Making your own homemade jam, jelly, and preserves is fun, easy, and satisfying. It is also one of the best ways to preserve fruit for use at a later time while providing healthy and delicious food for yourself and your family. Besides, a jar or two of those homemade treats make a wonderful gift.
Here are the basic steps to making your own jelly, jam, or preserves:
- Choose your fruit
- Choose the canning method
- Choose your ingredients
- Gather the equipment and supplies
- Prepare the fruit
- Get started canning
I have been making jelly for over 50 years and will tell you everything I wish I had known when I got started. So, let’s take a step-by-step journey through the entire process.
Step #1: Find and Choose Your Fruit
Whether using fruit that you have grown, that was given to you, or that you purchased in a market or roadside stand, choosing the highest quality fruit available is the key to making the best jam, jelly, and preserves possible.
The best fruits to can should be:
1. High in natural pectin and acid
Some fruits including apples and grapes are high in natural pectin while fruits like blueberries and peaches are low in pectin.
Some fruits like crabapples and grapes are high in acid, while others like pears and peaches are low in natural acid.
As fruits ripen, the pectin and acid content increases until the fruits are fully ripe, at which time the pectin and acid content reaches its peak. Then, as the fruit gets riper, the pectin and acid content decreases.
This means the best fruit for your jam and jelly would be a combination of 1/4 slightly underripe and 3/4 fully ripe, the underripe for pectin and acid, and the fully ripe for color and flavor. However, no matter which fruits you use, adding commercial pectin and lemon juice, as needed, will balance the required pectin content and acidity to make your jam and jelly turn out perfectly.
Recipes will specify whether lemon juice or other sources of acid are needed. (See the Related Questions section below for a more complete list of fruits high in natural pectin and acid).
2. In season
Fruits should be obtained locally when they are in season, so it depends on where you live as to the kind of fruit you have access to. Buying locally ensures you are getting the best fruit with the best flavor at the best price, and not something that is picked green and shipped around the world.
To add variety to your canning and make those exotic fruits available for your use, you can always use frozen fruits and canned juices to make jam and jelly providing you with flavors not local to your area.
3. The ones you like
Making jam and jelly is very satisfying and rewarding, but if your family doesn’t like a particular type of fruit, there is no point in putting in the work to can fruits that your family will not eat unless you plan to gift the entire batch.
4. At their peak of ripeness
As fruit ripens, starch is converted to sugar, making the fruit softer and sweeter, and the chlorophyll converts to antioxidants making the ripe fruit healthier for you.
If you buy fruit that was picked green for shipping, even though it continues to ripen, the best flavor and health benefits just won’t be the same. Fruit picked when it is tree-ripened or in the process of ripening is far superior and is the best you can get for making jam, jelly, or any other fruit product.
5. Readily available to you
The fruits you use to make jam and jelly should be readily available to you so you can pick them at the best possible time and that is when most are fully ripe, sweet, and juicy with just a few under-ripe mixed in to add a little tartness to your preserves.
Step #2: Choose Your Method of Canning
Canning is an interesting process, especially when it comes to fruit.
You can take the same ingredients, vary the preparation method, and the result will be entirely different.
There are seven main ways to can fruit: compotes, conserves, fruit butter, jam, jelly, marmalade, and preserves. Read on for more detail on each type, how they differ, how they are prepared, and how you can use them.
The differences between compotes, conserves, fruit butter, fruit syrup, jam, jelly, marmalade, and preserves are found in how and what part of the fruit is used, the other ingredients used, and the texture created by the different preparation methods. Let’s look at each one.
- Fruit compotes are desserts in which fruits are stewed with sugar and flavorings.
- Although compotes can be preserved by processing it in a boiling water bath, most compotes are served right away as a complement to another dish.
- They are made by stewing either large chunks or whole fresh, canned, or dried fruit in a syrup made of sugar and flavorings which include wine, brandy, rum or liqueur and spices like cinnamon, cloves, vanilla, and citrus peels.
- Compotes make a spectacular dessert when layered with custard or yogurt and can be served by themselves or with cheese, over pancakes, waffles, toast, French toast, or biscuits, and as a topping for cakes or ice cream.
- Conserves are jam-like and typically consist of more than one type of fruit combined with nuts, coconut, and dried fruit.
- Though conserves are similar to jams, they also differ from jams because they are made of whole or large pieces of fruit and are cooked more gently than jam to preserve the shape of the fruit.
- They are made by mixing large chunks of two or more different fruits with sugar and cooking them to a jam-like consistency. Nuts, coconut, and dried fruits are often added giving them a thick and chunky texture. The use of pectin is optional and depends on personal preference.
