Making jams, jellies: Use fruit at their peak of quality for preserves

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MARSHALL, Ill. — Making jams and jellies is a great way to learn how to preserve food.

“Food preservation is science, but it’s not rocket science, and for jams and jellies, you only need three ingredients — fruit, sugar and pectin,” said Mary Liz Wright, University of Illinois Extension nutrition and wellness educator.

“You must follow the directions exactly, and by doing so, you will end up with a safe and delicious product,” Wright said during a Fill Your Pantry webinar.

Choose the fruit or vegetable at its peak of ripeness and at its best quality, Wright said.

“Begin the preservation process as soon as possible because we want to slow down or stop the degradation process that is natural to that fruit or vegetable,” Wright said.

“With canning, we do it with temperature and pressure to inactivate the enzymes and kill the microorganisms that can cause food borne illness.”

Jams are made with the whole fruit that is chopped up, jellies only include the juice of the fruit and both are made using the water bath canning method.

“Avoid the open kettle method because science has shown us that it is best to process in a boiling water bath,” Wright said.

Before even gathering the fruit for making preserves, the first step should always be hand washing.

“We recommend washing your hands before going to the garden because if there are germs on your hands you will transfer the germs to the produce,” Wright said.

Wright said she advises canners to choose a recipe that was developed after 1985.

“Find a tested recipe that comes from a reliable source such as the National Center for Home Food Preservation or the USDA Canning Guide,” she said.

Canning requires the appropriate jars.

“You’re going to a lot of trouble and some expense to do this, so if you use a jar that is not a commercial-grade canning jar, you run the risk of that jar exploding in the canner,” Wright said.

“Use the size of jars the recipe suggests,” she said. “If you use a different size of jar, the processing time will be off and you will likely end up with a product that is not of the same consistency.”

Jars must be sterilized when the processing time in the recipe is less than 10 minutes. “Over processing jams and jellies can darken the end product,” Wright said.

“Don’t use the sanitizing setting on your dishwasher because there’s a difference between sanitizing and sterilizing,” she said. “Sanitizing is getting something really clean, and sterilizing is killing all present bacteria.”

Rings can be used multiple times, but lids only once.

“Don’t use one-piece lids, and we don’t recommend using paraffin wax because there could be a hairline crack at the edge of the wax and mold could get in there,” Wright said.

If commercial pectin is not used, Wright said, heat the jam or jelly to 218 to 220 degrees and check the temperature with a candy or deep fry thermometer.

“You can also use the sheet test,” she said. “Dip a cool metal spoon into the boiling mixture, pull it up and if you see several drops of the mixture coming off the spoon, it’s not cooked to the consistency of jelly. If it comes down and two drops form into one, then it is the right consistency.”

After cooking, fill the jars to the appropriate headspace, which is one-quarter of an inch for most jams and jellies.

“Wipe the rims clean, add the lid and ring, load the jars into the canner and add boiling water to cover all the jars with 1 to 2 inches of water,” Wright said. “The canner will need 1 to 2 inches of air space at the top of the pot for the action of the boiling not to bubble out and on the stove.”

Once the water reaches a rolling boil, set the timer for processing, Wright said.

“You must process for the time stated in the recipe,” she said. “Once completed, turn the heat off, remove the canner lid and let the jars sit for five minutes before pulling them out of the water.”

Jars of jams and jellies should sit undisturbed for 12 to 24 hours.

“Check the seals, and if they didn’t seal, they can be reprocessed,” Wright said. “Label the jars with the food and date, and remove the ring so you can observe if there’s any spoilage occurring during storage. Store your jars in a cool, dry place.”

Although making jam and jelly is a relatively easy process, Wright said, there are things that can go wrong.

“If it is too stiff, maybe you cooked it too long,” she said. “Or, if there are sugar crystals, maybe you didn’t stir at the sides of the pan.”

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