I started making jam, jelly, and apple butter, a couple years back. Preserves were always a mystery to me, since mom and grandma would do it (while I was not around) and they would taste so awesome. Chop fruit, throw it in a pot, add sugar, warm, dump it in a jar. Sounds too easy. But, when I tried the first time, what struck me the most was how much sugar the typical recipe called for – sometimes more than fruit! This is fruit – It’s sweet already isn’t it? It’s time to go back to the old ways of making preserves with an old fashioned low-sugar jam recipe.
The first preserves I made with less sugar was apple butter – basically jam that’s been stirred at near boiling temperature for a long time. This was excellent, because the process in butter preserves recipes allows for the jam to thicken as you stir and the water evaporates as steam – as opposed to jam and jelly recipes which use sugar and pectin to thicken. But, what if you wanted to eliminate all sugar?
What I learned was Pectin is a carbohydrate derived from fruit, and is in almost every jam and jelly recipe. Pectin, with large amounts of sugar, helps jams and jellies to thicken faster. But one type of pectin, low-methoxyl pectin, thickens jams and jellies with little or no sugar. This pectin makes it possible to create jams and jellies sweetened with honey, artificial sweeteners, the herbal sweetener stevia, or just with fruit.
Home made preserves are so much better than what’s in the store, that you owe it to yourself to give one of these methods a try.
How Pectin Works
All your typical jelly and jam recipes now call for sugar and pectin: The difference is that jelly is made with fruit juice, while jams are made with mashed or crushed fruit. Long ago, however, pectin wasn’t readily available in stores so folks had to stir preserves for hours to get it thickened.
With most fruit pectin, recipes must include 1/2 – 3/4 cups sugar for every cup of fruit to allow the interaction among pectin, sugar and fruit acids that causes jams and jellies to thicken properly. That type of pectin is derived from ripe fruit, but low-methoxyl pectin is extracted from citrus peel and thickens when you add calcium phosphate. It was popularized in the early 1960s by naturalist Euell Gibbons, after his diabetic brother began experimenting with it to make jams and jellies with less sugar.
Low-methoxyl pectin is now available from most health food stores and some supermarkets. It’s sold in small packets that include calcium phosphate powder and will make up to 18 cups of jam or jelly. You may use this low-sugar jam recipe, or substitute artificial sweeteners like Stevia to eliminate all sugar, or try mixing fruits that are sweet and tart (like peach and plum) to remove all sweeteners.
Ingredients for Low-Sugar Jam (or no-sugar jam)
Fruit of your choice.
Low-methoxyl pectin. For jams, use one-half to three-fourths teaspoon of pectin for each cup of mashed fruit. For jellies, use three-fourths to 1 teaspoon pectin for each cup of fruit juice.
Calcium phosphate solution. Mix a half teaspoon of the calcium powder with 1 cup of water to make a calcium solution. For each cup of fruit or juice, you will need 1 teaspoon of calcium solution.
Lemon juice. For low-acid fruits, such as sweet cherries, peaches or plums, add 1 tablespoon lemon juice for each cup of fruit or juice to enhance flavor and thickening ability.
Sweeteners. For each cup of fruit or juice, I would recommend one-fourth to one-half cup of sugar, or one-eighth to one-third cup of honey, but you can adjust the amount of sweetener to taste.
For artificial sweeteners, such as Splenda, and for stevia extracts, follow the product directions to find out how much to use in place of sugar.
Instructions for Jelly or Jam
1. Prepare the fruit or juice. Berries can be mashed and simmered, then put through a sieve to remove some of the seeds, if desired. For jelly, simmer the fruit, then place it in a jelly bag and allow the juice to drip into a bowl. You also can use prepared or frozen juices. Measure the fruit for jam or the juice for jelly, and then place it in a stainless steel, heavy-bottomed pot. If you are using low-acid berries or fruit, add the lemon juice. Bring the fruit or juice to a boil.
2. Mix the pectin with the sweetener. Pectin shouldn’t be added directly to your fruit or juice, because it will stay clumped together. If you are using sugar or honey, mix the pectin with the sweetener until there are no lumps or pockets of pectin.
To use artificial or herbal sweeteners, prepare the fruit or juice the same way, but incorporate the pectin by blending it with three-fourths cup of boiling water for one to two minutes, then stir it into the fruit or juice. If you are using only fruit without additional sweeteners, follow the same method, blending pectin into three-fourths cup boiling water, fruit juice or apple cider.
3. Pour the pectin and sweetener mixture into the fruit. Do this as the fruit is slowly boiling, stirring it thoroughly. I use a whisk to make sure the pectin doesn’t clump. Return the pot to a full boil that can’t be stirred down.
4. Add the calcium solution to the pot. This should be done quickly, because prolonged boiling of the pectin weakens it. For each cup of fruit or juice, add 1 teaspoon of calcium water. Be sure the calcium powder is fully dissolved.
5. Let the jam or jelly cool. Once the calcium solution is added, stir thoroughly and remove the jam or jelly from the heat. The preserves will thicken as they cool.
At this point, you can test the jam or jelly’s thickness. Let a spoonful of the jam or jelly cool on a cold spoon or plate. If the cooled jam or jelly is too thin, add more calcium solution, 1 teaspoon at a time, and retest. If it seems too thick, add some juice, a half cup at a time and retest.
Freezing and Canning
Jams and jellies can be used right away, or they can be frozen or canned. To can, fill hot, sterile canning jars to a half inch from the top. Screw on two-piece lids and place in a boiling water bath for five minutes. Remove the jars from the water and let them cool, then check the seal. To freeze jam, place it in small freezer containers or wide-mouth jelly jars, let cool and place covered jars in freezer. Because of their high fruit content, these preserves must be refrigerated once opened or removed from the freezer, and they will keep for two to three weeks.
Low-Sugar Fruit Butters
Making low-sugar fruit butters is much simpler than making non-sugar jams and jellies, but it takes a lot of time. Apple butter, or other fruit butters, are basically jam that has been cooked down until thickened (as opposed to adding more sugar and pectin).
First you take the fruit of choice, heat in a large pot with a small amount of water until soft, then run the fruit through a food mill or push through a sieve with a wooden spoon or pestle. At that point you have a fruit puree with the skins removed, and is more concentrated. You can then add spices, lemon juice, and any sugar you’d like. This is then cooked at a medium-high temperature until it thickens, as you stir constantly. Stirring this while at a near boil allows water to escape as steam, so using the widest pot you have works best.
Cooking it down slowly is my favorite way of making jams too. It’s very old-school. You can reduce the pectin and sugar considerably, since you’re not relying on it for thickening – taste the mixture while cooking, and add sugar or spices as needed since some fruit is more tart than others. To see if the fruit is set, or thick enough to can, is to use a frozen plate. Freeze a plate, and spoon your butter or jam onto the plate when you think it’s about ready. If after a few seconds the fruit doesn’t run when you tilt the plate it’s probably ok to can. You can also place a spoonful on a plate and let it cool a few minutes. If a ring of liquid forms around the butter, then it needs to concentrate further.