Canning 101: Learning to be Flexible

empty jam pot

I’ve made a lot of jam in my canning career. Between the years I logged as a kid helping my mom and all the many batches I’ve made as an adult, I’ve stirred and canned enough sweet preserves to fill a generously sized kiddie pool.

One thing I’ve learned in those hours over a canning kettle is that jam making is a lot like life. It’s not always going to be perfect, but you can almost always turn it into something useful and good.

When I teach jam making classes, one point I always emphasize is that you have two choices when you make a sweet preserve and it doesn’t turn out as you intended. You can either stress about it and try to redo it (and even then, you still might not be able to exactly hit your texture target), or you can change your expectations and move on.

I belong firmly to the school of changed expectations. Some days, I have a hell of a time getting my jam to set. As someone who prefers a softer set to start out with, this means that those underset jars are essentially sauce or syrup. So I call them just that. Instead of apologizing for my underset jam, I call these products sauce, or syrup or yogurt topping. I use them to glaze meat and tofu and I whisk them into vinaigrettes.

I’ve also made jams in the past that, once cool, set up into unforgiving blocks of rubbery fruit. They are so firm that they can be convinced to slide out of the jar in a single cylinder. Even in that case, it is still salvageable. You can serve little slices of that overset jam with a plate of cheese and charcuterie and call it a fruit paste (like membrillo). Or, you can cut it into cubes, roll it in granulated sugar and call it pâte de fruit.

These variations in set happen to the best of us and they can happen even with the most reliable recipes. I find that while past experience does inform every jam making session, you have to approach each batch individually.

Some years, fruit contains more water and less sugar. Other years, the opposite is true. On humid days, when a thunder storm is rolling in, the amount of moisture in the air can make it impossible to cook enough water out of the fruit to achieve a good set. The width of your pot can also impact your finished product, as can the power of your stove.

Depending on how the batch you’re making at the moment is behaving, you can adjust heat, cooking time and the quantity of additional pectin in an attempt to compensate. But  from year to year, there will always be a natural variation in set, length of cooking and even yield.

My very best advice is to try to learn to adapt, be flexible and exhibit some kindness to yourself, your preserves and the recipe writers who live in the same changeable world that you do.


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66 Responses to Canning 101: Learning to be Flexible

  1. 51
    Jane says:

    I am new to canning – and just made some damson jam and also a cranberry pear compote. I figured the cranberries were acidic enough that it would not require too much cooking. Anyway – I used a couple different jars, Staggioni which I am getting the hang of and the German ones Leifert? So, the German jar did not seal and one of the others did not either. Both have water on the top of fruit when opened. Do i throw away the contents? I just can’t imagine it could be good to let in the canning water, and even though I can remove the top – watered down stuff, there must be some of that water elsewhere in the jar – it must have seeped down with all that boiling, rollicking, and pressure going on? I have done this before (water under lid) and just removed the contents (just the once) and boiled it up and then used it after refrigeration. BUT, wondered as I ate it if it was safe. Does anyone know the answer – the real medical /scientific answer to this? I know it is probably wiser to throw it away – but having used a large jar, 8 pears, 2 pkgs of cranberries, I am not too happy I have to throw this down the sink. It has only been the one piece lids i had this happen with – Staggioni – and now the German one which i had never used. It has not happend with Weck or Ball. With Staggioni one piece, I learnt that the lids must be on hand tight – this one may not have been – and no nicks on glass rim. To put them on finger tight was not enough – i have done this over and over now – and saw them not seal till i tightened the lids. Then i watched the water for bubbles escaping each jar to ensure they were not too tight – and figured if the air escapes – they are not too tight. I also let them cool down in the water and removed them ore carefully. I heard each pop. Checked each for the depression even in the water – and even with all this work – i still see one or in this case two that let the water in and do not seal. I want to continue using these jars once i figure out the seal issue – in the meantime – should the water in jam/compote jars be thrown away?

  2. 52

    […] The particular jar of syrup I’ve been using is one that was given to me by Alana of the blog Eating from the Ground Up (and author of the very beautiful book, The Homemade Pantry). It is wonderfully light in color and goes so nicely with the green tea. She included the recipe in a wonderful post she wrote last fall about dealing when your recipes don’t turn out exactly as you intended (a story I know all too well). […]

  3. 53
    Leila says:

    Thank goodness for this article – it’s just what I needed! I’m new to canning and i got your book recently, which has turned into my Canning Bible. Seriously. This weekend I made your Cantaloupe Vanilla Jam which may just have to be an ice cream or yogurt topping instead of a jam, and then, in a total 180, I made your Pear Ginger Conserve yesterday which I continued to cook past the time you had suggested because those dang pears just wouldnt squish on the back of the spoon. Finally when the time came to put them into the jars, that darn stuff was so sticky EVERYTHING it touched was permanently glued together! So who knows what that’ll turn out like. Maybe I’ll give it to those sweet neighbors who deliver fruit cakes to my door step 😉

    Anyway…THANKS for this post! It eased my mind completely. I’ve found a new obsession and I’m now totally fine with trial and error along the way!

  4. 54
    Lindy says:

    Bless you for this great article! I was just stressing over a strawberry jam that I made today. It rained ALL day long and I think that had something to do with my Jam just being a nice Strawberry Syrup. Love your idea about changing expectations. I have done that and am feeling much better now.
    Thanks a million!

  5. 55
    Sarah says:

    I would love to embrace the philosophy of altered expectations, but I’ve just used all my tart cherries to make cherry rubber and it’s killing me! In the UK I often heard that you can loosen overset jams by reheating them and gradually beating in hot water, after which they can be re-canned as usual, but everyone I’ve mentioned that to here recoils in horror. Is it really not possible? If so, I guess you also couldn’t whisk some in with stock to make a glaze for meats? I used powered pectin, if it matters. Thanks, Marisa!

    • 55.1
      Marisa says:

      You can certainly heat it up with a little water to loosen it and then recan it. I wouldn’t do the stock thing though, because it would be low in acid and could potentially make the preserve unsafe for canning.

  6. 56

    […] Learning to be Flexible […]

  7. 57
    Jane says:

    This is so helpful and lovely! I made your delicious strawberry jam for the first time last summer (my first time ever canning anything), and it turned out perfectly. So I was very smug. Haha! This week I made the same jam, and it didn’t set right. So not smug anymore. 😀 I used organic sugar and I put the pectin in before the fruit was at a full boil again, so I thought maybe those things could have affected the set. Your post here suggests other possibilities. In any case, it’s still damn tasty and will be used in all the ways you outline here. Thank you!


  1. Preserves in Action: Apple Mint Green Tea - Food in Jars | Food in Jars - October 12, 2012

    […] The particular jar of syrup I’ve been using is one that was given to me by Alana of the blog Eating from the Ground Up (and author of the very beautiful book, The Homemade Pantry). It is wonderfully light in color and goes so nicely with the green tea. She included the recipe in a wonderful post she wrote last fall about dealing when your recipes don’t turn out exactly as you intended (a story I know all too well). […]

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    […] Learning to be Flexible […]

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