"My jams never gel." E complained. “I followed the recipe exactly and it was STILL runny!”
Her boss added that she had a whole freezer full of fruit jams to be that never quite…well…jammed.
And while I wasn’t the one that gave either of these women their recipes, it occurred to me how obscure the process of making any kind of preserves really is. What the hell does “cook till its thick” mean?
Thick like what? Maple syrup? Molasses? Motor oil?
What is the proper viscosity of jam?
I will freely admit that I don’t use recipes to make jam. I have never been prone to really using recipes in the first place and in the second place; no jam recipe is a recipe exactly. It’s more of a process.
And like every jam maker, I have my own.
My youthful memories are full of the smells of winter canning. In the Ukraine, when I was a child at least, if you did not put up your own preserves during summer, you had no fruits and veggies during winter. Except for cabbage and potatoes who’s bleak countenance could be found pretty much everywhere at any time. Something that leads me to believe that potatoes are actually the unnatural union or dirt and dust bunnies. But that’s a whole other topic.
Back to preserves. So my youthful memories were of gigantic simmering pots of all kinds of fascinating fruit and veggie concoctions that my mother dutifully canned and hid in the basement never to be see again…ahem… to re-emerge during the dead of winter. She never used recipes. For her it was always a little bit of that and a little bit of this and oh a pinch of somfinelse there. I of course, being young and having nowhere else to go, dabbled at her feet. Or more precisely, I interfered with her work.
I don’t can like she did. Quite frankly the fear of poisoning myself and others is enough to keep me quite far from the whole canning process, but the vague memories of a waning summer filled with the glorious smells of simmering fruit do occasionally propel me into the kitchen.
I make jam in an improvised sort of way. What ever fruit I have on hand plus what ever my eye lands on in the cupboard. Jam is a fluid thing. No pun intended. You can pretty much make jam out of anything.
During my relatives’ stay, I made them mango-pineapple with passion fruit juice. They craved tropical fruits which for them are expensive and difficult to get. For myself, I often make strawberry or mixed berry. I keep bunches of different berries in the freezer just in the case I the urge strikes me.
The sunny jam in the photos happens to be the very last of this year’s crop of tiny honey tangerines. No bigger than a key lime, these tiny jewels taste like sunshine. But spoil quickly. I spent their entire growing season looking for reasons to eat them. I marinated shrimp in them, I used them for vinaigrettes, and when I managed to haul home three pounds of them, I made jam.
What ever your choice of ingredients; the process is pretty much the same. Stick fruit plus liquid plus seasoning into a pot and boil the heck out of it until thick.
Oh and there’s that word again. Er…and this is where I am supposed to tell you all kinds of scientific stuff that involves fancy equipment and sugar gradients and all that. Except I am not.
When my mother was little, her grandmother made her churn butter. The old fashioned way with a huge butter churn. My mother, being impatient, kept asking her when she would be done to which my great grandmother would reply “when your bottom is sweaty.” So my mother would churn the butter with one hand and check her bottom with the other.
So it is with jam. It is done when it is done. A sure sign of impending doneness is a kitchen the looks like it has caught some kind of strange measles. I tell by how hard it is to stir and the way it sticks to the spoon. You can tell by placing a small blob of it on a frozen plate. If it runs, it ain’t done yet. At best the blob should appear as if it might want to move but is far too lazy to actually do more than leer at the other edge of the plate.
This takes roughly half of an eternity. Slightly faster if you use higher heat. Though if you do use higher heat, it is imperative to also use a splatter guard and employ a large kitchen staff. Cause even with the splatter guard, a significant portion of your kitchen will be covered in interestingly colored spots. This is particularly fun when making several different colors of jam at once and the pots play dueling rapid fire splatter.
Below is my process for making jam. Something I do fairly regularly in spite of the mess and bother simply because, nothing but nothing makes fruit taste more like itself than jam. In the below recipe I am not including measurements. This is because everyone’s tastes are different and thus I expect everyone to adjust accordingly. That is what I would do.
Oh and a note to the note quite patient: If you don’t cook your jam long enough, it does not mean your efforts are wasted. Boiled fruit in sugar is useful for lots of things even if you can’t spread it on toast. If you put it through a blender you can have coulis (you know, French for: it will cost you another 20) or a perfectly fine drink mixer. Strawberry lemonade anyone? Left chunky, slightly liquidy jam makes excellent ice cream topping or pancake topping. Or if all else fails and you had your heart set on jam you can put it back in the pot and continue to cook. Pout Puckering Preservers 
Pout Puckering Preservers Fruit 
Clean and wash the fruit. Slice into manageable chunks and dust with sugar.
Let stand for an hour so that the sugar can draw out some of the liquid.
Place the fruit plus their extracted liquid into a stock pot. Preferably one that is non-stick and has a relatively thick bottom. Add the additional liquid and more sugar. Don’t add to much now, you can always add more later. The liquid should be lightly sweet.
Add in your flavorings (in a cheesecloth if they are want to wander) and bring the whole thing to a boil over medium high heat. Continue to boil until fruit is soft.
If you want a more uniform end product, this is the time to put the fruit and some of the liquid through a food processor. This is also the time to strain out seeds and other unwanted bits. If not, continue to boil. Medium high heat is fine so long as you continue to stir often, being certain to scrape the bottom well.
In the mean time, place a plate in the freezer.
At a certain point you will start to notice that the preserves to be have stopped boiling like a liquid and simply bubble… more or less like mud. This is the time to put on the splatter guard. It is when most of the liquid has boiled out and the preserves begin to concentrate that they are at their most dangerous. This is also the time to take out your flavorings bag. This is also time to check for sugar. Add more if you like, or balance a too sweet proto-jam with lemon juice.
Continue to cook until the preserves are thick enough to leave a clean spot on the bottom of them pan when you scrape or when a blob is placed on the frozen plate it does not try to run away. Hit the jam with a little bit of extra lemon juice to brighten the fruit flavor.
Turn the heat off, cool and enjoy.
Preserves last in the fridge for about a month or in the freezer for up to a year. Or if you are really brave, try canning.
 I call them pout puckering preserves because I like my fruit jams on the tart side.
 Fruit is a relative term here and can be almost anything, from apples to raspberries. You can also used veggies like bell peppers, cucumbers, and eggplant. Chiles are another good addition. Sweet heat is an unbeatable combination.
 I prefer to use either vanilla sugar or raw sugar. I honestly prefer raw sugar, but it can darken light colored fruit jams so it is sometimes not the best choice. Vanilla sugar adds wonderful scent and a certain richness to the finished product. Yumm.
 Flavorings can be anything or nothing. Here are a few of my favorite: rose water with berries especially strawberries and raspberries, orange flower water with citrus peaches and nectarines, almond extract with cherries or apricots, pink or Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, star anis, and cinnamon.
 This liquid is used to get the fruit going before they release their own but can also be used to flavor the resulting jam. Orange, apple, and passion fruit juices work particularly well though I have been known to add cranberry, pomegranate, and cherry juice to my jams. Use a flavor that is complimentary or just use water. Either way you don’t need very much. Just enough o make the fruit barely float.