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Ever thought about canning your own jam, jelly, or preserves, but decided it would be too difficult? Well, think again! Here is all the help you need, in one concise little article. Let’s begin with learning exactly what’s what.

Jellies are clear, bright, and made from fruit juices, sugar, lemon juice, and, usually, pectin. Jams are thick mixtures of whole fruit, sugar, lemon juice, and often pectin, cooked until it has the consistency of a puree. Preserves are similar to jams, containing sugar, pectin, lemon juice, and whole fruits. However, preserves are not cooked until they have no form--they contain large chunks of fruit or whole berries.

No matter what you are making, you must start with a good fruit. A ration of 3/4 ripe to 1/4 slightly underripe fruit is best, especially if your recipe does not contain commercial pectin--never use an overripe fruit. People often make this mistake, thinking that a soft, overripe fruit would be perfect to make into a jelly, jam, or preserve, but this is incorrect. As fruits ripen, they lose their natural acids and pectin, and both are necessary for a good set and good flavor in your final product.

Whenever possible, weigh fruit instead of measuring its volume. The correct ratio of fruit to sugar to pectin to acid is necessary for developing good jelly, jam, or preserves, and weight is more accurate than volume. Many recipes will give the option of weight measurement or volume--stick with weight.

To make a jelly, jam, or preserve without adding a commercial pectin, you must first select a fruit which is high in natural pectin content. These fruits would include crab apples, green apples, cranberries, currants, tart plums, and grapes--these fruits are especially good for beginners. Strawberries, sweet plums, cherries, raspberries, rhubarb, pineapple, peaches, pears, and blueberries are all low in natural pectin; use a commercial pectin when making a jelly, jam, or preserve with any of these fruits.

Also necessary is a proper acid ratio. This can be achieved by adding lemon juice as needed to your mixture. Some fruits, such as crab apples, blackberries, grapes, and tart plums, are naturally high in acid, however, and may not need additional lemon juice. Follow your recipe carefully.

When making jelly, it is necessary to strain the fruit after cooking in order to retrieve the juice. A pound of fruit will, on average, yield about a cup of juice. Larger fruit, like apples, should be cut up after cleaning, but should not be cored or peeled. Cook the fruit, along with the specified amount of water for the suggested amount of time, and, when it is soft enough, press through a colander. Pour the colander-strained fruit and juice on a double layer of cheesecloth, and allow the juice to drip through to a bowl underneath. Be patient! Do not squeeze the juice through, or the jelly will be cloudy. If you simply must squeeze the fruit, restrain the resulting juice through cheesecloth. This probably will not remove all of the cloudiness, but it will help. The remaining pulp may be discarded, and the juice measured for use in your jelly.

When making jam, fruit should be seeded, pitted, peeled, and stemmed. To prepare the fruit for cooking, whole fruits should be chopped into smaller pieces and crushed; berries should be crushed or ran through a food mill. Water should be added, as needed, in order to prevent burning and to achieve the proper consistency. When prepared, the fruit should have the form of a thick puree.

When making preserves, fruits should also be seeded, pitted, peeled, and stemmed. However, unlike jam, you do not want all of your fruit crushed to the point of puree, as preserves are characterized by bite-sized pieces of fruits and berries within the crushed mixture.

Once your fruit has been prepared, it should be heated and mixed with the proper amount of sugar and, if necessary, lemon juice, as specified in your particular recipe. Stir constantly and quickly, in order to avoid burning the mixture. When mixture has thickened and came to a boil, use one of two methods to test its readiness: (1) Use a candy/jelly thermometer, to see if the mixture has reached the recommended temperature for your recipe or (2) Pour a small amount of the mixture onto a plate and place in the freezer for about 5 minutes. If the mixture gels, it is ready. Skim foam from the top of the mixture and pour into prepared Mason jars, leaving 1/4 inch head space. Cover with prepared lid and tighten ring; invert jars after filling to induce seal. When jars have fully cooled, turn upright. Jars can be tested for seal by pressing on the lid; it should not pop when pressed. When sealed, rings can be removed and jars are ready to store in a cool, dry, dark place.

Jams, jellies, and preserves can also be processed in a water bath, if desired. Instead of inverting jars and allowing to cool, place jars into a boiling water bath, and process for about 10 minutes. Remove, and allow to cool thoroughly. Check seal, and remove rings for storage.

A word or two about jars: if sealing with the inversion method, they should be properly sterilized by leaving in boiling water for 10 minutes, and lids should be heated for no less than 5 in near-boiling water just before placing on top of jars. If you intend to use the water bath method, but will process for less than 10 minutes, jars should still be sterilized before filling. If using a 10+ minute water bath, sterilizing jars before filling is an unnecessary step. Also, jars should never be larger than 1.5 pints; any larger, and a proper gel will not form.

Also, if using a commercial pectin, follow cooking instructions carefully. Testing for gelling is not necessary if using a commercial pectin, but overcooking may cause the pectin to break down, and result in an overly-soft gel.

Now, take your favorite family recipe, and start cannin’!