Demystifying Jam Making

jam making

My Christmas jam making exploits…

I was making some glorious Christmas jam the other day from a recipe given to me by my great friend Gloria. We met through my own blog as she has a passion for pickle and jam making. In fact she makes jams and chutneys and sells them to raise money for AIDS orphans in South Africa. She’s South African herself you see, now living in Oz, long story, but still supports the local community back home. Now the recipe she gave me was one the old Dutch settlers used to make for a Christmas treat. It’s absolutely delicious; just like taking a mouthful of Christmas if you know what I mean. What’s more with a bit of Christmassy food colouring and Val’s lovely gourmet food jars, it would make a terrific present for that awkward to buy for aunt. I thoroughly recommend you make some, just click here for the recipe.

However, I digress, the point is on first boiling the jam wouldn’t set, so I fiddled with a few things and soon it was behaving perfectly. But it did make me think how many people would have thrown their hands up in horror at that point and given up or indeed how many people don’t even embark on jam making because they think it’s too difficult. So I thought what a nice idea it would be to put the record straight. Jam making is in fact very simple. The first step to having confidence in jam making is to realise that it’s not some black art, but a reproducible scientific process. Don’t let the word scientific put you off either, all I mean is if certain things are there in the right order and quantity it will work every time.

If we start by knowing what jam is, then we start to demystify the process. Jam is a water based gel, made from pectin that binds together in a latticework, literally holding the water or fruit juice in place to make it “solid,” in the same way as gelatine holds the fruit jelly together in your trifle. To make this happen we need to have sugar present which acts like blotting paper soaking up lots of the available water, forcing the pectin to come together and make the lattice. Most importantly, this process will only occur in an acidic mixture.

jam making

D-Galacturonic Acid the building blocks for jam making

Wait a minute I here you shout, you’re just like the rest of them. You bandy about this word pectin and nobody ever explains what it is or what it does. Let’s remedy that then, right now. Pectin is a substance that is found in the skins and to a lesser extent the flesh of all fruits and vegetables. It is simply a long chain of sugar molecules, a bit like a bead necklace. This bead necklace however, has little hooks on some of its beads. When lots of these necklaces come together, it’s inevitable that some of the hooks on one necklace will get caught up with hooks on another to form a big tangled mess. Well that tangled mess is your lattice that forms the gel.

So, now we know that all we need to make jam is sugar and pectin in an acidic mixture; the question is, why does it seem to go wrong so often? Well the secret is that although those are the only things you need to make jam, they have to be present in the right quantities – and that really is the only secret!

So for nearly every jam we can say with complete confidence that; if you have 1.2kg of sugar along with a generous teaspoon full of citric acid for every 1kg of fruit pulp/juice your jam will set. In fact if you have your ingredients in these proportions there will be no need to boil the jam for any longer than 30 seconds to a minute, meaning you keep all the great flavour of the fruit. You can always tell if you have the right ratio of ingredients as you will get a boil that looks like the picture. I like to describe it as being like volcanic lava.

jam making

Rolling boil when jam making

And that really is it! Okay, I can hear all the health conscious jam making experts shouting at the screen and yes I’m fully aware that jam can be made with far less sugar using specially adapted pectin and of course we will go into that process some other time for those that want to watch their, and more importantly, their kids sugar intake. But for now if you follow the simple rules we’ve outlined here you won’t go far wrong when making, shall I say, “traditional” jam. Next time we’ll take a good look at the equipment we need to make our jam making not just easy for us but also hygienic. Until then I hope this has gone some way to demystifying your jam making successes and more importantly failures.

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