Canning 101: Learning to be Flexible

August 16, 2012(updated on October 3, 2018)

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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67 thoughts on "Canning 101: Learning to be Flexible"

  • I made your apricot rosemary jam this weekend and I cooked it until I thought it would set.

    It didn’t but it’s still fantastically yummy. It’s being labeled “sauce” because I can’t wait to slather it on some chicken.

    1. I’m so glad to hear that you’re happy with the flavor of that product, even if it didn’t his the set mark you were hoping for!

      1. The bits that didn’t fill a jar are in a container in my fridge.. and i keep sneaking spoonfuls.. fantastic!

  • wise advice – thank you for this reminder. getting things to set properly is always my biggest hurdle. learning to just view the results in a different frame is freedom. : )

  • What about when the end product doesn’t taste very good? I made some marmalade with Meyer lemons a few months ago. I followed your very helpful suggestions about soaking overnight to remove bitterness, but it still came out too bitter. It didn’t seem like just adding more sugar would help in anyway, so I jarred it and processed it and thought I could figure something else out to do with it. Do you have any suggestions?

    Similarly I made some pickled grapes and pickled peaches last fall as an experiment. I really don’t like the way they taste, but it seems like a shame to throw them out. What could I do with these?

    Is the best suggestion for such disappointments to try using them while cooking meats? Any other ideas?

    1. Linda, as far as the marmalade goes, you might want to try it in a vinaigrette or a quick bread. There are a bunch of recipes out there right now for marmalade cakes, as well.

      As far as the pickled fruit goes, you could puree them and work them into a stew or sauce as a bit of sweet/tart flavor. You might also want to consider that you’re someone who doesn’t like the taste of pickled fruit. It’s not for everyone. I’d suggest getting a friend or two to taste them. If they like them, pass them along. If not, let them go and chalk it up to the canning learning curve.

  • This couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time… you see I was all prepared to make up a little jam today and what to my wandering eyes should appear (i know for most its “wondering” eyes but for me it has always been “wandering” because i end up seeing/doing so many things at once.ha ha!) but thunder clouds… big black and looming! yes we have a storm on the way! So the sauce is simmering, the pickles are firming up and the jam is in an undecided stage of setting… we may have sauce but then again we may have pate de fruit. Thank you for coming to the rescue once again!!

  • Oh, one more question/comment that I’d love to get some advice about. I adore canned peaches, but whenever I make them at home they come out much too soft and mushy. Safe canning procedures require them to be processed too long for such delicate fruit. Anyone have suggestions? I’m about to give up making any canned peaches this year.

    1. Make sure that you’re starting with fruit that is quite firm. Keep the blanching time short and stay to exactly the amount of processing time prescribed by the recipe. If you still don’t like the texture, maybe frozen peaches are a better way to go for you.

      1. I was all bummed that my canned peaches looked all mushy last year, BUT, then, in mid December, when I tasted them?? Mmmmm, so delicious. I didn’t care that they looked mushy.

  • Thank you for this post. I thought I’d done something seriously wrong when my strawberry jam turned out to be made of rubber. I had never had any problem before. Now I see it was ‘just one of those things’. You have no idea how much better I feel after reading your post.
    Thanks again! : ) Debs

  • This is good advice for everything in life…things don’t always turn out the way you planned, but that is not necessarily a bad thing!

    I’m loving your new book, by the way…thanks so much for writing such an awesome guide to yummy goodness in jars!

  • So good to see that I’m not the only one whose products may not be perfect! I made peach ginger jam with homemade pectin earlier this week but it’s officially labelled sauce. Just have to work the kinks out when using my own pectin.

  • Thanks for this. I often feel frustrated that my jam doesn’t set right–why can others do it so well? I made a batch of “strawberry sauce” this year, and labled it as such, which helped a bit. Glad to know even the experts don’t always have it work just right.

  • I had the same issue that Rachelle did with ginger-peach jam. It’s didn’t set but it’s wonderful on Greek yogurt. Now I know what to call it, ginger-peach sauce. Thanks!

  • brilliant. thank you for these words, applicable to jam and to life. I have often wondered how some people I know move through life with such rigid expectations of how it should “set”. thanks!

