Kim is a Master Gardener from Montana and has been wild harvesting and growing fruits and vegetables for home use most of her life.
Why Make Homemade Jam and Jelly
I grew up on fresh everything—fresh milk, fresh meat, fresh eggs, and fresh vegetables—in an era where everything was homemade, so it's no big surprise that I preserve my garden's bounty. There are tons of reasons to make your own food, the big one being flavor. If you are reading this, you probably already know this and you are probably already well on your way to au naturale.
Nothing tastes quite like homemade, and that goes double for jam and jelly. The sweet fresh fruit taste spread over buttered toast is to die for. Jam isn't just for PB&J either. Jam (and jelly) goes well in oatmeal, yogurt, ice cream, waffles, smoothies, toast, and a zillion other things. Any fruit you love can become jam or jelly.
Store-bought jams and jelly can get expensive and are super sweet. Like, too sweet. Sugar is a natural preservative. If a product contains 75% or greater sugar, it should never ever expire. Which makes it perfectly clear why store-bought is too sweet (and why I think Americans have a diabetes problem). At home, sugar, among other things, can be controlled.
Store-bought jams and jellies also have a taste to them that I personally attribute to the pectin. The first time I made homemade jam, I purchased and used commercial pectin. I didn't like it. Everything was going great until I added the pectin. As soon as I added the pectin, the taste changed. I tried several more batches with several brands both liquid and powder. To my dismay, all of them tasted funny.
So I asked myself, what is pectin? Why do almost all fruit spread recipes call for it? And, how did they do it hundreds of years ago?
What Is Pectin, Anyways?
Pectin is a naturally occurring substance found in most fruits in varying amounts. Some fruits are high in pectin and some fruits are low. Fruits containing large amounts of pectin do not need added pectin in order to gel. Fruits containing low amounts of pectin need pectin added in order for your product to gel.
Commercial pectin is allegedly apple-based. Apples are naturally high in pectin and have been used since before commercial pectin even existed to gel jams and jelly. So it makes perfect sense that commercial pectin be made from apples.
Why do most jam and jellies call for added pectin? It really depends on the fruit, and more than likely I was choosing fruit low in pectin to preserve. So it just seemed like so many recipes called for it. I trust and use the Ball™ Home Canning book as millions of Americans do, their recipes are tested and have passed rigorous standards . . . so how did they do it before Ball™? (Ball™ is THE trusted home canning source. I am not in any way bashing commercial pectin. The picture above is my jar of pectin from my cupboard.)
Fruits High in Pectin
These fruits can be made into jam or jelly straight or used to balance low pectin fruit to gel.
- Crab Apples
Preserving Tips From a Grandmother
I maintained a glorious garden for a wonderful woman for many years. She was a delight to talk to. She was well into her 80's when I met her. I asked her one afternoon about this pectin thing. She brought me into the house and pulled a box from one of the shelves. The papers in the box were tattered and worn and she flipped through it without a thought. She pulls out this slip of paper, barely legible and told me how her grandmother made jelly with no pectin:
measure 1:1 sugar:fruit (juice)
That's what the slip said. It was that simple. On the other side of the paper were notes as to which fruits to use together, in order to get the fruit to set. I've noticed a consistency with old recipes . . . most of them simply list ingredients, no instructions on mixing or baking. The author assumes the reader knows their way around a kitchen and what to do with the ingredients. I have found myself guilty of this very thing...I'm working on this, I don't want my grandkids looking through my recipes with dazed and confused looks on their faces.
Mixing Fruits to Balance Pectin
For lack of a better way to put it . . . those who preceded us across this vast frontier created jams and jellies by mixing fruits. A small amount of high pectin fruit was added to fruits that were low in pectin to aid the geling process.
I gather a lot of wild fruits as they ripen throughout the year. This was valuable information. This was how cherry/apple, and apple/mint jelly came about. And many other fascinating combinations. This means that wild fruits such as serviceberries, mountain grapes, huckleberries, thimbleberries and other underused fruits can be used given the correct ratio of pectin.
