Canning 101: Tips For Making Good Marmalade

January 31, 2013(updated on October 3, 2018)

just part of my recent marmalade project

When I first started this blog, I was something of a marmalade novice. I dove into my first couple batches blindly and without doing much research. As a result, those initially attempts were pretty lousy – chewy, seriously lacking in any kind of unifying jelly and unnecessarily bitter. Not knowing any better, I wrote them up here and led a few dozen of you into marmalade disappointment.

Since then, four years have passed and I have at least three dozen batches of marmalade under my belt (boggles the mind a little, doesn’t it?). Since we’re still in the midst of citrus season, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned over the last few winters.

First, let’s define our terms. The word marmalade can stretch to mean a whole number of jams, reductions, and sauces, but for our purposes, I’m going to use the word marmalade to mean a sweetened citrus preserve that consists of bits of peel, suspended in jelly. It uses the entire fruit (or, at least, darned near all of it).

blood oranges

Choosing Your Fruit

Any time you use the exterior of a lemon, orange or grapefruit, your best choice is unsprayed fruit. For those of you who live down south, this may mean begging or trading for a friend or neighbor’s backyard fruit. For those of us up north, more often, this means buying through a reputable orchardist who grows using organic practices. Some grocery stores have gotten wise and stock organic specialty citrus this time of year. Buy from them, if you can.

If you have the privilege of hand-picking the citrus you’re using to make marmalade, choose fruit that feels heavy for its size and that seems fairly unmarred (not always possible with homegrown fruit, but small bumps and scrapes can always be cut away during prep).

Style, Taste, and Texture

Once you’ve got your fruit in hand, you have to determine the style of marmalade you want to make. As far as I see it, there are three choices.

Whole Fruit – As you may have guessed, this method uses the whole darn piece of citrus. Traditionally, it’s made with one part fruit, one part sugar, and one part water (by weight).

When tackling a whole fruit marmalade, the fruit has to be significantly softened before you add the sugar and begin the marmalade cooking process. This can be done by boiling the whole fruit (and chopping once cool), or by slicing the fruit into small pieces and then soaking for a period of time (overnight, typically). In either case, you can choose whether you cut the rind into chunks, bits or slivers (this depends entirely on your texture preference).

Because this method includes the pith of the fruit, it is typically the most bitter of the all the marmalade varieties. If you like bitter flavors, this can be a plus. If you shy away from things like coffee, black tea, unsweetened chocolate, and dark beer, this style is not for you.

soaking blood oranges

Cut Rind – In this method, you slice away the outer zest for use in the marmalade, cut away the pith and then either segment or juice the inner flesh (much like what’s documented in this post). When making marmalades in this fashion, I like to cut the zest into very fine ribbons, so that they nearly melt into the jelly.

This is a good starter marmalade, because the absence of the pith means that it is less bitter than the whole fruit version. However, because citrus pith contains so much pectin, this variety can be a little more troublesome when it comes time to set, particularly if you’ve not saved and bundled up your pith in a pectin boosting bundle of seeds and membrane.

Citrus Jam – Okay, so this isn’t actually a marmalade at all because a citrus jam omits the zest of the fruit all together. Instead, you cut away the rind, section out the flesh and cook it down with sugar the way you’d do any other jam.

I wanted to mention it here because it can be a good solution when you’re confronted with citrus that has been sprayed during the growing process or if the flavor and texture of rind is more than you can handle. I wrote a recipe for grapefruit jam last year, but truly, the same technique could be applied to just about any variety of citrus (if you’re working with sweet oranges or mandarins, I’d recommend adding the flesh of one lemon for balance).

finished marm

Ensuring Set

As is true with other jams and jellies, you’ll get the best and most consistent set from a small batch of marmalade (no more than three to four pounds of fruit to start with) made in a low, wide pan. In most cases, adding commercial pectin to marmalades (and citrus jams) is unnecessary. The amount of acid and pectin that is naturally in citrus should offer enough to get your preserve to gel.

When you make a whole fruit marmalade, often there’s not much extra that you need to do to extract the pectin from the fruit because the only bit you discard is the seeds (and after you’ve simmered them inside the fruit for an hour or two).

In batches of cut rind marmalade, I like to save all the seeds, pith and membrane, bundle it all up in a length of cheesecloth and leave it with the fruit through the soaking and cooking stages. If you can do so without burning your fingers, squeeze that pectin bundle well over the cooking pot before discarding it.

seeds and membranes

There are some exceptions. If you’re working with hybrid fruit like blood oranges or cara cara oranges, they are often seed-free and have very thin layers of pith. I will sometimes stash lemon seeds in my freezer and bundle them up for marmalades made with these low pectin varieties, in order to help with the set. I am also not above adding a tablespoon of powdered pectin to a batch of marmalade that seems to be struggling.

