Monday, September 28, 2009

Testing for Gel Point When You Don't Use Pectin

After my first batch of grape jam wasn't in perfect gel form, but tasted fantastic, I decided to be more concerned about what was in the jam I eat rather than its consistency. In other words, if my jams and preserves aren't the same consistency as store bought, but they taste good and I know what they're made from I'm happy!

I also wanted to keep my recipes as basic and natural as possible. Everything I read called for pectin to cause the jam to gel. I wondered what was in commercial pectin that you buy at the store? What kind of fruit did it come from? Did it come from fruit or was it some concoction manufactured in a lab? How "natural" is it? I couldn't find answers to my satisfaction so I decided to forego using pectin in my recipes.

In my search for recipes, I also found tips on testing for gel point if you're not using pectin. I hope you find this information useful.

I can't take credit for this information about gel point. It is from the Ball Canning and Preserving web site. If you need detailed information, this is a wonderful site with downloadable PDF's and a great FAQ section. I highly recommend it.

I can also tell you that after you do a couple batches and get the feel of it, you will simply know when your jam or preserves have reached the gel point.


Here's the gel point FAQ excerpt from the Ball web site:

Q. How do I check to ensure my soft spread made without the use of commercial pectin will form a gel?
There are three tests you can perform to ensure your soft spread made without the use of commercial pectin has reached the gel stage.

Cook the soft spread until it reaches a temperature of 220°F, or 8°F above the boiling point of water. Measure the temperature of soft spreads with a candy or jelly thermometer. Always insert the thermometer vertically into the soft spread and ensure that it does not contact the surface of the pot.

Dip a cold metal spoon into the boiling soft spread. Lift the spoon and hold it horizontally with edge down so that the syrup runs off the edge. As the mixture cooks, the drops will become heavier and will drop off the spoon separately but two at a time. When the two drops join together and “sheet” off the spoon, the gel stage has been reached.
Chill two or three small saucers in the freezer. Place a teaspoonful of soft spread on the chilled saucer and place in the freezer for 1 minute. Remove the saucer from the freezer and push the edge of the spread with your finger. A mixture that has reached the gel stage will be set, and the surface will wrinkle when the edge is pushed. Note: To prevent overcooking or scorching, remove the soft spread from the heat before performing this test.
If the test you performed shows that the gel stage has not been reached, return the mixture to the heat to cook for a few minutes longer, then retest the soft spread.
For comparison, below are the ingredient lists for store bought jam and homemade jam.

As always, thanks for reading,


Concord Grapes
Sugar in the Raw (Turbinado sugar)
Lemon Juice


Concord Grapes
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Corn Syrup
Fruit Pectin
Citric Acid

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Just heard from the vineyard (through the grapevine) that concord grapes will be ready in about a week!

Need to buy more jars!

Thanks for reading,

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Preparing the Jars

If you have a dishwasher, great! Unpack your jars if they're new, separate the lids, jars and rings and put them in the dishwasher. If you have a basket that holds small items you can put the lids in it...this is the piece that looks like a disc. I put the rings on the top rack around one of the spokes and then place the jar partially on top of the ring to hold it down. If you're concerned about getting your jars super clean, hit the temperature boost button on your dishwasher.

When the dishwasher is finished, leave the door closed and the jars inside so they stay warm. When you pour the jam in it will be hot. It's better if the jars aren't cold to prevent breakage from the temperature change.

Once you are getting closer to the time to fill the jars, remove the lids (the part that looks like a disc) from the dishwasher using tongs to be sure they remain clean. Place the lids in a small pot with hot water, put it on the stove on simmer. You don't want to boil the lids as this may damage the rubber sealant around the edge. Just simmer them to keep them warm.


When you're ready to begin filling the jars, remove them from the dishwasher by only handling the outside of the jar. Take care to not grab the rim so they remain clean. The rings do not come in contact with the food so
extra care in handling them isn't really necessary in my opinion.

If you don't have a dishwasher, no problem. You can wash all the parts in warm soapy water and sterilize them on the stove. There are instructions and a tutorial that explain the preparation and processing of jars at the Ball web site. Just do a quick search for 'getting started' and you should see it.

The next post will be about testing for gel point.

