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Jammin' : Taming the Wild Preserve


It was a winter weekend, cool and rainy and just right for hanging around the kitchen. In the back yard, two trees were heavy with fruit--tangelos and Meyer lemons--their branches hanging low, the very picture of fecundity.

It seemed the perfect time to make marmalade.

The problem was, I didn't know how--not exactly. But that didn't bother me too much. I looked through a half-dozen cookbooks, trying to get some rough ideas of ingredient proportions.

Let's face it, when it comes to cooks, there are two types. Some people measure everything very carefully. They have favorite recipes they use all the time. For other people, people like me, recipes are guidelines and little more--to be followed or ignored as whim dictates. For us, following a recipe is like coloring within the lines: Follow the pattern exactly and everything will be fine. Your picture will look just like everyone else's. But what fun is that?

In most cases, this kind of mild delayed adolescence does no harm. Jam-making, however, is not one of those. After three attempts to come up with the perfect tangelo-lemon marmalade, all I had were steamy windows, sticky counters and a thin syrup that might have been good as an ice cream topping--but who would want to pour lemon juice on ice cream?

Clearly, this is cooking that does not lend itself to ham-handed measures and Kentucky windage.

To understand why, you have to learn a little about what happens in the preserving process. That was my next step.

Basically, there are three elements that come into play--sugar, acid and pectin. All fruits contain these three elements to varying degrees. What happens in jam- and jelly-making is this: The sugar is absorbed into the cell walls of the fruit being preserved, giving the fruit a firm texture and preventing spoilage. The pectin within the fruit is released into the syrup, and--if the solution is acidic enough--the pectin strands unfold and trap bits of liquid, thickening the preserve. The two most critical variables are sugar and pectin. The more pectin in a jam, the more sugar needed.

Sounds simple enough, but, as Harold McGee points out in his invaluable "On Food and Cooking" (Scribners: 1984, $29.95): "Making preserves is a tricky business because the necessary balance between pectin, acid and sugar is a very delicate one." He goes on to say that food scientists have found that a pH between 2.8 and 3.4, a pectin concentration of 0.5% to 1%, and a sugar concentration of 60% to 65% are optimal. But he adds that to be able to measure all of those factors, "you would have to be cooking in a well-equipped laboratory."

Actually, it's not quite that bad. A Lippincott home manual on canning from 1917 gives a pretty simple test for pectin content. Combine a tablespoon of fruit juice with a tablespoon of grain alcohol in a glass and swish it around. If it forms a clot, the fruit is high in pectin. If it breaks into many clots, it is moderate. If it forms flakes instead, it is low. (Do not, the book cautions, drink the mixture.)

If a fruit is merely moderate in pectin, the preserve can be corrected by reducing the amount of sugar. In her out-of-print "The Home Canning and Preserving Book," Anne Serrane recommends a ratio of 3/4 cup of sugar per cup of juice for a fruit high in pectin and a ratio of 1/2 cup of sugar per cup of juice for a fruit that is lower in pectin.

But if a fruit is truly pectin-poor (apricots, cherries, strawberries, raspberries and peaches), the only solution is to add pectin--either in the form of a commercially prepared powder or from a homemade solution.

Commercial pectins are a controversial subject among jam and jelly makers. Some swear by them; others swear at them. They do make preserving much easier; on the other hand, they tend to be abused. If you've ever had a jam with the texture of an art gum eraser, you know what too much pectin can do. In addition, preserving purists claim, commercial pectins muddy the fresh fruit flavor that is the prime benefit of making your own jams and jellies. At any rate, it is easy enough to make a homemade substitute.

The actual cooking process for jams and jellies is fairly simple. Sugar, fruit and any additional pectin or acid are combined in a broad pan (all the better to heat quickly and evaporate better) and placed over high heat. When the combination reaches the jelling point (roughly 8 degrees above the boiling temperature of water--meaning, at sea level, 220 degrees--for a 60% sugar solution), the jam should be done. Do not overcook; pectin is destroyed by heat.

To test for doneness, drop a mound on a plate you've kept iced in the freezer. When the jam has cooled, it should form a skin on top and be fairly firm to the touch. Or dip a metal spoon into the mixture. When it is cooked, the jam will fall away from the spoon in a sheet, rather than in drops.

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