As a veteran jelly maker with 30 years’ experience, I’ve been able to experiment with different techniques and equipment, and have had the pleasure of gathering tips along the way from some experts in canning.
I’ve been asked many times for tips on how to make the best homemade jelly, so I would like to share with you these 23 tips on how to ensure your jelly has that “wow” factor. Do everything on this list and your family and friends will think you are a pro.
1. Select the Best Fruit
The most important way to ensure your jam and jelly will be flavorful and delicious is to select the best fruit possible. These are some things to look for when choosing fruit for jam/jelly:
- Choose fruit that is high in natural pectin– This is especially important if you are making a fruit product the old-fashioned way without adding commercial pectin.
Some fruits like apples and crab apples are high in natural pectin; some fruits such as blueberries and peaches are low in natural pectin. In order to make jam or jelly from a fruit that is low in pectin, you would either have to combine those low-pectin fruits with high-pectin fruits or use commercial pectin to get your jam/jelly to gel properly.
Luckily, modern jelly makers do have access to commercial pectin which is the great equalizer allowing us to make jelly and jam from any types of fruit without having to consider how much natural pectin our fruit contains.
- Fruits you buy should be in season because fruits that are in season are more nutritious, more flavorful, and are much more affordable.
- Fruits you make jam/jelly from should be the kind of fruit you and your family like– Unless you gift a lot of jellies or have a jelly business, it is better to just pass on the deal if your family doesn’t like a particular fruit.
- Fruit should be at its peak of ripeness– When fruit reaches the point of being fully ripe, it is more flavorful, contains the most nutrients, and contains the maximum amount of natural pectin and acid.
- Fruits you purchase should be readily available– When you buy your fruit locally when it is in season, you can get the best price, the quantity you need, and at the point of ripeness that you desire.
2. Include Some Slightly Under-Ripe Fruit
As fruits are ripening, the pectin content is increasing until the fruit has just reached its peak of ripeness. This is when the fruit contains the maximum amount of pectin content. Then, as the fruit continues to get riper, the pectin content begins to decrease.
This means the perfect batch of fruit to make jam/jelly would be a combination of approximately 3/4 fully ripe fruit for flavor and color and 1/4 slightly under-ripe fruit for pectin and acid.
3. Clean the Fruit Properly
Wash all fruit well and pick through it to be sure there aren’t any leaves, twigs, or trash in the fruit you are using to make jam or jelly. It would be embarrassing to gift a jar of jam that had a twig in it.
4. Don’t Squeeze the Bag When Straining the Fruit
After cooking the fruit to extract its juice for making jelly, pour the fruit into either a jelly bag made specifically for straining juice or into a bowl lined with cheesecloth. Then, just let it sit until all the juice has run out. You can take two sides of the cheesecloth and twist them to see if the fruit has more juice, but never squeeze the bag of cooked fruit as this will make the juice cloudy and affect the jelly by making it darker in color and cloudy instead of clear.
5. Use a Well-Tested Recipe
Even though you can throw a pinch of this and a dash of that in many dishes you cook and it will turn out just great, it’s is not that way with jam and jelly.
To get the jam/jelly you are making to jell properly, there must be the correct ratio of fruit or juice to sugar to pectin to acid. To achieve that ratio, you must use a recipe that has been tested and is known to work consistently.
The only exception to this rule is when you are making a refrigerator or freezer jam that does not depend on a scientific formula to gel or for preservation. This is the time you can try your hand with alternative sweeteners and use a taste as you go method.
6. Only Make One Batch at the Time
There are many jelly makers who make double and triple batches of jelly at one time, and they say they get good results. However, the majority of old-timers swear by the rule of only one batch at the time. As a matter of fact, I have made double batches myself which turned out just fine. But, I have also made double batches which never jelled completely and were “runny.”
Here are some of the reasons to only make one batch at a time:
- Making jelly requires a scientific formula to work as it should. There has to be a certain ratio of juice or fruit to sugar to acid to pectin in order to form a gel bond. If you double those amounts, it throws the formula off.
- Jelly must be made in a certain size pot that has a sufficiently large circumference and low sides which allow the jelly ingredients to come to a boil quickly and cook fast enough at a temperature high enough to form a gel bond. A certain amount of condensation must also take place or the jam/jelly will have a rubbery consistency. If you double or triple the batches, your regular jelly pot will be too small.
The only way to consistently produce good jam/jelly while making double and/or triple batches is to use an industrial stove and huge, industrial-size pots and find a recipe that has been tested and proved to make consistently good jelly in larger batches.