Thanks for reading,

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Getting Started - Equipment You'll Need

I know I said I would post the grape jam recipe next. However after thinking about it, it makes more sense to begin by defining the equipment you'll need and the steps of the canning process, followed by the recipes. So today's post will be about the equipment you'll need.

Most kitchens have everything you need to process jams and preserves except the jars. You can purchase canning kits that include special tongs, a big pot, a rack for the pot, magnetic tongs for lifting the lids, etc. The kits can get fairly pricey. So far I haven't purchased a canning kit. However it looks like this might be getting serious, so a few specialty canning items might make my Christmas list this year!

I have found that I can improvise using what I already have. The point I'm trying to make is all you may need to purchase to get started is a box of jars and the ingredients!

Here's how I improvised while canning:
-Instead of a jar grabber, I use my tongs, the kind for turning hot dogs on the grill. They look like this

-Instead of a canning pot, I use my big chili pot, it's stainless steel. Note: You cannot use an aluminum pot for canning.
-Instead of a canning rack for the bottom of the pot when processing, I use a Farberware steaming rack with the handle bent up. I have processed the jars resting on the bottom of the pot. It's a little noisy and they could break so I don't recommend it.
-Instead of a magnetic tong grabber, I use my hot dog tongs.
You get the idea.

What about the jars?

I like the jars for my jams to be a little fancy. Why not? The jars I have used have a crystal look with a colorful lid. They come in a 4 ounce or an 8 ounce size and include labels that match the lids. The average price for a package of 12 jars with lids and rings is $8 to $10. Here's a photo of the two sizes with my recent batch of peach preserves inside.

That pretty much covers the equipment.

Check back for information on preparing, filling and processing the jars and testing for gel point. At first this all seemed somewhat intimidating to me. When I read the instructions I found in various places there was too much information all at once. So for beginners, (like me), I will present these steps in three separate posts: Preparing the Jars, Testing for Gel Point, and Filling and Processing the Jars. I hope this simplifies things for you. Once you do this a few times you'll get the hang of it and look forward to the next time.

Thanks for reading,

Saturday, September 12, 2009

How It All Started

My preserving and canning adventure actually started while snooping around at I post my photos there and I stumbled upon a recipe with photos for grape jam. It surprised me that the recipe did not require sugar. Most jam and preserve recipes require a lot of sugar. By a lot, I mean several cups!

In addition, I learned that nearly all jam/preserve recipes also require pectin. Pectin can actually complicate the process due to temperature requirements. Further research determined that adding pectin isn't really necessary as most fruits contain their own natural pectin. Strawberries would be an exception having very little. However, it is possible to increase pectin naturally by adding citrus juice, i.e., fresh squeezed lemon juice as opposed to a pectin/dextrose canning product.

If I was going to try this, I wanted to keep things as simple and natural as possible. After all, I was learning something new that my mother had never done and therefore never taught me. And I was reading a lot about things I had never heard of like a "hot water bath" for processing the finished product! What is that?

Back to how this all started.....

After reading many recipes and conducting research online, I decided to give making my own grape jam a whirl. I am trying to reduce the amount of sugar in my diet so I decided to go with the original recipe I had found that used honey as a substitute. Besides, the recipe was so descriptive and it sounded so yummy, I had to give it a try! I wish I had bookmarked it so I could post it here to give credit :(

So, the inspiration that led me to create my first ever batch of grape jam was in place. For that matter, my first batch of anything ever canned!

The first challenge was finding the grapes. I wanted concord grapes. We vacation in Leelanau County Michigan which is also Michigan wine country. With all those grapes you'd think someone would at least grow a few concords. Not a single concord was to be found anywhere on the Leelanau Peninsula. This led me to search again online and write to several growers on nearby Old Mission Peninsula. Sure enough I received a reply from Cindy at the
Grey Hare Inn Vineyard B & B saying she had seeded and seedless concords. Great news! On our next trip north my husband and I headed out to pick grapes.

The recipe called for about three pounds. You can only do jam and preserves in relatively small batches. Rick and I did our best guessing the weight as there was no scale to be found and headed home. Oh, I forgot to mention that my husband is always willing to pick fruit and help with the canning process. It's nice to have his help :) Thanks Rick!

That first batch of delicious grape jam led to much more than I could have imagined! Little did I know I had caught the canning bug!

Next I will post the grape jam recipe with photos.

I hope you'll check back.

Thanks for reading,