Cindy Burke is the author of To Buy or Not to Buy Organic and recipe writer for The Trans-Fat Solution.

Jammin’ with summer fruit

No pectins, no problem

August 8, 2008

Transforming summer fruits into jeweled jars of preserves and jams feels like alchemy to me — a magical chemistry that turns the fleeting pleasure of fresh berries, peaches, and apricots into a long-lasting treat. It’s also wonderful to open up your pantry during the winter holidays and take out a few of these gems to give as gifts for friends.

With fruits at the peak of ripeness and flavor right now, it’s a great time to make jam and preserves, and it’s very easy. Really! With only three ingredients — ripe fruit, sugar, and lemon juice — you can distill the tastes of summer into luscious jams. The better the quality of the fruit that you use, the better your jams will be.

Since I’m sticking to a lower-sugar diet, I’ve been experimenting this year with substituting stevia (a natural sugar substitute) for a portion of the sugar in jam. I strongly dislike the flavor of such sugar substitutes as Splenda and Equal, and even though stevia doesn’t have that “artificial sugar” taste, I was hesitant to muck up a whole batch of jam by using fake sugar. I needn’t have worried, though, because I’ve been very happy with the results, and no one else has even noticed that they are eating low-sugar jam.

homemade jams
Jam-jar jewels.

Over the years, I’ve tried many recipes and techniques for making jam, and I’ve found that the simplest method works best for me. I don’t use commercial pectin (a gelling agent for jam and jelly) at all. I don’t like the flavor of pectin, and I have found that most fruits have enough natural pectin to gel adequately. Pectin requires a specific range of sugar and pH to set up properly. When you skip the pectin, you simplify the whole process significantly.

I generally use about one flat of berries for a batch of jam, or about 25 to 30 ripe peaches, apricots, nectarines, or plums. I give the fruit a good rinse and pick through it for any moldy or wizened bits, discarding them. (A few soft spots or imperfections are fine.) Using my kitchen scale, I weigh the prepared fruit — typically, I have about four pounds, which will make around two quarts of jam or preserves.

For each pound of fruit, I add one tablespoon of lemon juice and one cup of sugar. I place everything in a large pot, add a splash of water (about a quarter-cup), and cook it over medium-low heat for about two hours, stirring occasionally.

When it starts to look like jam, I drop a small spoonful on a plate and place it in the refrigerator for a few minutes. If it looks gelled, then the jam is ready to place in sterilized jelly jars. If it’s still soupy, the jam needs to cook a little longer. The consistency should be similar to ketchup — soft, but not liquid. If the consistency is not right, simmer for another 30 minutes and retest.

Place the jam in sterilized jars. You can refrigerate the unopened jars indefinitely. I often can the jams using a water-bath method. When canned properly, jam can be stored in a cool place for a year or more.

There are 16 comments on this item
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1. by anonymous on Aug 8, 2008 at 2:36 PM PDT

How much stevia do you use to replace a cup of sugar?

2. by Fasenfest on Aug 8, 2008 at 5:31 PM PDT

Oh this is my ball of wax. I’m with you, no commercial pectin is needed. But pectin is needed to make jams and jellies set. Like you said, it exists in most fruit but in varying amounts - strawberries hardly any; gooseberries tons. So knowing which fruit you are starting with is important. And if you want to cut down the sugar, adding pectin helps with the gel since sugar is part of the reason it does gel.

I have found that I can use three pounds of fruit with 2 cups of sugar (more or less) and get a good gel if I use home-made apple pectin. It is like pumping up the pectin level of fruits that have very little and thereby making it more likely to set.

Of course cooking time and acid level of fruit plays a part too. And while not many folks want to get that complicated about it (I admit I am a freak) I have noticed a distinct difference in setting time and texture and sugar requirement between the different fruits I use. You just have to stare at currants for them to set up while strawberries are more fickle.

Commercial pectin depends on gobs of sugar (generally) while low-sugar pectins lend an odd structure to jam. But making your own pectin is easy and a good way to use all the crab apples around Portland. I know not that many folks care to go this route since it is a lot more time consuming in the beginning. But you need make it only once a year and can it up for future use.

The general rule of thumb for use is 4 cups fruit (sliced or mashed) or juice, 2 cups sugar and 3/4 apple pectin. Some fruit needs the acid (you can tell by how tart they are) and some do not. Peaches appreciate it. Generally I can get that to cook up in 15 - 20 minutes in a wide pan over high heat. Of course the greater the quantity and the larger and taller sided the pot, the more time it will take. The above recipe will make at least 4 to 6 half pints depending on how firm you like it.

So that is just another thought but the real point to all of this is that, like you, I make jam outside the box. Also, once you get out of the habit of using commercial pectin you do not have to worry about the magic PH bru-ha-ha those products require for set. It becomes a much more intuitive process that most cooks are familiar with -- sight and smell.

3. by Cindy Burke on Aug 8, 2008 at 8:10 PM PDT

I use 4 1-gram packets of Sweet Leaf stevia to replace one cup of sugar. I have not experimented with other types of stevia. I suspect (although I haven’t tried this yet) that one could successfully replace up to two cups of sugar in a jam recipe with stevia.
I would be hesitant to replace all of the sugar with stevia because I’m not sure that the jam would set up properly, and I don’t know if it would be safe to can without ANY sugar.
I find that replacing one cup of sugar with stevia produces a fruit jam that tastes no different from all-sugar jam and reduces the calorie count by nearly 800 calories per batch.