7. Use Exact Measurements
Many times in cooking, you can substitute ingredients and add a little more or a little less of other ingredients. When making jam and/or jelly, that is not the case. The recipes must be followed exactly and we have to think about this scientific formula thing here and make precise measurements.
I use the same measuring cups for liquid and dry ingredients so that there is no chance of throwing off the formula and always use measuring cups that measure to the top as the cups with hash marks are easy to mismeasure and throw the formula off.
8. Use the Right Pectin
There are several types of pectin and even some pectin substitutes. Here are a few and how they should be used:
Types of Pectin:
- Regular Pectin – Use with full granulated sugar recipes. Use one package of single batch pectin or follow package directions for bulk pectin.
- Low and No-Sugar Pectin – Use in low and no-sugar as well as alternative sweetener jam/jelly. Use one package of single batch pectin or follow package directions for bulk pectin.
- Homemade Pectin: a healthy alternative that requires access to a good supply of fresh, tart green apples. Use 1 cup for every 4 cups of mashed fruit or juice.
- Chia Seeds: nutritious and considered a superfood. Great for refrigerator and freezer jams. Use 1 to 2 tablespoons for every 8-ounce jar of jam.
- Cornstarch: contains fewer calories than Chia but has more carbohydrates. Use 2 tablespoons for every 4 cups of prepared fruit for jam.
- Gelatin: high in protein, but is an animal by-product which would be a game-changer for persons on certain diets such as Vegan. Use 2 tablespoons for every 4 cups of prepared fruit or juice.
- Jello: gives you the option to add additional flavors to the fruit you are using, and made from gelatin. Use one 3-ounce package for every 6 cups of prepared fruit or juice.
- Tapioca: an allergen-free natural carbohydrate. Use 1 to 2 tablespoons per quart of prepared fruit.
- Add apples: a natural, pectin-filled addition to jam that will not affect the flavor. Add 1 to 3 apples for every 8 cups of prepared fruit.
- Citrus Pith: natural pectin mainly used in marmalade. Add one cup of natural pectin made from citrus pith per batch of marmalade.
9. Use Granulated Sugar
The jam/jelly recipe that consistently turns out perfectly is made with commercial pectin and granulated sugar. Using any sugar substitute, even the raw cane sugar that is very similar to granulated sugar but does not go through the final process known as the bone char process can affect the final jam/jelly product. Any substitute for granulated sugar will in most cases produce a product that is runny and does not jell properly.
10. Use a Good Non-Reactive Pot
For making jam/jelly, the pot you use must
- Be non-reactive which means it must be made from stainless steel, copper, coated cast iron, or coated aluminum;
- Conduct heat well so that the jam/jelly cooks quickly and evenly;
- Have low sides which will allow for the proper amount of evaporation;
- Be wider than tall so that the ingredients will come to a boil quickly;
- Be easy to pour to fill jars quickly with the least amount of spillage;
- Have high capacity allowing a full rolling boil without boiling over;
- Be non-stick to avoid sticking and burning;
- Clean up easily so that you are not spending extra time scrubbing the pot.
I recommend the 10.6-quart stainless steel Demeyere Resto Maslin Pan with lid (click the link to see the Amazon listing).
I also write a comprehensive article on choosing a good jelly and jam-making pot, be sure to check it out.
11. Set Timer for Cooking
Cooking for a designated length of time is one of the most important components of the jelly making process. Undercooking and overcooking have equally devastating results in that both situations often result in a jam or jelly that is runny and fails to achieve the perfect gel formation.
To avoid either scenario and because it is so easy to become distracted at the most crucial moment, always set a timer when making jam, jelly, and any other canned fruit products. The timer on my stove has become my lifeline in the kitchen and keeps me on track no matter what I’m cooking.
12. Skim Foam Before Jarring
When making jam and jelly, the foam that forms on the top should be skimmed off before it is poured into jars for a couple of important reasons. The first is that a layer of foam detracts from the appearance of all fruit products. But, more importantly, because foam contains air, a layer of foam on the top of canned foods can cause mold to grow if the food is stored for an extended period of time.
I have seen many suggestions for removing jam pot from the heat before skimming, but my skimming method includes skimming during the cooking process and after I turn off the heat immediately before jarring. I use the very large stainless steel spoon that I stir with to skim the foam and pour it into a bowl that I keep right beside the stove for that purpose. If there is still a little stubborn layer of foam after the food is poured into the jars, I use a teaspoon to scoop that out before putting on the lids.
