An important component of correctly making jelly, jam, or any other preserves is to cook at the right temperature for the correct amount of time. Not doing so can cause the finished product not to gel correctly and you might end up with a hot mess.
The consensus among jelly makers is that jelly or jam should be boiled rapidly, not slowly. A full rolling boil will reach the necessary sugar concentration of 80% sugar to 20% water. This will prevent premature spoilage while also retaining the fruit’s natural color and flavor.
Grasping the reasons for this part of the jelly-making process is equally important. Understanding these basics helps you to fully comprehend the intricate balance that must be attained for the ingredients in jelly to result in a finished product that you will be proud to serve. Let’s go over the reasons in detail:
Reasons to Boil Jelly or Jam Rapidly
- The ingredients must reach the required high temperature to form a gel bond, the target temperature range being 217-222°F or 103-106°C.
- A full rolling boil must be reached as quickly as possible for a sufficient amount of water evaporation to occur.
- A full rolling boil will reach the appropriate sugar concentration of 80% sugar to 20% water. This stage of the jam’s ratio of sugar to water is measured with temperature. A sugar concentration of 65% or higher is needed to prevent the food from spoiling by pulling the water from microorganisms and preventing them from causing food spoilage.
- Reaching a full rolling boil quickly will help retain the fruit’s natural color and flavor.
- Boiling slowly will allow too much liquid to evaporate.
- Boiling jelly slowly for an extended period of time will break down the pectin that is naturally occurring in the fruit and fruit juice, causing it to lose its gelling properties.
Pro Tip: Most kitchen stoves have a cooktop with one burner or eye that cooks at a higher temperature and heats faster than the others. This is the burner you want to use when making jelly. If the burner you use doesn’t bring the ingredients to a boil fast enough, too much of your liquid will evaporate.
Why Not Boil Jam and Jelly Slowly?
When the jelly ingredients are not brought to a full rolling boil quickly enough, too much water evaporates and can result in a product that is not clear and can be too thick. Cooking the pectin for an extended period of time will cause the pectin to lose its gelling properties. When the high temperature is not reached quickly enough, the existing bacteria may not be killed which could reduce the shelf life of your jelly and cause it to go bad much more quickly.
How to Measure Temperature of Jam or Jelly
To get a good measure of the jelly you are cooking and avoid any “hot spots,”
- Use an instant-read digital thermometer,
- Stir ingredients well, and
- Place the probe of the thermometer in the very center of the liquid.
The jelly should be ready to pour into your jars when the temperature reaches 217-222°F or 103-106°C. Be sure to adjust your target temperature according to your location’s altitude.
How Altitude Affects Temperature When Cooking Jam or Jelly
As the altitude increases and the air pressure decreases, these conditions affect the jelly-making process in two different ways:
- Reduces the boiling point for liquids by approximately 2° for every 1000 feet of increased altitude, and
- Increases the processing time required in a boiling water bath by 1 minute for every 1000 feet of increased altitude.
What Temperature to Cook Jam or Jelly?
Jam or jelly prepared at an altitude under 1000 feet should be cooked to a temperature of 217-222°F (103-106°C) and then processed in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes. In altitudes over 1000 feet, reduce the required temperature by 2° and add 1 minute of processing time for every additional 1000 feet.
For example, if you live in Denver, Colorado, the “Mile High City” with its altitude of 5280 feet, you would boil your jelly to a temperature of 209-214°F or 98-101°C, and process your jelly an additional 4 minutes, for a total of 9 minutes processing time.
What is Needed to Make Jelly?
- Fruit Juice – Provides the liquid to dissolve the other ingredients, some acid and naturally-occurring pectin, color, and unique flavor to the jelly.
- Sugar – Sweetens the jelly and acts as a preservative. Sugar concentrations of 65% or higher prevent spoilage by withdrawing water from microorganisms, which incapacitates them and prevents food spoilage.
- Acid – Just the right amount is required to allow the gel to form. Too much acid won’t allow the gel to set; too little acid will make the jelly “weep.”
- Pectin – Allows a gel to form. Pectin is naturally occurring in all fruit but in different amounts. By using commercial pectin which is extracted from fruit, it is possible to control the amount that goes into your jelly.
- Cooking Time – Ingredients must be brought to a full rolling boil as quickly as possible to allow the right amount of water to evaporate from the juice to complete the reaction between the liquid, the sugar, the pectin, and the acid to form a chemical bond and produce a gel. Producing a full rolling boil in the minimum time possible retains the color and flavor of the fruit and activates the thickening power of the pectin. Cooking too long will cause the pectin to break down and lose its ability to gel. Using the right size pot will produce the best results. The pot should be wide with low sides to allow the right amount of evaporation.
In case you are interested, here is a detailed guide on the basics of making jelly.
What is Pectin?
Pectin, which is the basis of jam and jelly, is a fiber that is found in all fruits, in large amounts in some fruits such as apples, crabapples, and quince, and in small amounts in other fruits like peaches and strawberries. Not only is pectin found in different amounts in the different fruits, but amounts also vary according to the ripeness of the fruit.
As the fruit begins to ripen, the amount of pectin begins to increase until the fruit is just barely ripe, when the maximum level of pectin is achieved. As the fruit continues to ripen, the pectin level begins to decrease. This pectin fiber is made of polysaccharide molecules that consist of long chains of a gummy substance similar to glue that holds plant walls together.
Pro Tip: Because this naturally occurring pectin is in such different amounts in fruits, the easiest way to make jelly that turns out consistently for you is to use commercial pectin, which is extracted from fruit, but which allows you to control the amount of pectin in your jelly.
How Does Jam or Jelly Gel?
For those of you who have never considered yourself to be good at science, I have a surprise for you. Jelly making is based upon scientific principles. I know, it was hard for me to believe it as well!
In raw fruit, pectin molecules have an alkaline negative charge. These molecules repel each other and bond with water. But, when the fruit is prepared and cooked, the acid in the fruit is released, neutralizing at least part of the negative charge and allowing the pectin chains to form a loose bond. The sugar attracts water molecules, bringing the pectin chains closer together.
When you bring your mixture to a full rolling boil, sufficient water evaporation allows the pectin bond to become strong enough to produce a gel that is spreadable. So, our scientific formula is based on a ratio of fruit juice to sugar to pectin to acid. With the addition of a high cooking temperature to activate this process, this formula is the basis of our jelly recipes.
Jelly must be brought to a full rolling boil as quickly as possible to allow the juice, sugar, acid, and pectin to work their magic and produce a gel. The high temperature creates the conditions that allow the ingredients to react with each other to create the desired consistency and to preserve the jelly. Be sure if you have an electric range that you use the burner or eye that cooks fastest.
Also, if you live in an area at an altitude of more than 1000 feet above sea level, be sure to make adjustments to the jelly for maximum temperature and processing time. It’s now time to gather up the ingredients you need for a “scientific experiment” that will produce a half-dozen or so jars of delicious jelly for your family and friends to enjoy! So let’s get cooking!
For more, don’t miss Why Is My Jam Too Runny? (How to Reboil and Fix It).
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