4. by anonymous on Aug 11, 2008 at 7:10 AM PDT

Have you tried Pomona pectin? If you don’t like the taste of jams made with regular pectin, you may not like it. But it really great. It uses calcium to gel instead of sugar so you can add as little (or no) sugar as you like or non-sugar sweeteners like stevia or honey and it will gel everytime. I love it.

5. by cafemama on Aug 13, 2008 at 9:56 AM PDT

I’ve been using Harriet’s principles completely without sugar, and with very little honey or other sweetener (rapadura has been the other one i’ve used frequently). I made a variation on her apple pectin with currants -- essentially, just currant juice that I make by simmering currants in water for 20 minutes or so then straining them -- which has the nice benefit of adding acidity so you don’t really have to add lemon juice. so I make peach-currant, blackberry-currant, strawberry-currant jam with about 1/2 cup of honey for 2 pints of jam.

letting go of the pectin, for me, means I throw out the cookbook and only use it as a guide for how to prepare the fruit (should I crush the blackberries? strain out the seeds? how fine should I chop the peaches?) and then get creative with combinations of herbs, fruits, and sweetener. I’ve also enjoyed sampling different batches of honey to find one with a mild enough taste to let the fruit shine through -- and also found that, a month or two later, my jams made with strong-flavored honey have a truly unique quality that’s wonderful and surprising.

6. by lynn on Sep 9, 2008 at 3:11 PM PDT

Thank you all for your insight on a more natural approach to jams. I really like the taste of the fruit and the added sugar is really too much for me.

7. by anonymous on Mar 11, 2009 at 11:52 AM PDT

do you know once opened, without the pectin how long will it last in the refrigerator, I usually discard any food after 48 hrs of cooking, but in this case I have no idea

8. by cafemama on Mar 11, 2009 at 12:26 PM PDT

the pectin isn’t a preservative (and all fruit has some amount of pectin in it, anyway), but the sugar is. without sugar, it will keep in the fridge anywhere from a few weeks to a few months. I’ve had very different results with different fruits and fruit combinations; some start fermenting very quickly! (of course, you may like that sort of thing :)

there’s no need to discard fruit jam based on some predetermined time limit. fruit is naturally acidic and won’t carry botulism (the scary one); it will either mold visibly, or it will smell fermented, in which case it isn’t dangerous so much as unappealing. so use your nose!

9. by anonymous on Sep 26, 2009 at 3:12 PM PDT

I’ve decided to forgo the consistency of jelly or stiff jam because I can’t stand the sugariness of it all. For a fruit that isn’t super wet, I use 5 parts fruit, 2 parts honey, 1 TBS lemon juice per part. Bring to a boil and boil hard for two minutes (stirring consistently), then simmer at a slight boil (medium low) for 70 minutes, or until very reduced. The fruit spread (call it what you will) will set more when cooled. This ratio worked well with my Asian pear and Italian plum spread. Great with the addition of finely chopped walnuts and a trace of fresh ginger (add this only in the last 10 minutes of cooking).

s. to #7 - food lasts way longer than that. You are wasting perfectly good food! If it does not smell or taste off, you are fine. I suggest you try giving the food a little longer before tossing it.

10. by Maria on Aug 28, 2010 at 10:39 AM PDT

I make my preserve in stages: pick, clean, cut, bathe the fruit in tepid water with ascorbic acid to prevent discoloring (apricots/peaches), measure, add my sugar/lemon, and let the natural pectin from fruit to be released overnight. Next day I wash my jars and make the preserve. Before I pour my preserves into jars, I add a splash of whisky or rum, almond slivers, or pine nuts, hazelnuts to each of the jars. Thanks for the new ideas on substituting some of the sugar with other products.

11. by anonymous on Jan 15, 2011 at 10:13 AM PST

Hi Cindy, where are those beautiful faceted jam jars in the picture from?

12. by anonymous on Jul 13, 2011 at 5:50 PM PDT

I made black currant jelly last night... and used Stevia for sweetening. I know that this fruit is supposed to have natural pectin, but it was still like water... so I added three pouches of pectin overall and boiled it as the recipe instructed... and it is still like a runny syrup this morning... all 21 jars sealed also. Can I just reheat these sealed jars to get the fruit to gel?

13. by anonymous on Aug 3, 2012 at 6:50 AM PDT

Can the peach jam or preserves be frozen?

14. by anonymous on Aug 28, 2012 at 7:25 PM PDT

By the way, stevia is natural. It is not an artificial sweetner. You can buy a stevia plant from a garden store.

15. by John on Sep 6, 2012 at 9:44 PM PDT

Back to back, same fruit, we made traditional peach jam with pectin and then your recipe. Your slow cooking, low sugar recipe won hands down. Really intense flavor. Set up beautifully after 2 hours of cooking. Thanks for a perfect recipe!

16. by AnnaMarie on May 29, 2013 at 7:14 PM PDT

by AnnaMarie
Can you just make thejam and put it in plastic ziploc containers or freeze it in ziplock bags so it is ready to take out, or do you have to do thejars? Thanks for all the information. I made my first apricot jam, it was a bit to sweet for me but I’ll adjust next time. Thanks for the help.

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