Adding a little butter to the juice or fruit at the beginning of the cooking process will reduce the amount of foam that is formed, but I personally don’t like to do this because adding any type of fat to any canned fruit product, in my opinion, can reduce the shelf life of the food.
13. Check Jars Carefully for Cracks and Nicks
Checking jars (make sure you use quality jars) carefully to make sure there are no cracks anywhere or nicks around the rim will save you a lot of time later on and avoid the potential for ruining a jar full of your jam or jelly.
If your jar has a crack, chances are good that while the jars are boiling during the time you are making the jelly, the jar will completely split and when you pour in the jelly, the jar will break apart and the jelly will run into the boiling water. If it doesn’t break at that time, it probably will break during the boiling water bath. Either way, there will be a mess to clean up.
If one of your jars has a nick around the rim, it will either not seal properly or it will seal, but within a short time possibly become unsealed and reduce the shelf life of the jam or jelly.
Rather than take a chance of ruining some of your jam/jelly and avoid a possible mess to clean up, just be sure to check your jars carefully before you begin.
14. Prepare Jars Correctly
Here’s the proper way to prepare jars for canning:
- Check jars for cracks and rims for nicks.
- Wash jars thoroughly in hot soapy water and rinse well.
- Sterilize jars by placing a pot or pan containing 1 to 1&1/2 inches of water and enough clean jars for a batch of jelly on the stove over high heat. Bring to a full rolling boil and boil rapidly for at least 10 minutes while you are preparing and cooking the jelly.
- Let pan with jars continue to boil until after filled.
15. Use New Lids
Even though you can recycle jars and rings, always use new lids to ensure your fruit products seal properly. Reused lids might seal a second time, but you cannot count on them forming a good seal and staying sealed for an extended amount of time.
16. Prepare Lids and Rings Correctly
Lids for making jam/jelly must be new, but rings can be recycled. To get lids and rings ready for making any canned food, prepare as follows:
- Wash lids and rings in hot soapy water, and rinse well.
- Bring a pot of water to a boil and add lids.
- Reduce heat but allow lids to remain in hot water until time to put them on the jars.
- Rings do not have to be sterilized.
- After filling jars to within 1/4 inch of the top and wiping jar rims with a clean wet cloth, use a lid lifter to put the lid into place so that the sealing compound on the lids are centered on the rims of the jars.
- Add rings, also called screw bands, and screw on snugly, but do not over-tighten.
- Wipe the jar and lids with a clean wet cloth and place in a prepared area to cool completely. I place a folded thick towel on one end of the table.
17. Use a Boiling Water Bath
I consider the boiling-water bath process to be one of the most important parts of the canning process. The purpose of the boiling water bath is to kill harmful bacteria, mold, and yeast in the food and to ensure a proper seal. This will extend the shelf life of your canned food.
Here are the steps to the boiling water bath process:
- Before you start cooking the food, fill the canner half full with water, and bring to a boil over high heat.
- Reduce heat so that the water is simmering.
- Cook the food that you are canning 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. Jelly requires 5 minutes and jam requires 10 minutes in the boiling water bath. To clarify, start your timer after the water comes back to a full rolling boil.
- 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 and allow them to sit undisturbed until completely cooled.
18. Leave Headspace
Leaving the proper amount of space between the food you are canning and the lid is called the headspace. The jars you use for canning should never be filled so full that the food is touching the lids. For jam and jelly, the required amount of headspace is 1/4 inch.
The purpose of leaving the right amount of headspace is to ensure a good vacuum seal and that the seal will hold for the shelf life of the food. If the food touches the lid during processing, some of the food particles may get under the lid preventing the lid from sealing or causing the lid to unseal during storage. If too much headspace is left, the food may discolor at the top or the lid will not seal because there was not sufficient processing time to drive all the air out of the jar.
19. Let Jars of Jelly Set Undisturbed for 24 Hours
Once you have finished making your jars of jelly, have properly added the lids and rings, and have set them on a towel to cool, be sure to leave them untouched for about 24 hours so you don’t disturb either the seal or the way they set, or gel. I know it is hard to keep from picking them up to see how they look, but you get a faster and firmer set if you leave them untouched until the next day.
20. Make Sure Everything That You Use Is Clean
Not only must the food being canned be clean and the jars, lids, and rings washed and sterilized, but your canning pots and utensils must be completely clean and your hands washed often and well to prevent the introduction of bacteria into the food which could cause spoilage.
If bacteria does somehow get into the food during the canning process, not only do you lose the food you were trying to store for later use, but you lose the time and effort that you put into the canning process and the spoiled or moldy food could make you and your family sick, if eaten.
