Tag Archives | jam making

How To Check for Set With the Plate Test

One thing I heard from a bunch of folks as they made their marmalade for the Mastery Challenge was that they struggled to find the set point. And I get it. Determining when you’ve hit the set point for jams, jellies, and marmalades can be kind of tricky, particularly if you don’t have a lot of batches under your belt.

You’ve got temperature, which is reliable most of the time, except when it isn’t (thermometers aren’t perfect and often they need to be calibrated). You can watch how the preserve sheets off the spoon or spatula, but what if you don’t know what you’re looking for? If you found yourself asking these questions as your made your marmalade, the plate test is for you.

Also known as the freezer test or the saucer test, this is a method of checking for set that requires some pre-planning. You need to stash a couple small bowls, plates, or saucers in your freezer before you start cooking the marmalade, so that they’ll be nice and cold when you’re nearing the end of the cooking process.

When you hit the point when you think the marmalade is finished, you remove the pot from the heat and dollop a spoonful of marmalade onto the frozen plate. Then, you return the plate to the freezer for a few minutes. This accelerates the setting process and gives you a peek into the future of your marmalade.

After those few minutes are up, you pull that plate out of the freezer and give the dollop of marmalade a nudge with the tip of your finger. If a set has begun to form, it will wrinkle when you push it (as demonstrated in the picture above). If that’s the case, it is done. If the marmalade hasn’t set, your finger will slide right through the dollop and you’ll need to cook the marmalade a bit longer.

Do take care to pull the pot off the heat while you’re running this test. If you let the preserve continue to cook while you’re waiting to see if it’s going to set up, you run the very real risk of overcooking and scorching.

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Canning 101: Can You Preserve With Artificial Sweeteners?

sweeteners

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a Canning 101 post about the different roles that sugar plays in preserving. This was my attempt to conclusively answer the questions I regularly get from people wanting to reduce the amount of sugar in their preserves.

There was one thing I didn’t address in that post and that was question of artificial sweeteners, like Splenda, Equal, Truvia, or xylitol. Personally, I don’t work with artificial sweeteners much simply because I don’t like the way they taste. I do understand, though, that for some folks it is necessary to use these products as a way to cut back on sugar. So here we go.

First, let’s talk about the situations in which artificial sweeteners aren’t going to work. When you make jam in the traditional manner, you are relying on the fact that as you cook, the sugar you added to the fruit is going to thicken as heat is applied, eventually thickening to the point where it bonds with the conventional pectin (either natural or added). If you remove the sugar from the equation, the jam is never going to set.

Sure, you might be able to boil it down into something to stir into yogurt, but it’s not going to be jam. What’s more, lots of the artificial sweeteners become bitter during extended cooking, so if you added your sweetener at the beginning of the cooking and then boiled the heck out of the fruit for 45 minutes, the finished product may well be inedible.

What this really means is that you can’t take a traditional recipe for jam, swap in Splenda and think you’re going to get anywhere near the same result. I know this might feel frustrating to some of you, but truly, this advice will save you buckets of aggravation in the long run.

So, here’s what you can do. You can use pectin that was designed to work in low or no-sugar environments. There are a couple different versions out there. Ball makes a special modified pectin and the package insert will be able to guide you through the process of creating serviceable jams.

Pomona’s Pectin is another good option. Known as low methoxyl pectin, it’s requires both a pectin made from citrus peels and a calcium solution. Instead of needing sugar to trigger the set, the calcium activates the pectin. This means that you can make spreadable preserves with whatever sweetener you choose, including a wide range of artificial sweeteners.

Another option is to start making fruit butters rather than jams and jellies. When you make a fruit butter, you cook a fruit puree at low temperature for a long period of time. In doing so, you remove much of the moisture, and concentrate the natural sugars in the fruit. You can then either leave it as-is (though the juice of a lemon or two will help preserve the color and brighten the flavor) or adjust it slightly with the artificial sweetener of your choice.

Just remember, as discussed in this blog post, when you reduce or remove sugar, shelf life and the quality once open shortens. I combat this by making low sugar or sugar-free preserves in small batches and canning them in four ounce jars, to ensure that they are as good and fresh as I can make them.

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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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Canning 101: How to Ensure That Your Jam Sets

temperature test

One of the trickiest things about making jam is achieving the set sweet spot. Cook it too long and you worry about the integrity of your cutlery as you reach in for a spoonful. Cut the stove time short and when it comes time to eat, the jam threatens to run off your toast in sticky rivulets (do know that jam this consistency is still amazing on pancakes or in yogurt. Call it a rustic syrup or old fashioned preserves and your friends will still be wowed).

plate test

First off, know that even the most experience jam maker has an off day here and there. The same recipe can yield a perfect set on Saturday and make an unfortunately sloshy batch on Sunday. Jam is influenced by the width of the pot you use to cook it, the ratio of sugar to water in the fruit, the amount of pectin in the fruit (as well as whether you add additional pectin), the elevation at which you’re cooking and even the amount of humidity in the air.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you prepare to make a batch of jam…

  • As I mentioned above, the width of your pot can influence the set of your jam. Always choose the widest pot you have at your disposal that also has enough height to let the jam boil vigorously. More surface area means faster evaporation and ample height means you can crank the heat and let it boil. Getting the water evaporated out of your cooking jam at a speedy clip is integral to having a nice, spreadably sticky jam.
  • Take the jam’s temperature. Jam making is much like candy making in that you’re applying enough heat to the fruit and sugar to raise the temperature over the boiling point of 212 degrees and alter the structure of the sugar. The jam reaches its ideal set point at 220 degrees, so keep careful watch. Know that if you reduce the amount of sugar in your recipe too drastically, you may not be able to get your cooking jam up to the set point.
  • Before you take the jam off the heat, try the plate test. At the beginning of cooking (or even before) stash a couple saucers or sandwich plates in your freezer. When you believe the jam is cooked, grab one of the plates and plop a small spoonful at the center. Let it sit for a minute or two and then gently prod the puddle of jam with your finger. If it’s formed a surface skin and seems to be developing a certain solidity, it is done. If it is runny and saucy, give it a few more minutes.
  • Another test is the sheet test. Here, you stir a spoon through your jam and the remove it from the pot. Holding it over the cooking jam, watch as the remnants on the spoon drip back down. Do they fall back in runny drips, like rain on a window? If so, it’s not quite done. However, if they seem thick and run together in more of a sheet, your jam is finished.
  • Cooking times are estimates. When the recipe gives an amount of time for you to let the jam cook, know that that is only an approximate time. The recipe writer doesn’t know how hot your stove cooks, whether you’re in arid New Mexico verses sticky Philadelphia or what size pot you’re cooking the jam in. Use your judgment.
  • Additional pectin can help improve set, but it isn’t always a panacea. I’ve had jams that included additional pectin end up runny and then made others with no additional pectin that have firmed right up. Additionally, I’ve found recently that my beloved Certo liquid pectin isn’t working as well this year as it did in years past. I don’t know if they’ve changed the formula, but it’s thrown me off and made me remind myself of the basics of set all over again.

What are you tips for making sure your jam sets well?

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