  • I just started canning this year, so hearing this advice from an experienced canner is very reassuring. My first batch of strawberry jam turned out beautifully. I was thinking this canning thing is a piece of cake. Then my blackberry jam was a solid mass. I threw it away, but now I’m thinking I could have salvaged it for something. My peach jalapeno jam tastes amazing, but I’m going to use your advice and reclassify it as a sauce rather than a jam. My last batch of raspberry jam turned out pretty near perfect again. I’ll just have to take it batch by batch…Thanks.

  • I’m fine with runny “sauce” jam but I was disappointed that one of my batches of sour cherry jam came out… hard. I’m talking ‘digging it out of the jar’ hard. I’m going to try your suggestions for pate de fruit — it still tastes fantastic!

    On another note, a gal from my gym was talking about jam and, long story short, said that she saw ‘this amazing recipe for cantaloupe jam’ in the Oregonian. She somehow talked me into making it for her… that’s my project this weekend. πŸ™‚ No, I didn’t need to cut out the article — I’ve got the book!!!

  • Marisa — great advice as usual. I know my friends, and they already think the little things I do are amazingly Martha like, and wouldn’t know that my failed jam aptly renamed to something delicious sounding was a real failure. They would just think I was a little more awesome for making a syrup.

    Congrats on the Anthro book nod. What an accomplishment!

  • A couple of times when I’ve had jam border on sauce I threw in some citrus rinds and it gel’d right up. I don’t mind a gloopy jam now and then but this is my quick fix if i want “a chunker”.

  • It also seems like time helps. I made some jellies, my first time making any kind of jelly/jam, last summer and the initial set was pretty soft. One flavor seemed like it was just going to have to get re-labeled as syrup. But I opened two jars of different flavors from that batch recently and they got quite a bit firmer. The syrupy one had transformed into actual, factual jelly (still a little soft but definitely solid)! I didn’t really check on them much in between so I’m not sure at what point they firmed up, but forgetting about them for a bit did the trick.

  • Great post, Marisa. I made a batch of plum-blackberry jam this year and used only half the pectin my recipe called for (it said to use two packages of liquid pectin, and I figured since I was using high-pectin plums, I could get away with just one package). Well, needless to say I was wrong and they were right πŸ˜‰ so rather than get frustrated about my “jam” which wasn’t jam, I just labeled the jars “plum-blackberry” and opted to let it firm up however it wanted and decide for itself if it was to be jam or sauce. Sauce it is πŸ™‚ Thanks for the reminder that, as much as we’d like it to be, canning is not really an exact science.

    1. This is my my solution. I very rarely label jars with anything other then the fruit in it. When gifting I let people know then how they might use it. Besides even set jam/jelly can have many more uses then spreading on something.

  • Thanks for reminding us all that what we start out to make into jam doesn’t have to end up as jam – the effort is always a worthy one, we just may have to reorient our thinking! (As with so many things in life!)

    Something I’d really like some information on sometime (maybe a Canning 101 post sometime?) would be choosing a new range. I’m in the market for one, but know that it can be tricky getting a flat top range that can still handle my canning needs. Are there any resources you know of that might already be out there?

  • In the past 2 weeks I opened 2 jars of apple blackberry jelly, one pretty saucy, and one more like jello. Both were made the same way, with fruit picked at the same time, without pectin, in two separate batches. It goes to show that while jam making is a science, it’s also an art!

  • Thanks for this!! I am fairly new to making jam and my first batch of concord grape jam is WAY overset. So I love the idea of slicing it up and treating it like what it instead of what is was supposed to be!

  • Love this advice. I am hard on myself so it’s nice to read about taking it easy. I had a batch of cherry preserves come out very saucy so we put it on vanilla ice cream, best ice cream sundae ever.

  • You continue to inspire me. As I get questions about jamming, I say many of the same things. People ask me how I’m sure it will set if I don’t use pectin or if I use homemade pectin. The truth is, I don’t know. I just play and see how it turns out and eat it anyway. Sharing jam recipes is more like sharing a best guess based on experience. I love it!