21. Label Jars Properly
Be sure to label each jar of jam/jelly with the flavor and type of fruit product, such as strawberry jam and blackberry jelly. This may not seem like such a big deal, but it isn’t always possible to determine just by looking at a jar of jam or jelly just what flavor it is. For example, blackberry and blueberry jam and jelly are identical in color, and crab apple and plum are very similar. Also, if you make a batch of strawberry jam and a batch of strawberry preserves, it is very difficult to tell the difference, especially if the jam doesn’t become as firm as you would like.
Not only is it important to label each jar with the kind of product inside, but be sure to include the date the product is made so you can use the oldest first to prevent having canned food on hand that is past its expiration date.
You wouldn’t want to present someone with a gift of your homemade jam or jelly and have to tell them you don’t know just what flavor it is, nor would you want to present someone with a product that is past its expiration date. I make it a habit to always label the jars just as soon as they are cool while they are sitting in my kitchen finishing the gelling process. If you don’t have time to apply labels immediately, be sure to attach a note to the batch giving the type of fruit product and date made.
22. Store Jam/Jelly Properly
All commercially produced and home-canned foods, including jam and jelly, should be stored under certain conditions to maximize its shelf life. Those conditions include:
- A cool space in which the temperature should remain between 50 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
- A dark space that is never exposed to direct or indirect sunlight nor bright light of any kind.
- A dry space as free from high humidity as possible.
23. Never Leave Jam/Jelly Unattended While Cooking
Any veteran jelly maker will agree with me on this one. It is never a good idea to turn your back on your jam/jelly pot while it is cooking.
When cooking jam, it is too easy to burn the fruit while it is cooking, and the pot needs to be stirred almost constantly.
When cooking jelly, the chance of the juice boiling over and messing up the pot and the stovetop is high if left unattended. Do I sound as though I speak from experience? You bet I do! More than once I’ve been distracted while cooking a batch of jelly and was left with a huge mess to clean up, not to mention the loss of part of the jelly. And I was in the kitchen every time, just with my back turned to the jelly pot! I won’t make that mistake again!
Making jam/jelly is not difficult, but to make outstanding fruit products that get rave reviews consistently requires attention to detail. And not just attention to detail in one area, but care must be taken throughout the entire process to create a product that will have everyone coming back for more.
Now you are ready to make the best homemade jam or jelly ever, or even start your own canning business!
What is the difference between jam and jelly? The main difference between jam and jelly is in how the fruit is used and prepared. To make jelly, the entire fruit is boiled in order to extract the juice, which in turn is mixed with sugar, pectin and, in some cases, lemon juice to make a clear fruit product that is the color and flavor of the fruit. Jam, on the other hand, is made by using the pulp and/or peel of the fruit to mix with sugar, pectin and sometimes lemon juice to make a fruit product that is filled with whole or pieces of the fruit.
What is a basic jam recipe?
Jelly Grandma’s Homemade Peach Jam
- 4 Cups Peaches
- 5-1/2 Cups Sugar
- 2 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
- 1 Pkg Commercial Pectin
- 1/4 Teaspoon Butter (optional)
- Wash, trim, peel, and cut fruit into small pieces or chunks.
- Place the fruit pieces into a Dutch oven with pectin and sugar and combine thoroughly.
- Bring to a full rolling boil and let cook for 3 minutes.
- Pour into prepared and sterilized jars and affix lids.
- Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
- Remove from boiling water bath canner and place on a rack or towel to cool.
What is a basic jelly recipe?
Jelly Grandma’s Homemade Mayhaw Jelly
- 5 Cups Prepared Juice
- 7 Cups Granulated Sugar
- 1 Package Fruit Pectin or 4 Tablespoons Bulk Pectin
- 1/4 Teaspoon Butter (optional)
- Combine juice, butter, and pectin in a large pot or Dutch oven (do not use aluminum).
- Turn burner to its highest setting and stir to combine the ingredients.
- When the juice mixture comes to a full rolling boil (a boil that cannot be stirred down), add sugar, stir, and bring back to a full rolling boil.
- Stir and reduce heat to medium and cook for 7-9 minutes, depending on how firm you like jelly.
- Quickly ladle into prepared jars, leaving 1/4 inch headroom at the top of the jars.
- Wipe jar rims and threads.
- Affix lids, screwing bands tightly, but not too tight.
- Place jars upright on a towel and allow to cool completely for at least 24 hours.
Be sure to check out my other delicious recipes and thanks for reading!