Canning 101: Can I Reduce the Sugar?

3 cups sugar

Like so many of these Canning 101 posts, I’m writing this one to address one of the questions I am frequently asked. I’ve covered this topic as part of larger blog posts before, so if you’re a long-time reader, some of this may be familiar. But it felt like time to pull out this question specifically in the hopes of helping people find the information more easily.

So often, people look at one of my recipes and see the volume of sugar it calls for and have something of a heart attack thinking about all those cups. And so, they write in to ask, “can I safely reduce the amount of sugar in this recipe?”

The answer is that you can always safely reduce the amount of sugar in a recipe, because sugar doesn’t make things safe. The only thing that makes a jam, jelly or other sweet preserve safe for canning in a boiling water bath canner is the acid content, because that’s what prevents any potential botulism growth.

However, when you reduce the amount of sugar in a recipe, you can compromise that preserve’s shelf life, yield, and ability to set up.

Sugar is a powerful preservative, because once you have a certain concentration of sugar in a recipe, the sugar sucks up all the available water. Mold and bacteria need water in order to develop, and if there’s no water available, they cannot grow.

This is why preserves with higher amounts of sugar hold their quality longer than lower sugar preserves. As long as you’re okay with a somewhat decreased shelf life and a relatively short lifespan once the jar has been opened, then go ahead and reduce the sugar.

Things get a little trickier when you take set into account. Sugar has the ability to change physical consistency as you heat it. If you’ve ever made candy, you’ve seen how you get different outcomes the higher you allow the temperature of the cooking sugar to go.

When you make a sweet preserve, you boil the fruit and sugar together, cooking out the water and increasing the concentration of sugars (both natural and added) to the point where they can elevate in temperature to around 220 degrees F. That’s the point at which sugar starts to thicken into a gel and is then able to bond with the pectin (again, both the natural pectin in the fruit and any pectin you added) and that’s how your jams and jellies set up.

If you pull out a lot of the added sugar in a recipe that is depending on sugar to achieve set, the chances are good that the finished product may be forever runny (true story. As a kid, I thought all homemade jam was inherently runny, because my mom always reduced the sugar to the point where set could not be achieved).

You can often reduce the sugar a little bit, but if you do, you may need to cook it longer so that the proper concentration can be reached. That reduced sugar and longer cooking can end up reducing the yield by as much as a cup or two.

Now, if you’re working with Pomona’s Pectin or some other low/no sugar pectin, you can ignore everything I’ve said about set and yield, because those pectins use an entirely different paradigm in order to achieve set. But the advice about shelf life will still hold true.

One final word. Do not take this blog post to mean that I am advocating super high sugar preserves. My favorite ratio for basic jam is two parts fruit to one part sugar, which is actually a fairly conservative amount of sugar, when you look at the traditional jam recipe canon.

When I make smaller batches, I drop the sugar to a three parts fruit to one part sugar ratio, because smaller batches lend themselves to more rapid water evaporation and sugar concentration. And I’m currently writing a book about preserving with a half dozen natural sweeteners, so I am more than open to using a wide world of sweeteners. But I feel strongly that people understand why an ingredient is in place before they go and start changing things up.

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31 Responses to Canning 101: Can I Reduce the Sugar?

  1. 1

    Love how thoroughly you explain this! I feel like this is a question novice preservers constantly ask themselves, and it’s great to see it addressed. I also appreciate that you encourage some experimentation (at our risk, of course ;)). Can’t wait for the book of natural preserves!

  2. 2
    Sue F says:

    Excellent Post, Thank you!! Answered a lot of questions for me, and I have been making jams since 1973.
    Didn’t say they always turned out perfect, though… 😉

  3. 3
    Gene Black says:

    Interesting. I knew it affected set but I didn’t think about the shelf life. I should have realized it as I know sugar has often been used as a preservative. Thanks for the 101 lessons.