In most cases, recipes for marmalade will tell you to cook it to 220 degrees F in order to achieve set. This often works, but there are rare cases where a marmalade resists setting, even when cooked to 222F or higher (Kaela wrote about just such an experience recently). I find that it’s important to test for set at least two ways when making marmalade, to double check your work as it were. I always monitor the temperature and use the frozen plate test (detailed here).

Marmalade cover

For more information on homemade marmalade, I highly recommend Elizabeth Field’s lovely book, Marmalade (I wrote about it back in the fall). It’s an awesome resource and one I’ve really appreciated having in my kitchen. I’ve recently tried both her variations on Seville orange marmalade and will be sharing my thoughts on them soon!

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57 thoughts on "Canning 101: Tips For Making Good Marmalade"

  • I thought my marmalade had set but apparently it hadn’t. Do you think I can open up the jars and cook it more with a little pectin or should I just give up? It was a lot of work!

    1. thank you so much for posting this, i’ve done marmalade three times now, and the closest success i’ve had to it “setting” has included 1 packet of pectin. while the taste is always good, i become disappointed when the consistency isn’t there. this last batch with the 1 packet of pectin was better, but i think because i emulsified just a little bit, it didnt set up as it would had i let it be. good luck! i’ll be trying again soon.

      1. I realize that this reply is far too delayed to be helpful, but if anyone else is reading this and has underset marmalade, here’s what you can do. First, put a jar in the fridge. The colder environment may help it firm up a little and get closer to a consistency that you’d like. If it is still really runny, you have two choices. One, live with it as a syrup and use it in sparkling water or as a glaze. Two, open up the jars and cook it more.

        1. Marisa, I am asking you because your message is, at least recent….LOL And I know about opening and bringing back up to temperature if it does not set. I love marmalade. Yesterday made some with key limes, regular lime, lemon, and Seville oranges and a tiny bit of candied ginger (was a nice touch…Star anise is nice added also, but only one star per batch or you can get too much and overpowers the orange) Back to my question….Have you ever found a recipe that all but eliminates the bitter? I don’t mind a bit of bitter but my husband can’t stand marmalade because of it. If I could only do this without that, I know he would love it. He really likes pineapple jam and we’re only a step away.

          1. Kim, by its nature, marmalade is always going to be somewhat bitter, because the peel of the fruit is inherently bitter and that is essential to marmalade. I’d suggest making a batch of citrus jam as a starting point for your husband. It’s a preserve made from citrus flesh and either sugar or honey. Because it doesn’t use any part of the peel, it’s not at all bitter. Here’s a recipe for cara cara orange jam that I wrote last year.

        2. Mine is terribly underset, and although I used pectin and the peels and some pips in cheesecloth, I realize now that my oranges were seedless, so the few pips I had probably didn’t add much in the way of pectin. Think I will wait a couple of weeks and see what happens. The flavor is marvelous (oranges, one lemon and two Meyer lemons) so it will be worth a re-do.

  • Thanks for the great tips. Hope to experiment with a key lime/Meyer lemon batch this weekend! Squeezing tip: I keep the string kind of long on the “bag of pith” (good name for a band…) and attach it to the handle of the pot with a wooden clothespin. Then I have an easy handle to pick it up, then squeeze it with a pair of strong kitchen tongs. No burned fingers for we immediate gratification types.

  • I may try my hand at marmalade again this winter. I love orange and lemon-y things.
    Unfortunately, the last batch I made came out rock hard.

    What to do?

    Is it salvageable?

    1. If you can’t salvage for a spread, consider using it in tea! A healthy dollop in hot water will soften it and you’ll have a wonderful hot drink.

    2. Tried clementine marmalade not long ago and it also came out rock-hard from overcooking. I just zap in the microwave a bit and spread it on my peanut butter toast as usual. Works fine, just an extra step! This weekend, I’ll try zapping, adding some brandy, and serving over crepes- my theory is that the brandy will keep it from hardening up again. What’s the worst that could happen?

    3. I like to use marmalades, especially rock solid ones, in bastes for pork and chicken. Just mix it up with some olive oil and spices. I made a lime marmalade for this exact reason, it came out just too darn bitter to eat but i mix it up with some tequila, olive oil, salt & pepper, and red pepper flakes and I have a lovely tequila-lime baste!

