Tips on Jelly-Making
Every fall I'm up to my eyeballs in apples. This is not what I thought it meant when I
heard the saying, "the apple of my eye." We have 3 different apple trees, and they all bloom and ripen at different times. From August through October, I'm usually very busy with apple processing!
Our 2 most successful ventures with apples have been making apple butter and apple jelly. I should say that making apple jelly has become MORE successful the more I do it.
The 1st attempt at apple jelly was a failure - double failure really: it failed to gel at all the first time I cooked it, and it failed to gel at all the 2nd time I cooked it down, even after adding pectin to the syrup.
Boy, was I ever frustrated. But we kept some of it as just syrup (yummy on waffles and pancakes) and, as they always say 'the 3rd time is the charm', I was finally able to get it that batch to gel on the 3rd try. In the process, I learned a lot about jellying! Here are a few tips I would recommend.
Tip #1 - BIG POT!
Make sure the
pot that you're using to boil the juice in to make jelly is big enough to let the
syrup boil at a FULL rolling boil. My first try we had it boiling for quite a
while but not on HIGH heat because the pot wasn't big enough to keep from boiling
over. I had one batch boil over when I turned my back for about 2 minutes, and
it was AWFUL. Sticky, smelly, a BIG mess on my glass cooktop.... not good!
Tip #2 - ROLLING BOIL!
Let the juice
boil on HIGH heat at a full rolling boil. The more constant the heat the better. I think a gas stove would probably be best for this since my electric one likes to turn
on and off. As mentioned above, I couldn't keep the first batch in a rolling
boil because my pot wasn't big enough. I know that no rolling boil contributed to it not gelling
Tip #3 - LOTS OF SUGAR!
Be sure to measure the amount of juice you have to make into jelly, and add enough sugar according to the amount and kind of juice you have.
For example, I'm doing one of many kinds of apple jelly (slightly different than the recipe listed there), so I add about 3/4 cup of sugar for every 1 cup of juice I have. (That's what the recipes say, though I tend to shoot low on the sugar. So if I have 29 cups of juice, I need 21 cups of sugar but I usually put in 19 or 20.)
You've got to have enough sugar to get the syrupy-consistency necessary for making good jelly. My first batch didn't have nearly enough sugar in it. I didn't measure to see how much juice I had - I was just running on the recipe, and apparently my apples had given me more juice than the recipe intended, even though I followed the recipe carefully. On the 3rd try, when it finally did gel, it was a much thicker syrup to begin with after I had added more sugar.
Tip #4 - COOK THE HOUND OUT OF IT!
Maybe it's the altitude here (914m or about 3000ft), or maybe it's because I was determined not to have to add commercial pectin to my jelly, but some batches of jelly took an hour of cooking time before they got to the gel stage. My first batch I didn't cook nearly long enough... even with not enough sugar, if I had cooked it longer it likely still would have gelled. Let it cook maybe longer than you think you need to. I would rather have hard jelly than syrup any day, so now I'm not afraid to cook it TOO long.
Tip #5 - GEL TEST!
doubt, use a gel test. I knew about the spoon test, where you dip a metal spoon
into the boiling syrup, and if the syrup sheets off the spoon and forms 2
side-by-side drips, then it has reached the gel stage. In all the batches of
jelly I have done so far, only 1 of them actually exhibited the proper spoon
A friend of mine, fellow quilter and canner, told me about the freezer test.
[This] test involves putting a few small plates in the freezer, and testing the consistency of the syrup after a sample has set in the freezer on a cold plate for a few minutes. Place a spoonful of syrup mixture on a cold plate; return to freezer for two minutes. If it is cooked enough, the jelly on the plate will be the correct thickness by then. In case it is gelling on your plate in the freezer, you should be prepared to remove the pan from heat to avoid overcooking it (resulting in HARD jelly) immediately after this test. If it's not ready, cook for two more minutes and repeat; that's what the extra plates are for.
The freezer test has been far more hepful in my jelly-making than the spoon test ever was. (Thanks Nancy!!!)
more I've done it, the more I can tell, based on the foam that forms during
boiling, and the kinds of bubbles that form, when it's close to the gel stage.
You know that good old "cook it until it looks right" tip.... yah,
that actually works, when you know what it's supposed to look like!
Tip #6 - ADD A PAT!
Adding a pat of margarine (or
butter) to the syrup while it's boiling keeps the foam and boiling bubbles from
building up as much. I had heard about this from many older canners, and I
remember my Great-Grandma adding a bit of butter to her boiling pots to keep
the foam down. This was a life-saver for many of my jelly batches because I had just about the limit
of what the pot would hold without boiling over. I was having a hard time
keeping it stirred down enough not to boil to the top edge, and decided to try
the pat of buter. Within about 15 seconds of putting it in, while still
stirring, the foam almost disappeared and the boiling bubbles became more
contained, still a rolling boil, but not trying to escape my pot. YAY! Why
didn't I try that before!? I use that pat nearly all the time when jelly-making now.
In addition to making it easier to keep up with the boiling, when I think it is about time for they syrpu to be at the gel stage, I check the pot and the boiling bubbles change - I'm no longer able to stir them down. Another good inidication that it is time for JELLY, and the butter makes it real clear where that stage is. I also have less foam left on the top after taking the syrup off the heat, so there is less 'wasted jelly' from skimming the foam off before jarring the syrup/jelly - less foam, less skimming, more jelly!
Tip #7 - HANG IT ALL!
After cooking down the fruit, I hang it all in a muslin bag (sorta like a pillowcase, and I know many canners who DO use an old threadbare pillowcase for this purpose) to drip all day long or overnight. The first batch of jelly I did I used cheesecloth and didn't let it hang very long. I think you get more color and more pectin from the fruit skins, stems, etc., when you just let it hang longer. Our jellies have been much faster gelling, and gorgeous deep colors since we started hanging the solids to drip the juice over a longer period of time.
probably other things I have learned. Those are the ones I can think of with
respect to the practical aspects of jelly at this moment. It's been so much fun
and such a great sense of accomplishment when they jelly actually gels and the
jars actually seal. After that very first batch (which took 3 attempts to get
to gel) I have had NO more issues with jelly and all along have had no issues
with sealing the jars. The jelly always is gorgeous, and we've had several different
shades come out of the different kinds and combinations of apples, and plain vs
I guess most of the time you learn best by doing (right?) or by doing something with someone. We had made jelly before, but not apple jelly, and not this much of any kind of jelly. And some members of our families do these kinds of things still, but we're not close to any of them. We kind of wing it as we go! And I think I learn a little more with each batch I do.
This is one of those things that I think you have to learn a few things about as you go. I carefully followed recipes, but I just had to get the 'feel' for some of it myself.
I wish I had a few of these tips when I first started this big project of jelly making for all these apples that we have, and keep having. Maybe they will be helpful for another fellow canner/jelly-maker along the way!