  4. 4
    Jenny says:

    Great post! I would love to hear more about preserving with honey. I have tons of it and I just started to try it in my jams and jellies (using honey and less sugar). It’s always very runny but the honey taste can’t be beat.

  5. 5
    Vitor L. M. says:

    Excellent post, thanks! I usually prefer my jams and jellies less sweet, so I tend to use the two part fruit, one part sugar proportion, although the most recepies I see call for (almost) one to one.
    Still, I have two doubts:
    1) When you allow the batch to cook longer in order to increase sugar concentration, isn’t it the same as using more sugar and cook less? As the mixture cooks, water is lost and volume reduced, so the sugar per volume ends up the same and, therefore, the sweetness is equal.
    2) I don’t use artificial pectin in my recepies, meaning that the sugar amount is very important in the setting ability. Assuming that I’m using a fruit with medium pectin content, what would be the minimum sugar to allow it to set properly?
    Cheers from Brazil!

    • 5.1
      John B says:

      I think you’re right about having the same sugar/volume ratio after the longer cooking process, but the fruit/sugar ratio is still higher, so I would expect that you would end up with a fruitier-tasting jam/jelly, even it’s just as sweet.

    • 5.2
      Marisa says:

      1. Yes and no. You may well end up with a similar level of sweetness, but you’re still going to need a baseline amount of cooking in order to elevate the sugar’s temperature.
      2. Unfortunately, there’s no formula I can offer here. You need to play around and see what works best, knowing that there’s always going to be some variation from batch to batch.

  6. 6

    I cut back the sugar when I made crockpot peach butter (ultimately hot water processed!!). I was willing to trade off shelf-life (a year vs 5 years lol) because I wanted a less-sweet more versatile spread. For example, I schmeared some on pan-fried pork chops the other night — divine! I also added curry powder to one jar of it to be a meat glaze sometime this winter. No “set” to worry about with a butter, right?

    • 6.1
      Marisa says:

      Exactly. Fruit butter becomes spreadable because you cook out the water and concentrate the fiber of the fruit. So as long as you’re okay with the shelf life trade-off, fruit butters can simply be sweetened to taste.

  7. 7
    John B says:

    Great news! I thought the sugar was part of the safety. Now I know it’s not I can reduce the sugar in the crazy-sweet pickled beet recipe I have.

  8. 8
    Cheryl says:

    These are the kinds of posts I need! I didn’t grow up in the kitchen and have no kids, so haven’t a lot of experience cooking much of anything. What I don’t know or understand is if I veer off of a recipe, what do the changes I make effect. For example, I never liked any kind of gravy growing up, but now find I like it on taters and meat. So if in the process of making it there is too much flour or too much liquid, I don’t know what the effect of the changes are to figure out how to fix it and still have it edible. And I find the same issues in canning if I mess with the sugar content…so this post is really helpful to me. Thank you

  9. 9
    Rachel says:

    I love the information you provide. I’ve made several of your recipes and bought both your books. I have a question if you have time; Can i freeze fresh lemon juice and use it later in canning recipes? Our lemons are ripe now, but we won’t be canning for a couple months.

    • 9.1
      Marisa says:

      You can certainly freeze lemon juice for future use. Just remember that if you’re using lemon juice to balance the acid levels to make a recipe safe for canning, you want to use bottled lemon juice because of it’s consistent acidity. You should only be using fresh lemon juice for flavor balance.

  10. 10
    Tori says:

    SO PUMPED for the new book you’re working on! I love all of your recipes that have no sugar or are sweetened with honey. The new book sounds like a dream come true 🙂

    • 10.1
      Cheryl says:

      Yep, looking forward to the new book as well as I have diabetic friends and I like to sweeten with honey or other alternatives for their sake.

      • Dee says:

        Honey is a combination of fructose and sucrose…maybe worse in some ways than pure sucrose– and definitely neither good for diabetics!

  11. 11
    Lisa G. says:

    Thank you for this!

