One of the most delicious things you can do with a glut of fresh fruit is to make your own jam, so you can enjoy the summery taste all through the year. But many jam recipes, like most commercial jam, contain as much or more sugar than fruit, by weight, making them far too sweet and not as fruity as they could be. Fortunately, it is easy to make jam with as much as three parts fruit to one part sugar. While this jam may be more expensive1 than that made to a traditional 1:1 recipe, since it uses more fruit and less cheap sugar, it is also much tastier and much healthier, and an hour's effort can keep you supplied for months. This recipe will also appease your inner environmentalist, as you can use fresh, local fruit, less processed, imported sugar, and even store it in recycled the jars!
Whatever you've got to hand will work, whether fresh-picked at home or in a commercial orchard, frozen during harvest season, or bought from the supermarket. For some reason, many supermarkets have a "best before" date on fruit and will sell it off very cheaply as this date is reached, whether it's entirely ripe or not – if you're open to interesting fruit combinations and prepared to make your jam spontaneously whenever you find fruit on offer, you can make jam very cheaply indeed! Better yet, cultivate your friendships with neighbours with an orchard, or go brambling or pick other wild fruit in season. To make a clear jam2, you could even use pure fruit juice.
The reason many recipes call for a 1:1 fruit to sugar ratio is that the sugar helps the jam to set as well as preserving the finished product. However, commercial products are available that contain added pectin3 and citric acids, a combination that allows jam to set with a much smaller amount of added sugar. Look for jam or gelling sugars formulated for a 2:1 or 3:1 fruit to sugar ratio, or sachets of gelling powder that can be added to ordinary sugar.
If you cannot find such sugars for sale in your country – in Europe, the UK especially seems not to have discovered the joys of jam-making sugars – you may be able to extract your own pectin from sources such as citrus fruits and apples (save up the peels in the freezer) or even carrots, which have a surprisingly high pectin concentration, then add your pectin and some extra lemon juice to the jam to ensure that it sets, in amounts depending on the pectin already present in the fruit you are using. However, this is rather laborious and will require experimentation to get right, so if possible, have someone from a country with a more highly developed jam-making culture send you some gelling powder sachets.
One reason UK recipes seem to shy away from high-fruit jams is that they tend to assume that jars will not be vacuum sealed, merely covered with a wax disc and clingfilm. This is a sure-fire way to make jam go bad quickly. However, you don't need commercial Amercian-style canning jars, either. Simply clean and collect glass jars with metal lids as they become empty in your household – from jams, pasta sauces, pesto, pickles, and other preserves, making sure you save the right lid for each jar, and that the lid is indeed metal and not plastic4. Soaking them for a while will help remove the paper labels. Interesting jars are especially good, because they will make great gifts!
Jam is best made in relatively small batches, because setting can be erratic in larger volumes, due to uneven heating. Don't use more than 2kg of fruit (about 4 lbs) at a time – this has the added advantage that it won't overfill your cooking pot.
- Whichever combination of fruit strikes your fancy, skinned5, peeled, de-stemmed and de-seeded, pitted or hulled as appropriate, and cut into small pieces.
- Jam-making or jelling sugar, or plain sugar and gelling powder – the amount depends on the amount of fruit you use and the type of sugar. Check the packet, remembering that the ratio will be by weight, not volume.
- Any spices or other flavourings you'd like to use – ginger, a splash of wine or brandy, cinnamon, or whatever strikes your fancy.
Fortunately, jam-making doesn't require any fancy equipment you're unlikely to have in your kitchen, though the bigger your pot, the better. It will splatter.
- Clean jars, as many as you think you'll need and then some – it's better to prepare too many than to have too few.
- A big pot. Think spaghetti-making or soup, not a saucepan.
- A wooden spoon for stirring, and a ladle for scooping. If you have any particularly small or narrow jars, a wide-mouthed funnel is your friend.
- A tea towel that you don't mind slopping jam on.
- A small plate, cooled in the fridge for several hours if possible, or rinsed in cold water.
Start by cutting the fruit into small chunks and layering it with the sugar (and gelling powder, if you're using it) in your pot, then set it aside for a while to allow the sugar to start drawing out the juices. This is the right time to give your jars and lids another good wash in very hot water – you'll have your hands full later. Rinse them to make sure you don't leave any soap to spoil your jam, and let them air dry, if possible.
Clear some workspace beside your hob, preferably right next to the burner you'll be setting the pot on, and line it with a wet towel. Set the jars on the towel, each with its corresponding lid within easy reach. As so often in life, the towel is very important here – it will help dissipate the heat of the jam quickly when you fill the jars, to keep them from shattering.
Now slowly bring the sugared fruit to the boil, stirring frequently to keep it from burning. If it's still too chunky for your taste, you can use a potato masher at this point to make your jam a little smoother. If you're using spices like cinnamon sticks, mint leaves, or similar, make sure you don't mash them, so you can pick them out! When it's boiled for a few minutes, scoop out a teaspoonful and slip it onto the cold plate – if it sets as it cools, the jam is ready to put into jars. If it doesn't set, leave it to boil for a few minutes longer. Be careful to use a fresh spoon every time if you're tempted to taste some – like starch-based puddings and sauces, the enzymes in saliva can start to break down the jam and keep it liquid, ruining the whole lot.
Turn off the heat to keep the jam from burning while you're otherwise occupied, and work quickly to decant the jam while it's still hot. Fill each jar to the top, then immediately put on the lid and turn it upside-down for at least five minutes6 to ensure that every part of the jar has been in contact with the hot jam, which will sterilise it. Don't leave too much air – a selection of jars in different sizes comes in handy here. Any excess can be put in a bowl and left to set, for immediate consumption. As the jam cools, it will decrease in volume, vacuum-sealing the jar. The little pop-out button on the lids should pop back in, showing that they're properly sealed.
Ta-daaa! You now have a gleaming row of jars full of lovely homemade jam, ready to be squirreled away for the dark months ahead.
Wipe the outside of the jars to remove any jam splatters, then keep your jam in a cool, dark place, though you won't need to refrigerate it until it has been opened. It will keep for years, though it may lose its colour over time, especially if exposed to direct sunlight. Fortunately, it's so tasty that's unlikely to become a problem! Don't forget to sign and date your work of art – sticky labels from the stationery department work well – especially if you're giving it away. To avoid confusion and make a gift jar more festive, you can cover lids still showing what the jar held before with a circle of paper or fabric or a small decorative napkin, held in place with a rubber band.
Because you're using extra pectin, you don't have to worry about combining high and low pectin fruit, so you're free to experiment! You can go by colour, by season, by geographic region, or even try to replicate your favourite cocktail in jam form. Why don't you tell us about your favourite crazy concoction below?