want them to be already hot when you pour the freshly cooked jam into them.
Once your kitchen, jars and utensils are as sterile as you can get them, put your 4 cups of pitted cherries into a large saucepan, along with the boxed fruit pectin crystals. Cook these together, stirring often, until the mixture comes to a boil. Then add your 5 cups of sugar all at once, mix it in, and return the mixture to a boil. Stir constantly, and let it boil for one to one-and-a-half minutes. If the jam gets really foamy while it’s boiling, put in a little bit (only about half a teaspoon) of butter. Once the cooking time is up, remove the jam from the heat. Using tongs (you can buy special ones designed for lifting jars, and I suggest using them because it’s WAY easier), remove a jar from the hot water canner. Use a non-metallic funnel and ladle to fill the jar up with jam. Leave less than 1/4 inch of space at the top of the jar; you don’t want too much air getting in there or the jam might spoil. If you see any bubbles of air trapped in the jar, use a non-metallic instrument (like a wooden spoon or a silicone spatula) to pop them, and then top up the jar to full. Wipe the rim of the jar with a clean cloth (I like to use paper towel, even though they’re not the most environmentally friendly of things, just because it’s easier to ensure that they’re clean). Then, using tongs again so your fingers don’t contaminate things, put a lid on the jar and screw on the sealing ring until it’s just tight (don’t ream it on there, just tighten it until you get some resistance). Once the lid is on, immediately return the jar to the boiling water canner so that the jam doesn’t start to cool off on you. Don’t tilt it! The lids aren’t on perfectly tight just yet, and you don’t want to spill hot jam on yourself. Repeat this process with the rest of your jars, until all the jam is canned up. Then all you have to do is return all of the jars to the boiling water canner, make sure they’re covered by at least an inch of water, and let them boil for 5 to 20 minutes, depending on your altitude above sea level. This will kill any bacteria that might have survived your rigorous sterilization process. Turn off the heat, remove the jars from the boiling water canner (again, don’t tilt them!), and let them sit for 24 hours, upright, without being disturbed. During the cooling process the lids will properly seal themselves, getting vacuumed to the tops of the jars as the jam inside cools down. After 24 hours, check the lids to make sure they’ve all popped down tightly onto the jars, and then store the finished jam in a cool, dark place until you’re ready to use it. It’ll keep for at least a year or two (home-canned foods really shouldn’t be kept longer than that, since they don’t contain preservatives of any sort and they may start to ferment). Once a jar is opened, store it in the fridge.
The Difference Between Jelly and Jam
Jam, as you’ve just seen with the cherry jam, contains little pieces of fruit and the skin of the fruits, in addition to the juice and pulp. Jelly is made in essentially the same fashion, but with one important extra step: the fruit is not added whole, but is instead strained so that only the juice is used. Commercial “jelly bags” are available for straining your fruit, or you can just layer together several pieces of cheesecloth and use those to squeeze all the juices out of your chosen fruit. Jelly, therefore, comes out clearer-looking and is more homogeneous, while jam is a slightly more chunky affair. I’ll be making grape jelly later this summer with Kenneth, so I’ll illustrate the differences more fully at that time. There are also other kinds of fruit preserves besides just the basic two: marmalade, conserves and freezer jams all have their own peculiar quirks, and I’m sure I’ll get to them all in time.
In the meantime, check out this website for home canning recipes and information. I tend to like their cookbook best out of all the different ones I’ve read — plus it’s handy that they have all the recipes available for free online.