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Basic Guide to Making Jams and Preserves

Everyone loves to receive them. Those colorful Mason jars full of homemade preserves, jams, and jellies, lovingly created and topped with a pretty fabric cover and tied with a ribbon, are ideal gifts not only for the Christmas holidays but at any time of the year. Fresh jams and preserves are so much tastier than those you buy at the supermarket and many are the result of age-old recipes passed down from one cook to another, making them even more special.

Each year, millions of home cooks turn fruits of many varieties into delightful jellied concoctions. Most will tell you that after they got the hang of how all the steps fit together, it wasn’t that hard. It’s natural, however, to feel a bit apprehensive about taking fresh fruit and turning it into jam, but with a few simple steps to guide you, you’ll be producing preserves in no time at all.

Choosing the Fruit

No matter what kind of fruit you choose to use in your preserves, it’s important that it be of high quality. If you wouldn’t eat it in its whole form, don’t put it in your jam! Fresh, local fruit is great to use, so you may want to choose a time that your favorite fruit is in season to do your preserve making.

Fruit should be ripe yet still firm and you’ll want to be sure that the flavor is to your liking, so taste the fruit before using it.

Once you’ve chosen the fruit, don’t wash it until you’re ready to use it. Prepare it only as you need it and work in small batches. Large batches may not set up correctly.
If you’d like to freeze the fruit for later use, spread washed fruit out on a tray and put it in the freezer until frozen. Remove the trays and place the fruit in freezer bags, squeezing out as much air as possible.

Cooking the Fruit

After you’ve washed, dried, and trimmed the fruit you’ll be using, place it in a sauce pan (you can buy special jam/jelly pans) and simmer it until it gets mushy and soft. Time for this will vary with the type of fruit used but it should take about 30 minutes. Don’t cook it at too high a temperature as it may scorch or stick to the bottom of the pan.

After sugar is added (according to the recipe) and then dissolved, bring the fruit to a rolling boil – you’ll see lots of bubbles. Stir it constantly (always use a wooden spoon) so it doesn’t stick and be careful that it doesn’t boil over. Most sticky fruit can make a real mess on your stove top!

To test the fruit for doneness, place a small amount on a cold plate and allow it to sit for about 5 minutes. The jam should clump and a skin should form on top. If that happens, it’s done.

Placing the Jam in the Jars

Any jars that you’re going to use need to be absolutely clean and dry. They should also be sterilized. You can do this by laying them on their sides on an oven rack in an oven set at 350 degrees. About 20 minutes should do the job.

Use a ladle or large spoon to get the jam from the pot to the jars and be VERY careful. The liquid will be extremely hot! Fill the jars to the top and then apply the lids. It is also suggested that you turn the jars upside down for a minute to sterilize the inside of the lids with the hot jam and so that the jam is in direct contact with the seal so that the jar is well-sealed. Use a potholder or towel to handle the jars. Some recipes call for the “water bath” method to seal the jars, but this heat method is usually sufficient.

Allow the jars to cool and then store the jams, jellies, or preserves in a cold dark place until you’re ready to use them or give them as gifts. After opening, they should be refrigerated.