- Conserves can be used as a spread on bread, toast, or biscuits or as a relish or condiment to be served with meats and cheeses.
3. Fruit Butters
- Fruit Butters are thick fruit spreads.
- They are very similar to and have the same consistency as applesauce, differing from Jams because the fruit is cooked to a creamy texture and is not jelled as are Jams and Jellies.
- Making Fruit Butter involves cooking whole fruit over low heat for several hours, stirring often, forcing the cooked fruit pulp through a sieve, adding sugar, spices, and lemon juice as needed, and cooking until thickened. The cooking process can be simplified by using a crockpot which will allow you to cook the fruit without stirring as often and reducing the risk of burning.
- Fruit Butters are most often used as a spread on bread, toast, or biscuits, or as an ingredient or filling in cakes and other desserts.
4. Fruit Syrup
- Fruit Syrup is the same consistency as sugarcane, maple, or any other type of syrup.
- Fruit Syrup differs from other canned fruit products as it is in the form of a thick liquid that can be poured rather than spooned or spread.
- Fruit Syrup is made by cooking prepared fruit and sweetener of your choice over medium heat for approximately 5 minutes, mashing with a potato masher while cooking. Then, strain the juice from the fruit, reduce the heat and cook the juice for 10-15 more minutes until thickened.
- Fruit Syrup can be served over pancakes, waffles, French toast, or biscuits; as a topping for ice cream, cheesecake, and many other desserts; or as an ingredient in sauces for meat and dressings for salads.
- Jam is a thick fruity spread containing the pulp of the fruit.
- Jam differs from Jelly because it is made from fruit pulp while jelly is made only from juice extracted from the fruit, and Jam is similar to Conserves and Preserves which are also made from fruit pulp.
- Jams are made of fruit which has been chopped or crushed, mixed with pectin or other thickener and sugar or sugar substitute, and cooked until thick and the fruit begins to lose its shape.
- Jam is most often used as a spread on bread, toast, biscuits, or muffins, as a filling for tarts and other desserts, and is often used as an ingredient in many cakes and sauces.
- Jelly is a clear, thick, jelled spread.
- Jelly differs from most other canned fruit products by being the only spread made from juice extracted from the fruit and does not contain pieces of the actual fruit pulp. Jelly gets its color and flavor from the extracted juice.
- Jelly is made by cooking, crushing, and straining fruit to extract its juice, mixing the prepared juice with sugar and pectin, and cooking to a clear, firm consistency.
- In addition to making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, jelly can be used as a spread on bread, toast, biscuits, and muffins, and as an ingredient in many dessert recipes. Jelly can also be used as a frosting for cakes.
- Marmalade is a thick citrus fruit spread that consists of the entire fruit, including pith, pulp, and rind.
- Marmalade is very similar to jam but is made from citrus fruits, mainly oranges, with pieces of the fruit and bits of the rind suspended in a gel. An interesting bit of information here is that marmalade was originally made from quince and not from citrus.
- Marmalade is made by boiling the fruit, juice, water, and sugar for 10 minutes, then simmering for approximately 40 minutes or until it reaches 222 or 223 degrees on a candy thermometer, jarring, then processing in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
- Marmalade is often served as a spread on bread, toast, biscuits, and muffins and as an ingredient in glazes and sauces for vegetables and meat.
- The term Preserves is often used interchangeably with jam and other fruit products, but, in my experience, preserves are whole or large chunks of fruit canned in sweetened liquid for use at some later time.
- Preserves differ from Jam and Jelly as no thickening agent such as pectin is used.
- Preserves are made by combining whole fruit or fruit cut into large chunks with sugar and water and cooking until the liquid is thickened. Any fruit can be made into preserves, but figs, apples, and pears are most widely used for this purpose.
- Some preserves, especially apples and pears, can be served by themselves and used in salads, and most preserves like figs are good served with bread, biscuits, and muffins.
Step #3: Choose Your Ingredients
After deciding whether to make jam, jelly, preserves or other fruit products, the next step is to gather the required ingredients. Generally, this is what you will need.
- Fruit– Which has been discussed in Step #1 above.
- Sweetener- Unless you are making refrigerator or freezer jam with no added ingredients, you will need some type of sweetener, either sugar or a sugar substitute. Your options include honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, and artificial sweeteners like stevia.
- Acid– If you are using a type of fruit or fruits with low acid content like blueberries and peaches, you will need to add at least 2 tablespoons of lemon juice per batch to complete the gelling process.
