I find jelly to be fascinating – the province of grandmas, carrying on old family traditions. Even for adventurous cooks, jelly making can be a challenge. Most often, they are tried once, and not returned to. Why? Because jelly places much more emphasis on the balance of fruit, sugar, and liquids than do jams or preserves, which are much more forgiving. Jelly is a two day job, unlike jams and preserves, which can be done in one. And jellies depend more on pectin to develop its classic character – if the pectin in the fruit is lacking, as it often is, the jell may never happen. An additional requirement for jellies is acid – if there’s not enough acid present, the jell will be weak. Even when everything else is perfect, the jelly maker must bring the mixture to a boil and keep it there, without burning, until it reaches the perfect temperature to “Jell” – and then immediately stop everything and quickly jar it. The grandmas do all this without resorting to commercial pectin, a fact that only increases the mystique, and challenge, of jelly making.
I made jelly today – the good part was that I used my own fruit – the bad part was that it did not turn out perfectly. I’ve made jelly several times before, so I’m not a novice. But this batch was blackberry/apple, which I’d never made before. Looking back on it, here’s what went wrong: I didn’t test for pectin strength; my chosen recipe was somewhat heavy on the sugar; and as a result of those facts, the jelly cooked well beyond the normal jell point of 220 degrees. My jelly did not so much jell as it concentrated – it simply lost enough liquid to get very stiff.
It’s OK – I lucked out in that when jelly overcooks as mine did, it usually has a scorched taste, but mine does not – so it’s still usable, just not perfect. My biggest problem is trying to remember my mistakes when I next make jelly – I’m betting next year this time, I won’t even remember what kind of jelly I made today!
Do you know how to test for pectin strength? Perhaps you don’t care to know – but if you’re making jelly or jam, it can be very helpful to know how much pectin is in your fruit and juice, for it’s the pectin that creates the jell. For those of you who might find it convenient to know, here’s how you do it.
Put a tablespoon of rubbing alcohol in a glass, add a teaspoon of the fruit juice you are using, stir, wait a few minutes, stir again
now using a fork, try to raise the congealed glob in the glass out of the alcohol – if you can remove the whole glob, your pectin level is fine, and your jelly or jam will jell.
But if the glob is only partially congealed, and only part of it can be raised on the fork, your pectin is not strong enough to make a nice jell – it will be a thin jell.
If you see no congealed matter in the glass, only a cloudy mass, you will get almost no jell at all – and your best option is to use commercial pectin to make your jelly or jam.
Kind of neat, huh! Now, throw your test liquid away.