When good syrup happens to bad jellymakers

20 Sep

I was eying that great big bag of grapes from my pick with Not Far from the Tree suspiciously for a full week. Confession: I’ve never made jelly before, and I was a little daunted by all that talk of food mills, boiling water baths and magnetic lid lifters.

I wish I could tell you it actually turned out to be simple.

It did not.

Firstly, I had to commute for two hours across town and back to borrow half the equipment.

Secondly, I had to spend over an hour washing and sorting all those grapes.

Then when I finally got started on the recipe, instead of keeping things straightforward for the first attempt, I had to go and follow our food stylist Signe Langford‘s advice and stray from the recipe. Green grapes are typically less flavourful than red ones, so it seemed to make good sense to jazz things up.

The thing is, Signe has been making jams and jellies from scratch since a time when she still had to stand on a chair to reach the stovetop.

Oh yeah, and she’s also an award-winning chef.

That woman’s brain is like a sophisticated computer: she can scan any set of ingredients at any stage of any recipe and instantly come up with the magic formula to turn them into something spectacular.

But I didn’t have her by my side to scream “STOP!” when I did whatever I did wrong.

I merrily cut back the sugar and poured in a bottle of ice wine, as Signe had suggested, but alas my jelly wouldn’t set.

I added more pectin.

Then I added more sugar.

Then I boiled the stuff some more… took out a little of the boiling mixture on a metal spoon again to see if it was gelling nicely.

Jelly FAIL!

But you know what? My non-compliant grape and ice wine jelly still actually tasted pretty great.

The grapes I’d used were just a little tart and they had a lovely perfumed sweetness. The ice wine was terrific too. And while I won’t be spreading this batch of grape jelly on toast any time soon, I can’t wait to pour it on my pancakes and ice cream, or even use it in a drizzle cake or trifle.

I’m going to share with you the proper recipe, nonetheless, not my accidental-syrup variation. It comes from a fantastic site full of great tips and recipes for canning fruit: pickyourown.org.

Good luck and please post all your jelly-making tips (and cautionary tales) in the comments section below. I’m going to give this another go soon.


Grape Jelly
5 lb grapes
1 packet pectin
around 7 cups sugar (read instructions in your pectin packet for ratio; this varies from product to product)

1. Wash 12 X 8-oz jars and their lids; you can use the “sanitize” cycle in the dishwasher.

2. Wash and sort the grapes, getting rid of stems and leaves.

3. Measure out sugar, then take 1/4 cup of the sugar and mix with pectin, set aside.

4. In large saucepan, crush grapes with potato masher and heat until gently boiling on medium-high heat to get juice flowing. Simmer for 10 minutes.

5. Sieve cooked grapes through cheesecloth-lined strainer.

8. Add pectin-sugar mix to hot strained liquid and bring to a full boil. Stir to prevent boiling.

9. Put lids in hot (not boiling) water to clean and soften gummed surface.

10. Add remaining sugar to grape juice-pectin mix and stir until dissolved. Boil hard for 1 minute.

11. Keep a metal spoon in ice-cold water next to stove to test for jelling. Take a 1/2 tsp of the jelly mix on the spoon, cool to room temperature and see if it thickens to jelly consistency, coating the spoon. If not, add more pectin and boil for another minute.

12. Fill warm jars to 1/2 inch from top with jelly and screw lids and rings on top.

13. Carefully lower jars into very large pot filled with boiling water (boiling water bath). There must be at least 2 inches of water over the tops of the jars. Process for at least 5 minutes. (Check altitude table for variations).

14. Lift jars out of water with lifter tongs and allow to cool. Once jars are cool, you can check they’re sealed, verifying that the lid has been sucked down. Just press in the center, gently, with your finger. If it pops up and down (often making a popping sound), it is not sealed. If you put the jar in the refrigerator right away, you can still use it.



7 Responses to “When good syrup happens to bad jellymakers”

  1. signe September 20th, 2011 at 1:46 PM #

    Oh my goodness!!! Well, where to start? Thanks for the kind words and I’m ever so sorry I temped you to stray from the recipe for your first time! My BAD!!! But, ice wine and wild grape syrup sounds like it could win some awards of its own! I’ll start saving you some bottles! 🙂

    • Valerie Howes September 20th, 2011 at 10:28 PM #

      Thanks, dear Signe!

  2. Ange Gallop September 20th, 2011 at 2:00 PM #

    Ice wine jelly! Oh it seemed so promising.


    • Valerie Howes September 20th, 2011 at 10:28 PM #

      I had it on vanilla ice cream tonight, Angie, and fortunately it tastes REALLY good as runny syrup!

  3. Karin September 25th, 2011 at 10:10 AM #

    Try the following grape jelly recipe which is unusual but it works!

    Wash and clean grapes. Leave the stems on the grapes ( there is something in the grape stems that makes it jell.)
    Leave the water on the washed grapes as well as this the only liquid you will use with the grapes to make the jelly.
    Place grapes with stems in the sauce pan and bring to a boil. Simmer for a few minutes.
    Drain through a cheesecloth or thin cotton bag and squeeze out excess juice.
    Measure the juice and place in sauce pan.
    I added I cup sugar for every I cup of juice. Original recipe says 3 cups sugar for every 2 cups of juice.
    Boil for one to 5 minutes, really!
    Skim and pour into sterilized jars.

    I used two 3L baskets of concord grapes which makes approximately 7 cups of grape juice. This quantity made approximately six 500ml jars of fantastic grape jelly, and I am still alive to share this recipe with you….
    Do cover the counter top because it stains.

    • Valerie Howes September 28th, 2011 at 2:37 PM #

      Thanks so much, Karin!

  4. Carol October 5th, 2011 at 7:31 PM #

    I have been using a recipe similar to Karen’s, from one of my grandmother’s cookbooks. It is for fruit that has its own pectin, apples, grapes, cranberries and crabapples, and gooseberries, and I think currants. You leave in some unripe fruit, put the entire fruit, cut the apples, half the crabapples, in a saucepan, add water to almost cover fruit, bring to a boil and simmer until the fruit is soft and juices run clear. Strain the juice through a cheese cloth lined seive. Measure 3/4 cup of sugar for each cup of juice, warm the sugar in a 250F oven in 9X13 saucepans. Return juice to stove and bring to a boil, add sugar while whisking, bring jelly to a boil again, simmer for 5-10 min, whatever time is required to have a successful jelly test. Pour into sterilized jars and can as usual.

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