- Pectin– As with sweeteners, unless you are making refrigerator or freezer jam with no additional ingredients, you will need either commercial pectin or a substitute. Substitutes for commercial pectin include homemade apple pectin, raw apples, cornstarch, and chia seeds.
Step #4: Select and Gather Your Supplies, Equipment, and Utensils
1. Selecting Supplies
- Jars– Good canning jars are required for all canning projects. They come in various shapes and sizes, .4 oz, 8 oz “jelly jars,” 12 oz, and pints, in either regular mouth or large mouth varieties. If you are making jam or jelly, don’t use any jar larger than a pint as the gelling process could be affected resulting in a runny product that will not form a firm gel.
- Lids– Most new jars come with lids and rings, but to recycle jars, you can buy new lids at most grocery, dollar, or variety stores. Jars and rings can be recycled, lids cannot. There is no guarantee that recycled lids will reseal and remain sealed.
- Rings– Like jars, rings can be recycled. If reusing jars, lids and rings can be bought by the dozen. (Click to see Amazon listing)
2. Selecting Equipment and Utensils
The Equipment and Utensils section is divided into two parts:
- Equipment and Utensils to be used for fruit preparation, and
- Equipment and Utensils to be used for making jelly, jam, etc.
For fruit preparation
- Pans- To prepare fruit for making jam or jelly, you will need at least two large mixing bowls or dishpans for washing, peeling, pitting, coring, and cutting up, or whatever you have to do depending on the type of fruit you are using and whether you are making jam or jelly. Either a large stainless steel mixing bowl that is 16.5 x 16.5 x 5.5 or an aluminum dishpan, which is 15 x 15 x 12 will work just fine. You must use a stainless steel, a coated cast iron, or a coated aluminum pot to cook the jam or jelly, but to prepare the fruit and/or juice, aluminum will work fine and will be light and easy to use.
- Knife– A sharp paring knife for preparing the fruit.
- Pots – If making jelly, cook the fruit in a large pot .
- Potato Masher – While the fruit is boiling, use a potato masher to mash the fruit.
- Colander– At least one large colander is needed to strain fruit juice.
- Cheesecloth– When preparing juice for making jelly, an all-natural unbleached cheesecloth would be perfect for straining the juice from the cooked fruit. Please remember not to mash the fruit as you are straining it, just gently squeeze.
- Spoon– You will need a large spoon with at least an 11 or 12-inch handle to avoid burning your hand when cooking in a large pot.
- Funnels– It is much easier to pour the juice into jars with the use of a funnel. You can use a regular funnel or a canning funnel for this purpose.
For making jelly, jam, etc.
- Cooking or Jelly Pot The pot you use to cook jelly or jam is one of the most important things you will need. It must be made out of a non-reactive material such as stainless steel or coated cast iron or coated aluminum. Cooking anything with a high acid content in pots made of aluminum or uncoated cast iron could change the taste of your fruit by giving it a metallic taste. It must be wide and shallow enough to allow sufficient evaporation of liquids. And, it must have a heavy bottom that will conduct heat throughout the bottom of the pot and reduce the risk of burning, especially when making jam.There is actually a pan made especially for making any fruit product called a preserving pan, like this one by CusinaPro. Just be sure the pot you use is wide and does not have tall sides.
- Pot or Pan for Sterilizing Jars– A pot or pan suitable to sterilize jars while the jam/jelly is cooking. I use either an oblong baking pan like this one or an old Dutch oven I don’t use much anymore, any pot or pan that will hold 6-8 jars.
- Canner– There are many different types of canners, including pressure canners, but any large pot with a canner rack that holds at least 21 quarts will work great for a boiling water bath. The main thing is to be sure it is large enough to hold 7 jars completely covered with water with enough headroom to cook at a full rolling boil without a chance of boiling over.
- Spoon– A 12 or 13-inch wooden or stainless steel spoon is needed to safely stir jelly/jam while it is cooking. The one I recommended earlier for use in extracting juice will do just fine.
- Measuring Cups– Always use measuring cups (like these found on Amazon) that measure all the way to the top as cups with hash marks make it difficult to measure exactly. Exact measurements are extremely important to maintain the proper ratio of ingredients so that a good gel bond can be achieved. Also, always use the same cup/cups for dry and wet ingredients as measurements from cup to cup may vary slightly.
- Timer– Any type of timer can be used, manual, on an appliance such as stove or microwave, or a cell phone.
- Potato Masher– Not only will the potato masher be used in extracting juice from the fruit to make jelly but if you make jam, the fruit should be mashed as it is cooking.
- Canning Tongs– Special tongs are made for lifting and moving jars safely.
