August is a great time to preserve all of the beautiful peaches and blackberries so many of us are harvesting fresh from our gardens or buying at our local farmers markets now. Some people are also still harvesting blueberries, some strawberry plants produce fruit all summer long, and you can expect raspberries will be ready to harvest again in the fall, along with grapes and other local fruits like apples.
One way to enjoy the sweet taste of summer all year long is to use these glorious local fruits to make jams or jellies. It's also a great way to use extra fruit, if your garden produces more than you can eat before it goes bad, or when you buy too much at once. Making jellies and jam is a great way to use up fruit that's not good enough for freezing or canning, as long as it's not overripe, spoiled or moldy.
Making jams and jellies is easy, if you follow your recipe's instructions exactly. Using the correct amounts of four ingredients; fruit, pectin, acid and sugar; is essential, and the fruit should be fully ripe. It is possible to make jams and jellies without added pectin, however, if you try this, you will need to make sure of your fruit is under ripe to produce successful jams or jellies.
People often wonder about the role of pectin in jams and jellies. Pectin is necessary for gel formation. It occurs naturally in most fruits, concentrated in their skins and cores. That's why many jam and jelly recipes include the skins and cores during the preparation of juice or pulp. However, the amount of pectin varies depending on the type of fruit and its degree of ripeness. Under ripe fruit has more pectin. The pectin changes to a non-gel-forming substance as a fruit ripens. That's why, if you decide not to add pectin, you should plan to use a ratio of under ripe to fully ripe fruit to ensure sufficient pectin. Fruits containing enough natural pectin and acid to gel without added pectin, when they're not overripe, include sour blackberries, cranberries, loganberries, currants, gooseberries, eastern concord and wild grapes, quinces, lemons, crabapples, tart apples, and plums, with the exception of Italian plums.
Consequently, you'll want to combine fruits low in pectin with a high-pectin fruit, or you will need to use a commercial pectin product when making your jams and jellies. Fruit low in pectin include blueberries, cherries, peaches, pears, apricots, pineapple, Italian prunes, raspberries, figs, rhubarb and strawberries. Commercially canned or frozen fruit juices are also low in pectin.
Commercial pectins are made from apple or citrus fruits. They come in liquid and powder form. Be careful when selecting which to use because they can't be used interchangeably. Follow your recipe's instructions closely. You'll find most manufacturers of commercial pectins supply instructions for making jams and jellies with their products. If you're new to making jams and jellies, you may want to use commercial pectin for that very reason, and because it can be used with any fruit, cooking times are shorter and more standardized, and your overall yield will likely be higher.
Attaining the right level of acidity is also critical to gel formation. When there's too little acid, the gel won't ever set, but if there's too much acid, the gel will lose liquid. Some refer to this as weeping, which is also what you may do if your jam or jelly is too acidic. If you're working with fruits low in acid, all you have to do is add lemon juice or other recommended acidic ingredients as directed by your recipe. If you're using commercial pectin products, you'll find they already contain acids that help ensure gelling.
While it might sound like a good idea to make double batches, or healthier to reduce the amount of sugar in a recipe, it's not a good idea. It will interfere with gel formation. Sugar is a preserving agent, contributes flavor and aids in gelling. Also, if you decide to replace any of the sugar in a recipe with a sweetener like honey or corn syrup, be sure to use a tested recipe because too much of either can alter the gel structure. They may also mask that wonderful fruit flavor you're trying so hard to preserve. You really don't want to reduce the amount of sugar in traditional recipes. While too little sugar prevents gelling, even worse, it can lead to the growth of yeasts and molds.
Plan to use standard canning jars in half-pint to pint size, for your jellied products, always using new lids. Before you start, check to be sure all of your jars are perfect. Discard jars with cracks, chips or defects that could prevent an airtight seal and never reuse old lids. Old lids dramatically increase the likelihood of an imperfect seal, which will lead to spoilage. Who wants to throw out all their hard work? And no one wants to get sick from eating moldy jam. Again, use only new, unused lids. Bands, however, can be reused if they aren't rusty and still seal tightly.
Process all you jams and jellies in a boiling water bath to prevent mold growth. Mold develops on jellied fruit products when the seal is not vacuum tight. Molds on jams and jellies were once thought to be harmless. No doubt you've seen someone simply scrape it off the top before using the rest of a jar of jelly or jam. However, we now know that microscopic mold filaments and toxins may extend well beyond the mold itself. These have produced cancer in test animals, so don't take a chance with mold.
Before putting your jelly away for storage, remove the screw band on every single jar and check the seals. Label your jars with the type of jelly or jam, canning method and date. Then store them in a cool, dry, dark, clean area.
The sooner you eat your jams and jellies, the better their flavor and quality will be. Flavor and quality begin to decrease within a few months, but you can expect most jellied products to keep for a year. However, for safety's sake, make sure you do use them up within that year. With something this tasty, it's unlikely that will be a problem.
If you're looking for more ideas to improve your lifestyle, check out Cornell University Cooperative Extension's Family and Consumer Science program. You'll find fun new ways to save money, improve your eating patterns, keep food safe, and fit more exercise into your busy life. Sessions are held at convenient times and locations throughout Chautauqua County. Bilingual education is available. For more information call 664-9502 ext. 217.
2 quarts crushed, peeled peaches
6 cups sugar
Method: Sterilize canning jars. Combine peaches and water; cook gently 10 minutes. Add sugar; slowly bring to boiling, stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves. Cook rapidly until thick, about 15 minutes; stir frequently to prevent sticking. Pour hot jam into hot jars, leaving -inch headspace. Wipe jar rims and adjust lids. Process five minutes in a boiling water bath. Recipe makes about eight half-pint jars.
Note: For Spiced Peach Jam, tie the following ingredients in cheesecloth and add to the jam during cooking: 1 teaspoon whole cloves, teaspoon whole allspice, and a stick of cinnamon (3-inch piece). Remove the spice bag before pouring jam into hot jars.
Source: Clemson University Cooperative Extension clemson.edu/extension/hgic/food/food_safety/preservation/hgic3140.html
Patty Hammond leads Family and Consumer Science Programs at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County. Her column is published on the first Sunday of each month in The Observer and on the second Sunday of each month in The Post Journal.