Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Simple living is a state of mind. If you decide that making jam and jelly is a terrifying thing, where any tiny slip can spell total disaster, then it will be. If you believe it will be a relatively easy process that almost always works, but which can have some random results, then it will be. Happiness is not in the process or even the results. Happiness is found in how we deal with both. Making jam and jelly is a very simple thing. It is an heirloom skill that has been working for centuries. You cannot undo generations of success with one small deviation from the process. If you add a little too much lemon juice or too little sugar, cook it too long or not long enough – it will still generally turn out perfectly good jam or jelly. It is here where the thought process comes in.

So, if you expect every jar to be brilliantly colored and just the right thickness then you are the problem. First of all what is the right color and consistency? I like mine brightly colored and just thick enough to stay on the spoon. Others like theirs to get a dark color and be thick enough for the spoon to stand up in. Heck, some even like it cooked to a rich amber color with a thickness just this side of taffy. So if there is no one “perfect” result there can be no perfect process nor perfect results.

Am I saying be sloppy and deal with the mess? No, I am just saying don’t stress out over little variations from you preplanned results. For one thing most variations in result come from things that you have little to no control over. How thick or thin a jam is can depend on the following things.


1) How much acid was in the fruit – some fruit like plums are naturally low in acid and notoriously hard to get to set firmly. If the fruit is green it will have tons of acid, if it is very ripe it will have very little and you will have to add lemon juice. 
2) How much water was in the fruit to begin with? Very fresh strawberries are loaded with moisture and remember you have to get the sugar to water concentration up to 60 percent or better. A wet fruit will need more cooking to evaporate the water; a dry fruit will need less.
3) Did you add pectin? If so, it is important to only keep the mixture under heat for a limited amount of time. Usually pectin will set in about one minute, keep it cooking for longer than that and it will begin to lose consistency.
4) Have you given the jelly enough time to setup? Some fruit are very low in natural pectins and will take more than just a day to set. Cherries and plums are notorious and can take weeks to set firmly.
5) Did you use the amount of sugar specified. The recipes are balanced for sugar and acid and reducing the sugar can make it set soft or not at all. I am known for reducing the amount of sugar in a recipe because I like a more fruity taste. This is ok and it usually works – usually.
6) Did you boil it long enough? I hate to overcook my jams and so I am very wary of overcooking it. Every minute you boil increases the caramelization of the sugar and decreases the natural flavors. It is important to reduce the water in the mixture to the 60% point and you can check for this by placing a spoon full on a cold saucer to see if it sets or runs. Make your own choice on how thick you want it. But be aware, all jam starts out sweetened fruit and will end as dark hard taffy if you cook it too long. Follow the instructions and you should be ok. If you choose to cut back on cooking time like I do, you will probably need to add pectin. Or at least, be prepared to accept some thin jams once in a while.

Ok, so there are the main principles involved in the art and science of setting jams and jelly. These are the wide variables you must deal with even if you follow a successful recipe to the letter. Am I saying there is no guarantee of success – yes. Am I saying success is hard or unlikely? – no. Like I said most of jam and jelly making is attitude. Be sensible and follow a few recipes until you get comfortable and you will usually just sail through the process smoothly and enjoy jar after jar of jelly that you call perfect. To make sure that you don’t sweat the possible challenges, here are my simple living guidelines on how to stay mostly successful and always calm and happy.


If you are wanting consistently thick jams, find a good recipe and follow it to the letter. Especially watch the cooking times and the time to add pectin.
  1.     Think to yourself – does my jam have to be that thick?
  2.     If no, great – you have just succeeded by redefining success – you are a simple living master!
  3.     If you must have thicker, then you can reprocess the lot following this recipe
    • Open the jars (sigh) and pour them back into a bowl (no more than 8 cups at a time – if you have more, do separate batches.
    • For each cup of jam being reprocessed, bring 1 tablespoon of water, 1 ½ tablespoons of pectin and two tablespoons of sugar to a full boil.
    • Boil the pectin mixture stirring constantly for 2 minutes only!
    • Once the pectin mixture is boiled add it to the jam in the bowl.
    • Stir thoroughly and return the jam to clean hot sterile jars.
    • Reseal the jars and reprocess in boiling water for 5 minutes.
    4.   Allow the jars to set a day or two and check for thickness.
    5.   If they thickened, congratulations - you have successfully made jam!
    6.    If they are still not thick, congratulations – you have successfully made syrup!

So there it is, if you just can’t live with a batch that did not jell properly here is a simple living solution that should work. Now let me return to my first thoughts and tell you why I have only tried this remedy twice. Remember I said, do not panic. I think all that extra cooking and extra pectin makes for a jam that is too thick and the more time you cook fruit the more flavor it loses. I will take flavor over thickness any day.

Therefore my advice is to be prepared to accept variable results – especially when you vary the recipe – duh! Since I rarely leave a recipe untampered – I know I will have to deal with some minor variations. But, the biggest reason I usually just accept the batches the way they come is simple. It is just jam after all, who says it has to meet universal standards. Spread it on some warm toast and sit down for a minute. Life is too good and too short to worry about runny jam.

PS:  Another good use for jellys that become "syrups" is to use them as a base for fruit punch or iced coolers.  Mix a jar of runny plum syrup with ginger ale or fresh water and a little lemon, add crushed ice and voila - you have a delightful, refreshing and unusual summer drink.  It also makes and awesome sauce for poaching pears or apples.  Use thin jam or jelly as a glaze on pork or chicken.  Use it to flavor yogurt ( thanks for the tip Nuriah )  Of course, it is great on pancakes and mixed with cereal.  It is all in how you look at it - don't let failure get you down - redefine success and smile - thats simple living.


  1. Cool, you posted this just when I needed it! I've made strawberry & blueberry jam before without a problem setting, but just made rose petal jelly with low-sugar pectin, & it's still pretty loose after a week. I'm thinking I boiled it with the pectin too long. This post is a keeper, thanks!

    I think I'll call this batch "rose syrup" for greek yogurt. :}

  2. YUMMY, I had some rose jelly once made with hips, never had it with the petals. Sounds delicate. I applaude the decision to call it syrup and be done - all too often adding more pectin can create gummy bear effects. By the way, another good use for "syrups" is to use them as a base for fruit punches and iced coolers in the summer.


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