  • I was wondering what effect altitude has on the temperature required to achieve set. I live at about 5,000 feet. I recently made your grapefruit jam and it never got above about 210 degrees even after cooking for close to an hour. It passed the plate test though, and the set turned out fine in the end. Since altitude affects the temperature at which water boils, I thought it might affect the jam as well.

    1. Good question! I wonder that as well – been canning jams with good results for years, but marmalade attempts are hit-or-miss.

  • Great ideas, thanks for sharing. I made my first three batches of marmalade in December and they came out pretty well. In doing my research for that project is how I found your blog 🙂

  • I was so happy to see this post! I received the Ball Canning book for Christmas and was recently looking through it with my eight year old, both of us trying to decide what we wanted to make this year. He was enamored with the marmalade and I’ve been wondering how it’d taste paired with our family recipe of Scottish scones. I’ve made a couple successful batches of apple butter but felt a bit overwhelmed by marmalade. I can’t wait to try the whole fruit method out!

  • Fabulous!! I have been experimenting making lotsa Marm! Batch 1:1 and 1:2 (with batch #2 next week) were good, but not as tender a rind as I like; thick cut, bitter and Veddy, Veddy British! ;^) I like that flavor, but will likely chop the rinds quite a bit finer; I never seem to have enough ‘jelly’, but a lot of it cooks away while trying to get up to 220*.

    For these next batches, I’ll be doing a bit of a mash up, similar to a candied citrus rind recipe I like. I’ll quarter each fruit (Red grapefruit, Moro orange and Meyer lemon) and peel the pulp away and reserve, then soak/simmer the peels and scrape away the pith and chop fine. I’ll likely reserve the last simmer ‘juice’ to help with set, add the chopped pulp and rinds. Wish me luck! It’s interesting to see how all of them turn out; different, but still delicious!

    Thanks for the tip list, it came at the perfect time!

  • Great post. Suffice to say marmalade making can be confusing for even the most experienced preservers. I often find US recipes hardly cook the peel at all, like 15 – 30 minutes, compared to in UK peel is always softened till almost disintegrating (2 – 3hours)! This year I’ve been experimenting with using a pressure cooker for the initial cooking and am really impressed with the results. Then when the sugar is added it reforms a ‘bite’ again, but a soft bite. Compounded by this, technique for making marmalade is further confused here by standards set for competition preserves.
    After years of trying hard to make the perfect jelly with peel suspended evenly throughout, I’m now of the, ‘who cares so long as it tastes delicious and it has the bite you like best’ school. Orange is such an uplifting shade.

  • I have made marmalade the past three winters with lovely Seville oranges. I love it bitter – so go the whole fruit method. the Blue Chair Jam Cookbook is what I have used for recipes – takes 3 days – but so worth it. Have 36 jars in my pantry after two weekends of marmalade making.

  • we tried marmalade for the first time this year, and ended up with a batch of citrus syrup. wich actually worked out for the best, because it’s great on pancakes, and no one here really likes marmalade all that much.

    tasted it at a farmers market, and decided to give it a go. lemons, red grapefruit, and orange, with vanilla bean.

  • Personally, marmalade is not my thing. It is too bitter for my liking, however the citrus jam looks like a different story. However, my hubby LOVES marmalade. Maybe I should make up a few jars and surprise him for Valentine’s Day. He would be thrilled! Thanks for sharing this comprehensive information!

  • I’ve attempted marmalade once. And it was such a dismal failure. Maybe with this additional direction I can have a little more success next time.

  • Amazing timing….a box of tangerines and lemons came in the mail yesterday from my brother in law in LA. We’ve been saving the peels (and the whole lemons) because I was planning to make marmalade and lemon curd from that varitable of wonders “Food in Jars”! It was meant to be.

  • One of my goals for January was to try making marmalade, but it didn’t happen. Now that this post is up, perhaps that was for the best. I have a pint of kumquats that will go into their own small batch, and some organic oranges and grapefruits are schedule to arrive at the co-op sometime this week.

  • I wish I’d read your post before I made this recipe:

    It calls for water “to cover,” and I’m pretty sure I had way, way too much liquid. Because the only problem I’ve had with marmalade setting is that it can set too hard, I was pretty cavalier about it – and of course, it utterly failed to set. Planning to re-cook it with some pectin next weekend (and possibly with slightly less liquid even after all the cooking).

    1. Oh no! I’m so sorry that that recipe didn’t quite work out for you. Hopefully some recooking will help it recover!

  • I grew up in a citrus growing area, with loads of backyard fruit. I have a couple of suggestions for picking fruit, aside from your very sensible suggestion that it should feel heavy for its size: that keeps you from acquiring fruit that has gone “woody.”

    First, those dimples in the skin indicate a piece of citrus with a deep pith. You can find grapefruit that are almost entirely smooth: those are prized at home, because they are easier to section if you are removing the pith (and more fruit to the weight). But if you are counting on pith for gelling or otherwise want it, these might not be your best choice.

    Second, not all mars on a fruit are created equal. There’s a very light, brown scalding that happens where they get sunburned. It’s purely cosmetic and we’ve never worried about it. Of course, since we were eating backyard fruit, we never worried about scarring of any kind. But that in particular is no biggie. If they waxed your fruit, you can clean it with dish soap and a sponge, or you can use some of that fancy dewaxing spray. In fact, it’s always important to wash the exterior if you are going to eat it, because trees are an ecosystem. They get washed in the processing plant, but I was always a bit leery of trusting somebody else’s wash.

  • The common ‘gel point’ given for jellies and marmalades is 220 – 221°F, but I’ve routinely found that to be too high, especially for marmalade – it often yields a solid rubbery mass. I start to watch very carefully and test at @ 217° and usually end up stopping it at 219°. I use a large stainless spoon to dip a small amount of the jelly part from the pot, then dump it back in leaving just a film on the back of the spoon. I let it cool for 30 seconds or a minute and then push it with my fingertip – this gives a pretty good indication of set.

    I’ve also learned that marmalade can take a very long time to set in the jar. I once had a batch of Meyer Lemon marmalade that took a full 2 weeks to firm up.

    I have a good recipe for kumquat marmalade here:

    1. It sounds like you’ve found a technique which works for you, which is great. And thanks for pointing out the fact that marmalade can set up over time once in the jar. It’s actually true of many sweet preserves.

  • What a great read! I am in the middle of a Seville marmalade making marathon (by choice) and am amazed at all the different techniques. I have been used to only one way to make marmalade. Now I understand the whole process better and can’t wait to finish using the rest of the box of oranges- yes, I bought a whole box!! Marmalade to last for years!

    1. I typically process for 10 minutes, because that’s enough time to fully sterilize the jars as well as seal the marmalade. However, processing times vary depending on the recipe writer.

  • I made whole fruit blood orange marmalade from the recipe you cited early in this post as being problematic and it came out wonderfully. The rind is chewy but not tough, a great balance of sweetness and bitterness, and it set beautifully — I used apple pectin as it was what I had available.

    I’ve made marmalade before that never set and had a weak flavor and was beyond delighted with the end result here. Even if it was a sub-par recipe, I had fantastic results : ) and something different from my usual jam making!

  • Thanks for this! Marmalade is on my list to try this year which makes this post perfect! Thanks for that 🙂

  • I just met Elizabeth Field about a month ago when I bought her book. She is a dear and we talked for a bit about how she has collected marmalade recipes for years. I made my first batch of marmalade (Blood Orange) and we devoured it (and gave some away). I am right on the cusp of diving head first into this world filled with jars of sweet, jellied fruit and I am so thankful to have found your blog. It will give me great insight and ideas as well as lots of pictures for visual clarity. Thank you for sharing your process!

  • Hi Marisa, great tips here! My husband and I bought a little house that has established dwarf citrus in the gardens. Delightfully the grapefruit produced a happy harvest of several hundred fruit! I tried my hand at making grapefruit marmelades and the one challenge was setting; I ended up using a lot of pectin. When I tried the cheesecloth wrapped around rind and seeds the marmelades did not set. I had to recook. The results are delicious but I would prefer not to use as much pectin. For one thing it’s very expensive. And one more question. Why did one batch turn out golden and one batch was much darker? Any thoughts on this? Thank you!

    1. Georgette, you really shouldn’t have to use lots of pectin to get a set from marmalade. It sounds like you’ve not cooked it long enough. And colors vary depending on the length of cooking time and the variety of sugar you used.

  • I was hoping to find a great place to explain the process of a lime marmalade to me as I am making this for my wedding favor. Thank you so much and wish me luck. It’ll be my first attempt at marmalade. I intend to use the second method you mentioned. How long will the marmalade keep once canned and set?

  • I made marmalade for the first time with key limes because they were available. I also used 2 oranges and 3 lemons. I cooked it I think for too long because it is rubbery hard. Also it came out way too bitter. Not sure if it is the key limes. I want to try again with oranges and lemons

    1. I’m no expert, but the citrus peels need to be boiled to softness BEFORE the sugar is added. Also if you cook too deep a batch (ie the depth of jam in a pan) the jam boils too long before it loses enough water (steam) and so it starts to caramelise .. giving it a dark colour.