  • I have ginger plum jam/sauce that is way more gingery than last year’s batch! Last year’s took a couple months to set well, so it’s jam. I don’t know what this year’s is yet, but I like your advice to let it figure itself out. The extra gingeriness? I think because I added the crystallized ginger at the very end last year, but cooked it in this year. It may be a better sauce for meat than jam for toast…

  • This brings an amusing memory to mind. Back in my early 30s, I went to a huge week long family reunion that was held in a church in West Texas.
    They had an auction, where everyone brought something to contribute & sell to raise money for the week long lease and it was something to do as well. πŸ˜‰

    I had made blackberry jelly earlier in the year but it didnt set so it was indeed blackberry syrup and I tagged it as such and I brought a half dozen jars to the Reunion for the auction.

    They sold them individually and they garnered a high price at auction and we were all happy. The next year, when we were in the planning phase of the Reunion, I was told that several people said that my blackberry syrup was sooo good & they wanted me to bring more back for this years auction..

    Great.. now I had to fail blackberry jelly on purpose.. haha.. A day in the life. πŸ˜‰

  • Thank you for this post! I have been canning and making jams and jelly’s for years now and some times it just doesn’t work. I get so frustrated with myself! I never throw anything away (except for a disastrous blackberry jam this year that turned out to be all seeds!) as it always taste good… but yeesh! It makes my heart warm to know that it’s not me.

    p.s. love your blog and your recipes!

  • Wish I had read a post like this one 2 years ago. I had been making crab apple jelly for years and never had a problem. This time, however, it turned into glue and I threw it all out. What a waste; would have made a tasty pate de fruit.
    I made Meyer lemon marmalade this year. Turned around for a few seconds and the sugar started to burn. My husband hated it; I thought it was ok. My father-in-law, who is losing his sense of taste, loved the ‘smoky taste’ and my mother-in-law wanted to know what I added to it to get that wonderful ‘smokiness’. LOL
    Anyway, thanks for the post. I will never throw away any canning effort that doesn’t turn out perfect again.

  • In Boston there is much celebration around Julia Child’s 100th birthday this week. What a great post reminding us, much like Julia did, to have fun in the kitchen, learn something new, and not worry about the results. This weekend I plan to further commit to my August goal of eating my body weight in peaches and tomatoes and making some peach tyme jam for winter. Or maybe it’ll be a sauce — we’ll see. Thanks again!

  • I think this is the best advice you can give to a new cook, but especially to those new to preserving. The first jam I ever made was a peach rum jam made with brown sugar. I was so concerned with getting the right gel that I cooked it until it was basically unspreadable when cooled. Know what? Still delicious! I’m looking forward to making this years’ supply when I pick up peaches this weekend.

    And honestly? I made a ton of plum-based preserves last year, and overcooked the plum cheese. It’s REALLY thick, but still delicious with cheese and meat. Salvage what you can (pun intended)!

  • 100% agree! Everything I make right now is for personal use or gifts- and, I was always the one critical of ‘mistakes’! That all stopped when I was dissecting everything WRONG with a batch of blackberry jam (most of all, it was too thick- and the next time it happens I will make pΓ’te de fruit, and call it GREAT!). A dear friend you got a jar, said it was the best jam he ever had, and that he would not even know where to begin! Well, that took care of that! No more dissecting mistakes, just rename or re-purpose- like my apple jelly that became both a glaze and an apple pepper jelly (with a few additions.)

  • Marisa,

    I’d like to make some sauces (on purpose) πŸ™‚ – if I use a basic jelly recipe and cook to 230 degrees, will that work? I was a little confused that the jelly temperature is 220 and the syrup temperature is 230 – does the pectin break down between 220 and 230, resulting in a softer set? I don’t mind experimenting, but don’t want to waste fruit.


  • The tips on how to use fruit rubber are greatly appreciated! I can’t tell you how many batches of cherries I’ve turned into red door stops. When you live at 6,200 ft, making jams and jellies is truly an adventure. I’ve given up on using a thermometer. I have to go by feel and gut instinct for best results.

  • I made my first strawberry jam this year, and achieved the over-set texture you describe – I told people I went right past “properly gelled” and straight into “damned near fruit leather.” I was thinking I would slice it and roll it out between sheets of wax paper to make the kids homemade fruit roll-ups. But I like rolling blobbies of it in sugar and making my own fruity snacks, too – I might try that if the fruit leather doesn’t pan out.

    You seriously can’t even get a knife in it. It’s delicious, though. Next time I’ll be more willing to accept what my eyes are telling me about whether it’s gelled. ROFL.

  • I was talking about you over dinner tonight! My friend is making jams like crazy from your book which she loves, but she was puzzled about why one didn’t gel (jel?). I thought maybe width of pot could be a factor.

    However, I have only made freezer jam and jam with pectin, so I’m nervous about doing it the old-fashioned way with just sugar and heat. I bought 4 quarts of blackberries today at market – if I fail, it’s going to be an epic amount of sauce.

  • Thank You! I needed this! Here in WA it has been 100+degrees. Yesterday was me vs the 25lb box of peaches, today 25lbs of pickling cuc’s. We’ll see how it all turned out when the dust settles. C’est la vie!

  • There was never any angst with the few batches that did not turn our perfect for me. I used it anyway! My jelly does not have to be too syrupy for me to spread in on pancakes! I just love the taste of jam and jelly. Consistency is never a consideration for alarm or disappointment.

  • Hi Marisa — I just went on to order your book, and it doesn’t look available… has the first printing already sold out!?

  • Thanks for this post (and all your others- love your book and this site!)

    I think “the school of changed expectations” is a healthy philosophy for canning, cooking and life in general. Thanks for a new mantra!

  • One thing hard, overset jam is good for: jam thumbprint cookies. The jam doesn’t run and burn, and it makes the cookies nice and chewy. I love the pate de fruit idea, too.

  • Thank you!!

    This year is my first foray into canning anything. Mostly it has gone well, and been a good learning experience. However, I have 24 jars of strawberry sauce sitting on the shelf.

    The strawberry sauce was driving me nuts. It really is like soup. But after reading this, I baked a plain cake, bought some vanilla icecream, and wowed the extended family at a party!

  • I had a batch of apricot jam come out nearly the consistency of gummi bears. It turns out that if you melt it back down and spread while hot, it’s perfect for jam sandwich cookies!

    I also scorched a batch of blueberry jam. I turned out that most of it was just fine, but I’m still trying to get the rest out of my good pot!

  • Thanks so much for this post! I made sweet cherry preserves over the weekend and they just don’t wow me – kind of runny and not sweet enough. And the jars are everywhere! I now have the courage to try and fix them – what’s the worst that can happen? And, who’s going to know?

  • Wonderful, encouraging post!
    I never would have thought of slicing what I lovingly refer to as “gummy bear” jam and serving it as fruit paste! That is glorious! I’ve poured unset jam over cake and even made drinks with it, but I’ve always been at a loss as to what to do with the gummy bear jars. Thank you so!

  • Neat thoughts on re-purposing jams and jellies–I’ve always liked fruit syrups so no problems using them for a multitude of goodies. The over-jelled products were another issue entirely since no one wanted to eat them as usual–thanks for your ideas. I recently made some spiced apple jelly that set up too hard for using on toast or waffles but will make wonderful cubes to serve with cheese this winter. Canning is an art not a exact science and results will vary from batch to batch–good news for all the canning newbies!

  • 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?

  • 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 πŸ˜‰

    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!

  • 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!

  • 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!

    1. 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.

  • 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. πŸ˜€ 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!

  • Thank you for the insight. I have made jam before, but first batch of plum jam ever today. One jar in particular does not seem set, others seem a little thin. Was not looking forward to basically remaking the whole batch. So, do I understand, even if not set, it is safe to eat? I used liquid Certo and followed package instructions, but they don’t say how long to wait before checking the set. They also don’t say whether it will spoil if not set. I processed it in a boiling water bath 10 minutes in 1-cup jars. (in Florida, sea level and humid). They started actually sealing before I got them in the canning bath because it took awhile to fill the jars. After the canning jars I heard them sealing pretty much right away. P.S. – please don’t publish my email or full name.

    1. The set of the jam plays no role in the safety of the finished product. Runny jam is just as safe as firmly set jam.

  • I am having trouble finding frozen white juice concentrate at any of my local grocery stores. Could frozen apple juice concentrate be used instead? Any adjustments for it? Thanks.

    1. Yes, you can also use frozen apple juice concentrate! I’m sorry you’re struggling to find white grape.