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).
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.
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).
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.
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).
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!