Homemade jam definitely tastes like childhood memories. And what better fruit to make it with than the spoils of summer? Make your homemade jam with strawberries, apricots, plums and any other fruit you choose. And it shouldn't taste like sugar! Learn how to make it properly.
It’s almost the end of the summer and in my mind, this translates into preserving foods like pickles, roasted red bell peppers, tomato sauce, and as many summer fruit as you can buy. These days, my mother cans dozens of jars of jam made with all kind of fruit: apricots, strawberries, plums, raspberries, cranberries, quinces, and sour cherries. She even made jam once using summer squash. That's when I realized you can make homemade jam out of almost anything if you add sugar.
So, because my mother makes jam for the entire family – I think she still has jam jars from two years ago in her cellar – my sister-in-law and I don’t have to make any more. Still, I’ve made some apricot jam and strawberries jam (small quantities), just for fun and because I like to make it less sweet than my mom does.
First of all, I need to specify that jam isn’t jelly. While homemade jam means chopped fruit cooked with sugar, resulting in a chunky and relatively thick sweet spread, jelly means that the cooked mixture is passed through a jelly bag.
Many fruit jams are made with the addition of pectin for thickening. Pectin is a naturally occurring substance found in fruit which, when heated together with sugar, leads to a thickening that is characteristic of jams and jellies. You can buy it in powdered form, but you can also make homemade jam with just fresh fruit, lemon juice, and sugar, without extra pectin. Jam made without pectin is a little softer and looser than jam made with pectin, but I like it that way. I never use (neither my mom) pectin powder.
How to Make Homemade Jam
Prepare the fruit
Start by removing any leaves and twigs, wash the fruit, and remove their pits. Cut the fruit into even pieces. This step is available if you use bigger fruit like quinces, apricots, or plums. Raspberries and cranberries are too small to cut, but sometimes you can halve or quarter your strawberries.
Choose fruit that are at their tastiest but not overly ripe; older fruit has lower acid and less pectin.
How much sugar
The amount of sugar you need to make jam depends on the amount of pectin in your chosen fruit, but generally, the fruit-to-sugar ratio for traditional jams is 1:1. So, if you want a very sweet jam, follow this recipe: 1 lb (450 g) fruit, 1 lb (450 g) granulated sugar, and lemon juice and/or pectin (depending on the fruit you use). Adding a few squeezes of lemon juice to low-pectin fruits will help them set.
You can reduce the sugar amount if you make homemade jam with fruit with a high level of pectin. Check the pectin content in fruit and then decide how much sugar to add.
- tart, underripe apples
- unripe blackberries
- lemons, limes
- crab apples
- ripe apples
- ripe blackberries
- sour cherries
- ripe cherries
- Italian plums
Mash the fruit and sugar together
After you've washed the fruit and made your decision about how much sugar to use, add the fruit to a pan big enough to ensure the fruit does not reach more than halfway up the side. Then add the sugar. Use a potato masher to work the jam and sugar together. This releases moisture from the fruit and gets them cooking faster.
Place your pan on low heat. As the fruit heats through, the warm and sweet smell will fill the air. Cook until you bring the mixture to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally. Continue cooking until tender, no more than that. Otherwise, the fruit will lose their shape.
The trick when making jam without pectin is time. The fruit and sugar need plenty of time to cook and thicken, on low heat. A long, slow boil drives the moisture out of the fruit, helping to preserve and thicken it at the same time.
Fruit varies in water content as well, and some fruits may take longer to jam up. Start checking the jam for thickness after at least 20 minutes of a steady boil. In the beginning, you’ll see juicy bubbles which transform, in time, into small, tighter bubbles as the jam gets closer to doneness. You might need to add a little water though if your fruit is very dry.
You have to learn when the jam is done. And, for that, you should test it. Spoon a bit of jam onto a chilled plate, refrigerate it for two minutes, then drag your finger through it. The mixture should be homogenous, with no liquid seeping out. Your finger should make a clear path through the jam; this means your jam is set. A ‘hard set’ means a stiff jam, while a ‘soft set’ means it will be spreadable.
If you jam is still runny, simmer a few minutes longer and try again.
Too sweet? How to fix it
One of the reasons we like to make homemade jam is that way we can control the level of sweetness in it. Some fruits have a higher sugar content, depending on ripeness and variety. So, it may take some time for you to find out how sweet you like it and how much sugar to add. Still, there are solutions if you realize you’ve made it too sweet.
If your jam tastes way too sweet, adjust it with a touch of acid: add lemon juice or even a splash of fruit vinegar right before you remove it from the heat.
Add it to jars
When the jam is set, remove the pan from the heat and transfer the jam to clean jars. Cover and cool completely. From now on, you have two options. Storing the jam in the refrigerator – where it’ll last several weeks – or can the jars. But that’s another story. To be continued…
If you decide you don't need a large quantity of jam, just some topping for your French toast, pancakes or waffles, you can make it this way: