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We’ve made nearly 300 jars of jam in the last year, and it’s been a really fun learning curve.  Pete does most of the actual jam making; my job is to prepare the pectin, sterilise jars and most importantly, to sit on the kitchen bench and cheer him on.

We’ve learnt a few things through experience over the last 12 months, and I thought I’d pass these on, in case they’re of use to anyone.  Making jam at home is not complicated, but it is desperately rewarding and will provide you with an endless supply of much appreciated, highly anticipated gifts.  Here are our top tips.

1. Make your own pectin. Homemade apple pectin is so much easier to use than commercial pectin – the latter can only be boiled briefly, whereas the homemade version can be added to the fruit right from the beginning.  Apart from tasting better (our personal opinion), it’s also easier to control how the jam sets with your own pectin, because you can start with less and add more to adjust as you go.  We always make our pectin in large batches and  can it (see point 11 below), but there’s no reason why you couldn’t make a small amount for the batch of jam you’re planning and use it straight away.

2. Source really good glass jars. If you’re in Australia, try either Cospak or, our favourite, Plasdene.  The ladies at Plasdene in Milperra are particularly helpful, albeit occasionally bemused by us (“Celia, what on earth are you going to do with all these jars?”).  They have a wonderful showroom which can inspire lots of new ideas, and watch out for the specials by the door as you walk in.  Both places have minimum orders, so it’s worth ringing first before you order or visit.  Also, the glass jars are easy to recycle, but you really can’t reuse the lids, so if you can afford it, try to buy some extra lids for the refills while you’re there.

3. Use a big stock pot. Jams and jellies need wide fat pots, not narrow tall ones.   They also need to be BIG, because the mixture needs to boil up in the pot before it will set.  Pete’s recommendation for jelly making is that the jelly should only fill about 1/8 of the pot when you start, although jam can be a little fuller.

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4. Try to use fruit at its peak. Apart from being the whole purpose of jam making – that is, to preserve the fruit at its very best – it’s also really the only time it’s worth doing, for both quality and economic reasons.  Having said that, make full use of your freezer if you have one – fruit frozen in season works perfectly well for jam.  In many cases, it doesn’t even need to be defrosted first.

5.  There are four key elements of jam making – fruit, sugar, pectin and acid. If any one of these is absent, the jam usually won’t set, and if the balance is out, the jam won’t set well.  Lemon juice is in every jam we make, as it helps to activate the pectin. Sometimes, particularly with jellies, the mix won’t set unless there is enough sugar. Every recipe is a guide, because the fruit varies from batch to batch, so you need to constantly taste and adjust as you go.

6. Don’t add the sugar too soon. Begin the jam making process by placing the prepared fruit, pectin and acid in a large stock pot and bringing it to the boil.  Once the fruit has softened to your liking, then add the sugar.  When the sugar is added, the skins of the fruit won’t soften any further, and fruits like strawberries won’t break down much more.  But for fruits like raspberries, which fall apart very easily, the sugar can be added straight away.

7. Try to minimise the amount of added sugar. Start with a lesser amount than you think you need, then add more if required to set the jam. Sugar is often used in commercial jams to cover up poor quality fruit, but conversely, if you have really great fruit, too much sugar will mask that as well.  Lately, Pete has been experimenting with using more pectin and less sugar, and the jams have all been setting quite well (albeit a little firmer than normal).  Again, it’s all about the balance between the four key ingredients.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that jellies need a  minimum amount of sugar to set (usually one cup of sugar to one cup of liquid) – jams are more forgiving on this front.

8. Boil gently at first, then at full-bore. This is an often disputed point in  jam making.  Pete’s approach is this: bring the fruit, pectin and lemon juice to a gentle (but proper) boil, and keep it at that level until the fruit softens to a consistency you’re happy with.  Add the sugar, then bring it back up to a gentle boil until the sugar dissolves.  Skim well at this point – you won’t be able to skim once the pot is boiling vigorously. Once the sugar is dissolved and the jam has been clarified, then raise the heat and bring the pot to a full rolling boil (one that rises up in the pot) until the jam is set.

Jellies in particular will never set until they are brought to a feverish boil which causes them to rise up in the pot (which is why you need to use a big, wide pot!).  If you’ve brought them to a rising boil and the jelly still won’t set, you will probably need to add something – either more pectin, sugar or acid.

9. Always skim off as much foam as you can. This is particularly important with jelly – as it boils, the foam rising to the surface carries with it the impurities (for want of a better word) in the jelly, and the more you can remove at this time, the clearer and more jewel-like the finished product will be.  By the way, foam and surface scum are really good signs – they mean the pectin is doing its job and setting the preserve.

10. Test for set. Before you start, put a small saucer in the fridge to cool.  Alternatively, you could use an ice-pack and put the saucer on that to chill.  Test the jam or jelly by putting a small blob on the cold saucer.  Wait a minute or two, then give the jam a poke with your finger.  If it wrinkles, then it’s ready. Make sure you turn off the heat while you’re testing, or you might end up scorching your jam.

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11.  Hot water processing. Another hotly debated issue and there are many people who don’t believe this step is necessary.  We always ladle our jams and jellies into sterilised jars, then seal them and boil them in a hot water bath for ten minutes.  It’s an easy process, providing you remember to put the hot jars in hot water (pouring cold water on the hot jars can crack them – I learnt that the hard way).  We either use a pasta pot, or we place a silicone mat in the base of our big stock pot, and stand the jars on that.  Make sure the boiling water covers the top of the jars by at least 2.5cm (1″).   Please note that if you’re making preserves other than sweet jams and jellies, then hot water processing may not be adequate, and you might need to invest in a pressure canner to ensure food safety.

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© copyright 2009 by Fig Jam and Lime Cordial. All rights reserved.

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Do you have any jam making tips?  We’d love to hear them! And for more information, including recipes, please have a look at our JAMS page.

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