Is jam making an art or a science? Well the commercial jams you find in the shops are definitely more of a science – a bit chemical and unnatural. However making jam at home results in an entirely different product – a bit lyrical, beautiful and definitely artistic.
The history of jam making
Jam didn’t become really popular until the 19th century because sugar had been too rare and expensive up to this point. Fruit was sometimes preserved in honey to make a kind of jellied sweet. However the arrival of West Indies sugar made jam a much more affordable treat and an essential for the working classes, whose bread was rather dark, coarse and unappetising.
Commercial jams even then contained less fruit and more sugar, whereas a homemade version tends to use the opposite ration and is far more flavoursome and satisfying as a result.
Jam making basics
Jam is essentially a very simple mixture of fruit and sugar, thickened by strands of pectin weaving its way through the mixture. Start with a equal quantities of fruit and sugar and play with the recipe until you find the ratio that best suits you but be careful – if you cut out too much sugar the jam won’t set and if you use too much it will go hard.
Almost any fruit can be preserved as jam but you usually get better results from less ripe fruits – over ripe fruit contains less pectin and acid. Some fruits naturally contain lots of pectin for an easy set, such as quinces, grapes and blackberries, while for others you will need to add some pectin to make the jam set – rhubarb, apricots and strawberries need extra help. Lemon juice can have the same effect in some cases.
Start by heating your fruit gently until it is tender but still holds its shape. If your fruits are moist they can be cooked alone but for drier fruits you’ll need to add a little water. To release pectin from the fruit you will have to bring it to the boil. Strands of pectin fibre are what hold jam together and can be added by using special preserving sugar, by adding lemon juice or by mixing higher pectin fruits with lower pectin varieties.
When you add the sugar, allow it to dissolve completely, stirring regularly, before bringing the mixture to the boil. You can stop stirring now and allow to bubble away for five to 20 minutes or so before checking for a setting point.