Alaskan Wild Berries

An Introduction to Making Jams & Jellies

“Where’s that extra sugar?!”

I asked my husband this question after putting 4 ½ cups of the 6 cups of sugar the recipe called for in a pot of berry juice at a full rolling boil. If you are a jelly maker you know what I’m talking about. The kind of boil you can’t stir down, and reminding you why the recipe wisely says: “Measure the sugar and set aside.” I like using less sugar so I wasn’t worried, but my husband prefers to use the full amount. There was no more sugar, so I had to make do, as usual. I was short on the pectin also… At least I made sure I had enough jars and lids before starting.

Recently, I was asked to provide a jam or jelly recipe for a display at the Alaska State Fair. Uh oh. In all my 35 years of making jams and jellies I’m not sure that I’ve ever used the same recipe twice. My favorite jelly is highbush cranberry and my favorite jam is strawberry, but I also enjoy mixing both of these with other berries, a little of this and a little of that.

One of the reasons I hesitate to give out a recipe is that some of my most spectacular “failures” happened when I followed a recipe exactly. On the other hand some of my best batches were made when I didn’t have enough of the called-for ingredients, like the day I didn’t have enough sugar, when even my husband had to admit that day’s currant/raspberry/highbush cranberry mixed jelly was quite good. The same type of berry can vary widely in its own sugar and pectin so you can use the same recipe three times and get three different tastes and consistencies.

Can I suggest a favorite pectin for people to use? Not really. I’ve had success using all the brands whether dry powders or liquids, and I’ve had a few failures. Well … actually, there are no true failures when making jams and jellies. Sometimes we end up with syrups, delicious on pancakes or ice cream. Once I did have a batch that was set too hard for spreading well on toast, but it was perfect for cookie filling. This happened to be a batch when I followed the instructions exactly.

What are some of the must-dos, or at least what I consider to be must-dos, when making jams or jellies? First off, clean your kitchen so you have plenty of room. I usually process my berries soon after picking and then either freeze or refrigerate the juice to make jams and jellies later; this makes the actual jelly making process go much faster. Wash your jars thoroughly, then sterilize them in boiling water while you are making the jelly. Boil some water in a smaller pot to sterilize the lids.

Be sure you have enough new canning lids on hand. I have enough to last years because there is nothing quite so frustrating as running to the store to discover they are out of lids on the day you want to can. Check to be sure you have enough sugar and pectin. Again, having extras of these items is always a good idea, especially if you have a favorite type of pectin. Watch for expiration dates on the pectin. They can be pushed some, but it won’t work well if it’s too old. If you pre-measure the sugar, as most recipes suggest, you won’t end up quickly improvising like I did. As far as how much juice, pectin, and sugar to use, I ‘generally’ follow the recipe on the type of pectin I have on hand. Even if the recipe doesn’t include this tip, I put a half teaspoon of butter in the boiling juice toward the end to cut down on the foam. When finished take the jelly off the heat for a few seconds and scoop the foam into a small bowl before filling the sterilized hot jars. Once the jars are filled, clean the jar lips with a clean cloth, then secure the two-piece lids. Place the sealed jars in a boiling water bath for the time recommended which will be typically 5-15 minutes, depending on what fruit you are canning.

Then comes my favorite part of any canning process. I pull the jars from their water bath and set them an inch or more apart on a protected surface to admire. Then I pour myself a cup of tea and wait for the “plink, plink, plink” sound of the jars sealing. Other than a baby’s laughter, this might be my favorite sound. On the rare occasion that a jar doesn’t seal properly I simply use it first or put it in the freezer.

Handy tools to have on hand are a jar funnel, a jar lifter, and a magnet stick to pick the lids out of the boiling water after the jars are filled. Tongs can do the job of the jar lifter and magnet stick but trust me, having these simple and inexpensive tools makes the process a lot more enjoyable and safer. Alaska’s Wild Berries & Other Wild Edibles, a book by the Cooperative Extension Service, University of Alaska Fairbanks, is a “must have” according to a friend, and I agree.

Beware if you haven’t made your own jam or jelly in the past—it is fun and very addicting! 

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