  12. 12
    Laurie says:

    So, Marissa, do you think one could maintain the 3:1 fruit:sugar in larger batches, too…..understanding that longer cooking time would clearly be needed for evaporation/thickening and “sugar concentration”. And is there any rule of thumb to suggest how much shelf life would be affected?

    Specifically, I have been tinkering with your pear cranberry jam recipe and have dropped the sugar considerably (14 C fruit [8C pear, 6C cranberry] + 3C sugar), upping the lemon juice and zest. Product cooks down and gives a very good set in ~45 min. Pleasingly tart. Haven’t tried this on any of your other recipes….yet, but was just wondering. Thanks.

    • 12.1
      Marisa says:

      If you use a really large pan, where you have very little depth and a lot of surface area, you can use the 3:1 ratio for larger batches. I’ll often use a large roasting pan stretched out across two burners if I want to use less sugar in larger batches. In the case of the jam you’re playing with, know that cranberries have a TON of pectin and so are a fantastic addition if you want to reduce the sugar and still retain the set.

  13. 13
    Rachel says:

    Yeah, I’m more than willing to trade-off shelf life, because I find even the 2:1 ration far too sweet for my palate most of the time. So Pomona’s it is, and I’ve had no problems so far.

  14. 14
    Rebecca says:

    I would love to see a post with your tips on using Pamona’s Pectin. I saw you in Maine this summer on your book tour and recall you mentioning how you achieve the cooked-sugar state using Pamona’s but for the life of me, I can’t remember how since the instructions call for adding the sugar (or other sweetener) to the pectin before adding to the fruit then cooking for only 1-2 minutes. It ends up tasting too raw to me. I’ve heard that cooking it longer can affect the set.

  15. 15
    KathyD says:

    I had some good luck this summer with a technique that I got from Canning for a New Generation, where you bring fruit and (less) sugar to a boil; then take the fruit out with a big strainer/spoon and boil down the liquid left behind for 10 or 15 minutes to concentrate it; then put the fruit back in and boil again. The initial boil with sugar extracts a lot of water from the fruit; the boiling of just the liquid concentrates it without overcooking the fruit. I got good sets and a fresher fruit taste. I did this with strawberries and apricots, and I think with peaches. True, the shelf life/fridge life is not as long, but it’s a worthwhile trade off to me. (I’m pretty sure you discussed this technique at some point on this blog as well?)

  16. 16

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  17. 17

    […] require a trip to the store for powdered pectin, either. This can be tricky because sugar helps jam to set, so low-sugar recipes often call for extra pectin and those with no added pectin typically rely on […]

  18. 18
    Peter says:

    On your Ration of 2 to 1 for amount of sugar added, is that cooked or uncooked fruit?

  19. 19
    Carrie says:

    I love your book Naturally Sweet Food in Jars! Thank you! I am wondering what sweetener I could substitute for the juice concentrates – would honey work equally well? Thank you.

    • 19.1
      Marisa says:

      I didn’t test those recipes with any other sweeteners, so I can’t speak from experience here. You can try honey, but I just don’t know how well it work.

  20. 20
    Denise says:

    I made Oregon Grape and Crabapple Jellies yesterday and too sweet.
    Oregon Grape 5 juice 7 sugar would like to have it at 5 juice to 5 sugar do you think this is possible

    Crabapple was 5 c juice to 7 1/2 cup sugar would like to reduce to equal if they will set.

    Thank you in advance

  21. 21

    […] reduced the sugar according to this website (see last paragraph). To get to the jelly stage will take a little longer than the full […]

  22. 22
    Chris says:

    Love this post. I’ve never preserved ANYthing before, but I’m inspired by -not only your clear instructions – but obvious knowledge of canning and preserving. Thanks also for the advice on lowering the sugar content. As I read the recipe, that was the very question running through my mind. Sadly, it’s almost the middle of winter here in New York, so my adventures in tomato jamming will have to be “preserved” until late summer;). Thanks for sharing your extensive experience!!

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