- Lid Lifter– A magnetic wand for pulling lids from boiling water. A fork can be used to lift lids out of the hot water, but a lid lifter is much more efficient and safer to use.
- Bubble Tool/Measurer– A measurer is a special tool for measuring the amount of headspace at the top of the jars of your canned food.
- Dishcloths– Always keep a stack of clean dishcloths handy to wipe up spills and keep your stove and work area clean to avoid contaminating your jam/jelly and to make clean up faster and easier.
- Pot Holders– Several pot holders are needed to handle large hot pots while making jam/jelly.
- Funnels– Large mouth funnels are needed to pour jam/jelly into the jars and will help you avoid spills.
- Canning Tools– If you do not already have a canning funnel, canning tongs, measurer, and lid lifter, you can buy a set of canning tools that includes all four items:
3. Selecting other useful utensils
- Labels It is extremely important to label your jars accurately with contents and the date.
- Ladle with a Spout A stainless steel ladle with a spout is handy when filling the jars.
- Scales A kitchen scale is handy for measuring fruit or pectin as some recipes call for weight measurements such as 2 pounds of fruit or 1.75 ounces of pectin.
- Sugar or Candy Thermometer Some jam and jelly recipes call for cooking to a certain temperature.
Step #5: Prepare the Fruit for Canning
First, wash and Sort
When preparing fruit for canning, the best place to start is by washing the fruit well and discarding fruit that has gone bad and removing bad sections. For small fruits such as berries and figs, swirling them in a pan of tap water then pouring them through a colander is the best way to clean them without bruising or damaging them. Larger fruit such as pears and apples will need to be handled and washed individually to make sure they are clean and there are no twigs or leaves mixed in.
Then, Peel and Trim
For Making Jelly
- After washing, for berries, place whole berries, stems, seeds, and all, in a large pot, cover with water and bring to a boil; for larger fruits including peaches, apples, and pears, cut into chunks, place in a large pot, cover with water and bring to a boil.
- Then, reduce heat and cook 30 to 45 minutes to extract the juice, mashing the fruit with a potato masher as it cooks.
- Strain through a cheesecloth.
- Strain a second time through a strainer.
- Follow a recipe to use juice for making jelly or can by pouring boiling juice into prepared jars, then affixing lids, and setting aside to cool.
- When completely cool, wash the jars, label with the contents and date prepared, and store in a cool, dry area away from direct sunlight.
- Compost or discard fruit pulp.
This canned juice will be good to use for several years as long as the jars are sealed and stored properly. Or, pour the juice into a container you can place in the refrigerator to be used within a few days or into the freezer where it will be good for several years.
For Making All Other Fruit Products
After washing, prepare fruit according to recipe directions which includes
- For strawberries, trim, crush, leave whole, or cut into halves;
- For blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries, loganberries, etc., crush or leave whole;
- For cherries, loquats, etc., remove stems and pits;
- For larger fruits including apples, pears, and peaches, peel, remove seeds or pits, and leave whole or cut into chunks according to recipe directions.
Only wash and prepare fruit when you are ready to use them.
Step #6: Get Started Canning Your Fruit
- Gather prepared fruit or juice, ingredients, equipment, supplies, and utensils.
- Wash and sterilize jars per directions in the related questions section below.
- Prepare a boiling water bath, if needed. See related questions section below for detailed directions.
- Measure ingredients.
- Prepare an area for finished jars of canned foods to sit for at least 24 hours (i.e. spread folded towel on table or countertop).
- Follow recipe directions exactly to cook Jam, Jelly, or whatever you are making.
- Pour fruit into prepared jars, wipe jar rims, and affix lids and rings.
- Place jars of fruit in boiling water bath and process, 5 minutes for jelly and 10 minutes for jam and other types of preserves.
- Remove jars from boiling water bath and place in prepared area. Allow them to sit undisturbed for at least 24 hours.
- Wash or wipe jars well, label, and store.
- Gift or begin enjoying.
Congratulations, You’re Done!
Now you know the entire process from beginning to end. Now that you have made an amazing batch of your chosen type of preserves, let’s cover a few more things you will need to know.
- Always follow the recipe you are using exactly as adjusting amounts or cooking times could cause your jam or jelly not to gel properly.
- Just make single batches as doubling the recipe or adjusting amounts may either cause a soft set or prevent the batch from forming a gel.
- Leave a 1/2 inch headspace when filling jars for canning or for freezing.
- Always use a pot made of stainless steel, coated aluminum, copper, or coated cast iron for canning as using aluminum or cast iron may affect the taste of your finished product.
