Jam Troubleshooting

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been writing a lot about my sour cherry jam lately (and there’s more to come in an upcoming column). I’m not necessarily an expert in any one food-related subject (which is why I write and teach about so many topics), but I have limited knowledge of jam-making, and most of that is from personal experience. I didn’t grow up making jam at my mother’s side, we didn’t cover fruit preservation in culinary school, and I didn’t get the knowledge through something like 4H or a home economics class. Making jam isn’t necessarily that difficult, but the learning curve can be steep when it comes to avoiding problems.

So. I’ve made sour cherry jam twice before this summer. The first time, I made it the old-fashioned way, cooking the fruit down until it naturally thickened to a jam consistency. It was great, and we ate that jam for about 2 years. Then I tried a batch with pectin, thinking it might be a nice change to retain more fresh-fruit color and flavor in the finished product. The result was tasty, but it never fully set, and the fruit separated out and floated on top of the liquid. I knew I should remake the jam, but I never got around to it; we just ate the jam as it was, stirring the fruit into the gel before use.

Now I’ve made it with pectin again, and this time I doggedly followed directions. I think I may have been a little lackadaisical about the technique before, so I made absolutely certain to do everything exactly as printed on the insert that came with the pectin I bought.

You can imagine my disappointment when the first round of jars came out with fruit floating on top of liquid. WTF?? I wasn’t going to take this lying down, and I definitely didn’t want to commit the time and resources to remaking the jam, so I did some research.

My first stop was calling my friend Heather, who is in the process of launching a business that makes jams and pickles. (You can taste Heather’s pickles at Breadsoda in the Glover Park neighborhood of DC.) She had all sorts of thoughts as to how I might fix the problem, but she couldn’t offer a definitive solution. The best piece of advice she gave me was to try turning the jars upside down and see if the fruit redistributed. She also referenced the technique used in Christine Ferber’s book Mes Confitures (which has been on my Amazon wishlist for years…maybe I oughta just buy the damn book already), in which the fruit is strained out of the hot jam, the liquid boiled down, and then the fruit reintroduced before jarring and processing the finished product. An interesting idea I’ll have to try later this summer, if I have some time.

Next, I perused the Fresh Preserving website, figuring the folks who made the pectin and jars I was using might have something useful to say on the subject. (That would be Ball brand, owned by the fine folks at Jarden.) They said in a troubleshooting guide that this problem is caused by too much air in the jam, or by using immature fruit or too much sugar. I know my cherries were perfectly ripe, and I followed directions doggedly, so it wasn’t a sugar mismeasurement that caused my problem. Further investigation into their message boards brought up an additional suggestion: stir the jam for 3 minutes before jarring and processing. Hmmm.

I finished with this year’s sour cherry jam this afternoon, and I tried stirring the jam as described before jarring and processing, and it appears to have worked! Yay!

I did get through to the experts at Jarden on the phone today, and the home economist I spoke with suggested that air was the most likely culprit of my problem. She posited that stirring the jam for 3 minutes helped eliminate any tiny air bubbles that interfered with the jelling process, resulting in a more uniform product.

I did turn over those jars I made yesterday while they were still in a pretty liquid state, per Heather’s suggestion. That, too, seems to have worked; the distribution of fruit is much more even than it was before, and the jam did set up properly overnight. I turned them back upright this morning and the jam looks great. (Only problem is, the headspace is now at the bottom of the jar instead of the top, so they look a little funny. Hopefully the jam will slide back down to the bottom at some point…)

I learned a lot about jam through my attempts to troubleshoot this problem, and now hopefully you’ve learned something too. Plus, I have about 27 jars of jam cooling on my counter to show for my studies. Every lesson should turn out so well.


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