Monday, October 3, 2011

what to do when the jelly doesn't set

It seems that although jam making is on the rise, jelly making is making a slower comeback.
Perhaps it is the sweetness that puts people off? The slight jello-ness that undermines its sophistication? Or for some, perhaps, it is the fear that the jelly won't set.

I have always used pectin in my jams, and I never feel the need to experiment outside of my beloved Pomona's Pectin. This gives the jam a good set with minimal sugar, and I don't have to think too hard about it. But when I get my hands on a basket of really high pectin fruit, I can't help but envision a delicate and clear jelly, and these are the few times in my canning career that I mess with gel points and thermometers.  Last year, I made quince jelly, and the fruit was so high in pectin that it hardened as if thickened with gelatine. It was pink and smelled like flowers, and I hoarded my few little jars of it all winter. This year I made red currant jelly, and the little bit of precious juice overflowed onto the stove when I boiled it with sugar. I ended up with one prized burgundy jar, and it was perfect.

I thought that we'd go through the jelly making process here, in case it is a new one to you. Except this time- with this recipe, I didn't end up making jelly at all. I had to confront the moment and figure out what to do when my jelly didn't set. The day comes for us all, and all we can do is be prepared.

The process of making jelly starts with the process of making juice.  The fruit must be clean, because you will use every bit of it. Pectin, that magical stuff that makes the jelly gel, is more densely in the skin, core, and seeds of the fruit. So cut the fruit roughly, and throw it all into the pot. Then we add water, and cook it all until it it is soft.

 You might have a special tool called a jelly strainer- this is basically a mesh bag suspended over a plate. You can rig up your own with a piece of cheese cloth. I tie it to opposite ends of a colander, and then put the colander over a bowl to catch the juice. The key is to suspend the cloth- this will get you clearer and more wonderful juice.

 Pour all of the softened fruit (along with the liquid) through the cheesecloth. Let the whole thing drain for at least 3 hours, but up to a day.  Let it drain on its own without squeezing or poking it. I'm serious about that- one good squeeze will give you cloudy jelly.

When the fruit has finished draining, you now have juice. Combine the juice with the sugar in a pot, and boil until the mixture reaches 220 degrees F. You can also keep a plate in the freezer, and when a drop of the mixture solidifies on the frozen plate, you know that you have reached the gel point.  Then the jelly goes into jars, and sometime in the next day, it gels, and it doesn't slosh around in the jar when you nervously pick it up to see if it has turned firm and lovely.

Except when it does slosh around. And when and if this ever happens to you, you have 2 options. Crying and dumping out the contents of your jars is not one of these options. You don't have to. You can make this better!

The first option is to unseal your jars and re-cook the jelly.  Add more sugar, add some pectin, and you'll get your gel. Resterilize your jars, top with new lids, and process again.

I know. It sounds a little exhausting, right? If so, this is your path. When the jelly doesn't set, it's time to make cocktails.

In my case, I know exactly why it didn't set. I was living dangerously and laughing in the face of well-established science. One thing you might notice about jelly recipes is that they have so so much sugar. Enough sugar to make your teeth hurt when you eat it. And so every time I make jelly, I mess with the sugar. This time, I went too far. But sometimes the mistakes taste better than the goal. And so, I present you:

Apple Mint Syrup

Mixed with gin or vodka in a shaker with a little ice, this is pretty fantastic. And, (need I say it), paired with a ribbon and a little bottle of booze? It's a DIY apple-tini holiday gift bag.

makes ten 8-ounce jars

7 pounds apples
1 large bunch mint (stems and leaves)- I used a variety called apple mint that seemed quite fitting
6 cups sugar

Coarsely chop the apples without peeling or coring them. Put them into a large pot with the mint, and just barely cover with water. Cover, bring to a boil, and lower the heat to medium low. Continue to cook until the apples are very soft and breaking down, about 45 minutes.

Set up a large piece of cheese cloth over a colander and a large bowl. Pour the mixture through the cheese cloth and let it drain without poking or squeezing it. Let it drain for at least 3 hours, but up to a day.

You should have between 12 and 14 cups of juice. Combine the apple mint juice with the sugar in a large pot. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Let the mixture cook at a rapid boil for ten minutes. (If you want to make jelly instead of syrup, increase the sugar to 10 cups, and make sure that the mixture reaches 220 degrees F.)

Pour into sterilized jars, top with lids, and process in a water bath for 10 minutes.


  1. And now I can see why every household in 1790 had two quince trees, and also why so few do now - the need to set jellies by mixing in quince derived pectin is not a household priority. It all sounds so delicious, your floral and fruit syrups!

  2. Talk about making the best of it! Perfect!