      Regularly every few years or so, I forget and get over ambitious and try to cook a double batch (of guava jelly) in my usual pan and land up with a dark jelly – then remember the previous times I have made the same mistake. Normally the guava jelly is perfect.

      My testing for setting is rather slapdash. Cool a little in a spoon and rub a little between middle finger and thumb. If there is a slightly thick slimy ‘cushion’ of jelly it seems to give a good set. Alternatively spoon up a little on the wooden spoon and pour it back into the pan. When it drips off the spoon in two little streams with a little jelly joining the two streams slightly at the top – I find it sets. Perhaps some of the more scientific jam makers can try these two very easy ways and find if the results match their tried and trusted methods. I also confirm that jellies sometimes take a couple days (in my case) to set.

  • I just made my first attempt at canning this past weekend, and the first recipe that I tried was an orange-pear marmalade from a book I got at the library. It passed both the plate and the temp test, but it didn’t come out super clear. I’m thinking it was beause the pear was sliced lengthwise, and I thought it would be difficult to use as a spread so I went at the cooked mixture with the immersion blender to break it up. The pears mellow the orange flavor. I’m planning to use some of it in a WWII era recipe that I have for orange marmalade bread this weekend. I made the bread last month using regular orange Dundee marm, and it was a little bitter, but also the hard jelly set made chunks that didn’t combine well in the baking. I’m hoping this softer marm will really make for a great addition.

  • I’m reading the posts above from 2013 and hope someone will see this one and be able to respond. As I write there are two enormous pots of kumquat fruit and juice (with oranges added) on my stove simmering. This is my first attempt at marmalade, inspired by a gift of dozens of kumquats from a friend’s yard. My first mistake, I think, was trying to process the whole batch of kumquats at once. My husband and I spent all day (literally) yesterday just cutting the kumquats. The next mistake was adding the lemon juice too soon (I was so anxious to get it all in the pot that I forgot the lemon juice was not to be added until much later in the cooking process). Also, while I did not add nearly as much water as the recipe indicated, it seems that I have way too much liquid. The whole thing was left overnight as recommended and I’ve been simmering the batch (which I had to separate into two pots instead of one just to make space for the initial boil to simmer) for almost two hours.

    I am planning to pour off the extra fluid and save it to add back if needed, then continue to cook down the remaining mixture to finish the process. If anyone sees this post within the next few hours, please feel free to respond with advice. I don’t want to ruin all of this precious fruit! Any input will be much appreciated (now or later)!

  • soooooo, what marmalade do you recommend? I suddenly have the desire for a slightly bitter marmalade – I was pinning your 3-citrus marmalade, but is that one of the problematic recipes? It looks great to me.

    1. Margo, the three citrus marm is just fine. It’s the original blood orange marmalade that’s kind of funky.

  • So as I started making marmalade I thought I’d better finish! Lol!
    I made it up as I went along but trust me it’s delicious!!
    Pomelo Marmalade:
    1 pomelo
    1 orange
    1/2 a lemon
    2.5kg sugar
    2 1/2 pints of water
    It’s amazing and I highly recommend it!

  • I have just made a couple of batches of lemon-mandarin marmalade, and as I was researching technique (I devised my own recipe) I ran across a lot of this “save the seeds and bundle in cheesecloth and simmer in the marmalade” business, which struck me as messy and hazardous and a waste of cheesecloth. I took the seeds and covered with an inch or so of water in a small saucepan, simmered about ten minutes (watch the water level and add more if needed) (it doesn’t really seem to simmer very obviously) and then strained it into the marmalade. Worked great, no bundling needed!!!

    Also, for setting, in my experience there is a subtle change in the simmer when it reaches set point, if you are watching carefully. It becomes more viscous and cohesive. For my batches (3-4 lemons, 3-4 mandarins (whole fruit of both) 3 cups sugar 3 cups water) this happens at about 1 hour and 5-10 minutes. I checked with the plate test but the real clue was that the liquid in the bottom of the jar where I stood the stirring spoon was starting to jell. I would rather under than overcook my marmalade, having made a large batch of lime rubber some years back! This method works well for me, and it sets up beautifully.

    I should probably consider boiling the fruit first, but I kind of like the chew of my marmalade as it is…

  • I have never made marmalade before and thought that I would try it. In the many recipes I have read it talks about “pips”. What exactly are pips??
    Thank you I appreciate your time and look forward to your answer.