Making preserves is a wonderful way to have fresh-tasting fruit all year round. There are hundreds of jam, jelly, marmalade and preserve recipes available online and in recipe books to help determine quantities and cooking time, but what makes a good jam truly great is a few expert tips. Some of the best tips for making preserves include choosing the best fruit, making sure equipment is sterilized, cooking preserves in small batches with large equipment, and experimenting with fun flavors. With a good basic recipe and a few of these tips, great homemade jam can be the work of only a few hours.
Great preserves begin in the market or the garden, when the best fruit is available. Although some people can make excellent jams from slightly over-ripe fruit, expert chefs say the best color and flavor comes from unbruised fruit at the peak of season. Check farmer's market guides to find out when each fruit is at its prime, as off-season fruit usually has a poor flavor. In most regions, the best time for making preserves is late spring through late summer, when berries and stone fruits are at their peak.
One of the most important steps when making preserves is ensuring sanitation through sterilization. Since preserves are stored for long periods of time, they are vulnerable to bacterial build-up, which can be harmful. Jam jars and lids need to be sterilized before they are used, as well as any equipment that will come in contact with the jam, such as spoons or pots. Sterilize jars and lids by running through the dishwasher on high heat, placing in simmering water for several minutes, or filling jars with boiling water. Jar rims should be wiped with a sterilized towel after the preserves are poured in, and should be sealed tightly.
Though it may be tempting to double or triple jam recipes, it is easier to maintain perfect consistency if working in a small batch. Placing a large batch of ingredients in a single pot can alter cooking times; berries on top, for instance, may not be as cooked at the same time as those toward the bottom. It is also more difficult to mix sugar, pectin, and other additives to a perfectly even consistency in a larger batch. In addition to working with small amounts, consider using a large cooking pot. Since boiling preserves tend to bubble up, it helps to have a larger pot to keep the preserves from overflowing. One other important quantity tip when making preserves is to leave a little head room in each jar when filling; the seal may pop if jars are overfilled.
Beginners may be tempted to stay with basic, single fruit recipes, but the intrepid chef making preserves should never fear experimentation. Mixing fruits and adding spices can lead to incredible results, although the odd disaster may occur. Consider mixing ripe plums with ground cloves, or making a stone fruit compote of peaches, nectarines, and apricots. As long as the individual fruit is ripe and correctly prepared, chances are the jam will be tasty, regardless of the mixture.