I should mention juicing, as not all fruits are easy to turn into jam or jelly. Some fruits such as Oregon grapes, chokecherries, and barberries have more seed than fruit. It is here that juicing is helpful. I use a steam juicer to extract the fruits juices naturally. Straight juice, no need to strain. This neat little contraption was given to me by a friend and it has been extremely helpful in making syrups and jelly from some of my favorite underused fruits.
Wild and Unusual Fruits
Ratios for Jam or Jelly
- 1:1 sugar to fruit/juice pectin
- 3/4 low-pectin fruit (eg. peaches)
- 1/4 high-pectin fruit (eg. apples)
How to Make Jelly
- Choose your fruit(s) and juice your fruit.
- Measure the juice. Use 1 cup of sugar for each cup of juice.
- Bring to a rolling boil for several minutes. Scrape off any foam. Cook until the gel point is reached. Gel point has been reached when the syrup slides of the spoon instead of dripping.
- For jam, measure 1 cup sugar to 1 cup fruit.
- Fill sterilized jars with fruit product. Refrigerate. You can choose to preserve your jams and jelly using a waterbath canner. Follow the instructions from your local extension office on proper canning times for your area.
Tips for Preserving Foods
You can make and preserve anything given the necessary information. Understanding a fruit's pectin content will help you decide how to proceed with each future recipe, and hopefully, encourage you to explore new and interesting flavors.
Remember, if you alter a recipe's sugar content, your preserving method will have to change. Even if you use a water bath and follow the time exactly. Sugar is the natural preservative in all of these recipes.
Citric acid is another ingredient found in many jams and jellies. Lemon juice is usually the source. You cannot exchange lemon essential oil for lemon juice. The essential oil of lemon does not contain citric acid. If ever you need canning or preserving instruction, your local county extension office will be able to help you.
Questions & Answers
Question: When your measuring fruit by the cup, do you measure by the whole fruit or the cut up fruit?
When measuring fruit, berries generally don't need to be chopped, maybe strawberries if they are very large. whereas apples or pears would be cored and chopped, and plums, cherries or apricots would be pitted prior to measuring.
Question: What effect does adding lemon juice to a chokecherry jelly recipe have on its ability to gel?
Answer: Lemon juice is added for the citric acid and doesn't affect the gelling process. Recipes calling for lemon juice, do so because the fruit being processed doesn't contain enough of its own.
© 2017 Kim French
Kim French (author) from Stevensville, Montana on September 02, 2020:
Thank you. I love home fresh food.
May Banks on August 14, 2020:
Thank you for sharing your knowledge about canning jellies without store bought pectin. I remembered that my mother never bought pectin but I did not understand the proper way to can jellies. Your knowledge is priceless.
Shawn on August 08, 2020:
Kim ... thanks for the article. I’ve been making wild grape jelly/jam for 4 or 5 years now with good success using apple as my pectin source. It is a lot of work with these berries but sooooo worth it.
My problem, last year following my usual recipe it was a failure! Frustration. I have no idea why it failed to gel. I even took everything down, simmered some more apples to generate more pectin and reprocessed everything and ended up with something between the starting liquid and sludge.
I wondered if maybe it depends on when I harvested the berries although that wouldn’t make sense as the amount of pectin in the fruit wouldn’t change with the ripeness ... would it?
The only other info I have for you is technically, it isn’t totally juice as the starting material. What I do is press the berries through a berry mill for the juice, take the remaining sludge of skins and seeds, simmer with a bit if water and then do a straining into the juice.
I’ve followed this method for years and it has always worked. I do find it will typically take a couple or 3 days for complete gelling.
Kim French (author) from Stevensville, Montana on November 25, 2017:
Thank you! And I love mother earth news, I will have to go see if I can find that article!
Jo Miller from Tennessee on November 25, 2017:
Very good information here. I'll be bookmarking and coming back to this. There was a very good article in Mother Earth News recently about making jam without pectin. My husband is the jam maker in our family. He tried some peach preserves and they were wonderful.