- In addition to skimming foam while cooking the fruit, you can reduce the amount of foam by adding 1/2 teaspoon of butter to the fruit at the beginning of the cooking process.
- For jam or jelly, don’t use jars larger than pints as the size of the jar affects the gelling process.
- If using commercial juice or frozen fruit for jelly or jam, make sure nothing has been added and the only ingredient is the juice or fruit.
How to Store Homemade Canned Food
To maintain the best quality for the maximum storage time, all homemade canned food that has been made with full sugar and has been processed by using approved canning methods should be stored under the following conditions:
- In a cool space in which the temperature should remain between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In a space that is dark and never exposed to direct or indirect sunlight nor bright light of any kind.
- In a pantry or storage area that is dry and as free from high humidity as possible.
If your canned foods are made by one of the refrigerator or freezer jam recipes or are not being stored in good canning jars with new lids that are securely sealed, they should be either stored in a refrigerator for up to approximately six weeks or in a freezer for up to a year.
There is an unlimited number of ways to decorate your canned foods for gifting. Here are a few ideas:
- Cut a 6″ circle in a decorative fabric or gift wrapping paper, remove the ring from a jar, center the circle over the jar top, and replace the ring, securing the circle of fabric or wrapping paper.
- Purchase or recycle a basket, add a decorative filling such as plastic Easter basket grass, fill with jars of homemade canned food, add a ribbon, and it’s ready to go!
- Wrap a wide decorative ribbon around the jar ring and tie a bow.
- Attach a bow or Christmas ornament to the top of a jar.
- Slide a jar inside a decorative wine bag.
As you become more experienced in canning and try different processes and recipes, you and your family will narrow down the types of fruit products you make by personal preference and how you use them.
Which Fruits Are High In Natural Pectin and Acid?
- Fruits High in Pectin: Sour Apples, Blackberries, Sour Cherries, Crabapples, Cranberries, certain Grapes, Kumquats, Lemons, Loquats, Mayhaws, Melons, certain Oranges, Passion Fruit (skin), certain Plums, Pomegranates, Quinces.
- Fruits Low in Pectin: Blueberries, Figs, Grapefruit, Guavas, Papaya, Passion Fruit, Peaches, Pineapple, Rhubarb, Strawberries.
- Fruits High in Acid: Crabapples, Currants, certain Grapes, Loquats, Raspberries.
- Fruits Low in Acid: Sweet Apples, Blueberries, Sweet Cherries, Figs, Melons, Papaya, Passion Fruit, Peaches, Pears.
What is a Boiling Water Bath? The most common way to preserve high-acid foods like jam, jelly, fruit preserves, and some pickles so they can be stored safely in the proper environment for extended periods of time is by following these steps for a Boiling Water Bath.
- Before you start cooking, fill the canner half full with water and bring to a boil over high heat.
- Reduce heat so the water is simmering.
- Check that jars do not have any nicks, cracks, or rough edges around the rim.
- Wash jars, lids, and rings in hot soapy water.
- Place clean jars in a pot or pan of water and bring them to a boil, allowing them to boil at least 10 minutes to sterilize while you are cooking the food.
- Place lids in a pot of boiling water, reduce heat and leave them in the hot water until needed.
- Cook the food that is being canned and pour into properly prepared jars. Wipe jar rims with a clean wet cloth and affix lids.
- Place the jars into the canning rack and lower into the simmering water.
- Bring water back to a full rolling boil and cook for the time designated by the recipe for the food you are canning, which is 5 minutes for jelly and 10 minutes for jam.
- Lift the canning rack to rest on the rim of the canner and carefully remove the jars of food onto a rack or other prepared place where they can remain undisturbed until completely cooled.
How to Sterilize Jars?
There are several ways to sterilize your canning jars. Most dishwashers have a sanitize setting, and some people sanitize their jars in the oven. But, according to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, the only safe way to preserve canned foods is with the boiling water bath for high-acid foods and the pressure canner for low-acid foods but it is not necessary to pre-sterilize the jars if they will be processed for at least 10 minutes. However, I recommend always pre-sterilizing the jars before filling by following this method:
- Check your jars for any nicks, cracks, or rough edges around the rim that could cause them to break.
- Wash jars, lids, and rings in hot soapy water.
- Place clean jars in a pan or pot with enough water to allow jars to sit in about one inch of water and bring them to a full rolling boil, allowing them to boil at least 10 minutes before using to sterilize them while you are cooking the food.
- Place lids in a pot of boiling water to cover, reduce heat, and leave them in the hot water until needed.
- Pour boiling jam or jelly into jars sitting in boiling water.
- Wipe rims, affix lids and rings and place in a boiling water bath.