How to Make Easy, Low-Sugar Homemade Jams, According to an Expert Preserver

When summer fruits come onto the scene, they come in waves: piles of pristine strawberries and nectar-sweet peaches, irresistibly ripe all at once and begging to be eaten. The last thing you want to do is waste a single sunshine-infused fruit.

Jams and preserves were made for this: to use up all that gorgeous peak-season bounty, and save it for a rainy day.

“This is the reason that humans preserved food throughout all of history,” said Jordan Champagne, co-founder and owner of Happy Girl Kitchen, a cafe, cannery, and preserves shop in Pacific Grove, California. “It’s just we don’t want that precious commodity to go to waste.”

Jordan Champagne, co-founder and owner of Happy Girl Kitchen. (Photo by Erin Scott)

At Happy Girl Kitchen, she and her husband Todd work with local organic farms to capture all that beautiful California produce in a bounty of pickles, preserves, and ferments. They also host preservation workshops and pop-up dinners to share their knowledge with the community, and Champagne has just written a cookbook all about preserving fruit, “It Starts With Fruit.”

“I was raised with a profound belief that one should not waste things and one should repair and restore that which is broken,” she writes in the book. “My grandparents gave me a deep sense of gratitude, history, and properly caring for precious things.” 

Those values spilled over into her work on farms, and then with making and selling preserves. “I think right now, we’re all being reminded of this,” she said. “Food is really a precious commodity, and a lot of times we take it for granted.”

So make the most of the upcoming season’s abundance while you can; jams are a great way to start. Here, Champagne shared some helpful jam-making tips—and dispelled a few misconceptions—to help set you on the path toward your first batch of summer-in-a-jar.

Gather the Right Equipment

First off, you don’t need a lab’s worth of complicated equipment to make jam.

Champagne offers a pared down list of essentials: a kitchen scale, for weighing your fruit; a jam pot, for cooking it down (“the one you have in your own cupboard is probably just fine,” she writes); and heat-tolerant glass jars, lids, and rings, to store your creations.

She highlights choosing the right jam pot as key to preserving success: it should be heavy-bottomed, so your jam doesn’t scorch, and sized so that it’s one-third to one-half full when you add all your ingredients, so that they can cook down quickly and thus remain fresh-tasting.

If you want to can your preserves for the long haul, you’ll also need a water-bath canner, a large, deep pot with a lid and a removable rack inside. Once you’ve filled your jam jars and screwed on the lids, you’ll place them on the rack and submerge them into boiling water in the pot, which will both sterilize and seal them. There are other ways to make shelf-stable preserves, but hot water bath canning is Champagne’s favorite, for its safety and ease.

You can find reasonably priced canning pots at most hardware stores—or, you can also use any pot with a wire rack or kitchen towel placed inside, as long as it’s tall enough to hold an inch of water above the top of your jars.

Other useful tools include wooden spoons for stirring; a flour sack for straining juice or making a pectin pouch; a stainless steel funnel for easy pot-to-jar transfers; and a pair of heavy-duty, heat-resistant gloves for safely handling hot jars.

A stainless steel funnel will help streamline your jarring process. (Photo by Erin Scott)

Start Small

Another misconception is that you have to make jams and preserves in giant batches, a project that takes a full day of toiling over the stove. 

But you can easily start with a small batch, enough for just a jar or two—something you could even throw on the stove while making dinner, Champagne said. Just remember to scale down the size of your jam pot accordingly. You can skip the canning process and keep the jars in the fridge, but keep in mind that they’ll need to be eaten more quickly. 

People also might not realize that preserving “doesn’t take a lot of active work,” Champagne said. “A lot of it is just tender loving neglect.”

Having a few smart tricks and techniques up your sleeve helps. For most stone fruit and berry jams, for instance, you don’t need to peel or chop your fruit. Champagne simply removes any stems and pits, then lets the cleaned whole fruit macerate with sugar and lemon juice overnight. The sugar draws juices out from the fruit, helping to break it down, concentrate the flavors, and ultimately reduce your required hands-on cooking time down the line. 

Let the Fruit Take the Lead

Delicious jam starts with delicious fruit. Other than that, all you need is sugar and lemon juice. 

More old-fashioned (and commercial) jam recipes often use copious amounts of sugar—both as an important preservative before modern methods of food preservation, and as a way to mask subpar fruit—and packaged pectin, which helps the jam thicken and gel as it cooks. 

Champagne instead makes low-sugar jams that rely on the natural pectin in the fruit, using a ratio of one part sugar to four parts fruit. 

If you have access to stellar, seasonal produce, she reasons, let its flavor proudly shine through. 

Cook down your jam on the highest heat, so it’s vigorously boiling the whole time. (Photo by Erin Scott)

Be Picky With Your Produce

Since the fruit takes center stage, quality is key. “The biggest misconception is people will often think, ‘Oh, this stuff is about to go bad. I’m gonna make jam with it.’ But you really need to make jam with stuff that is great, … you need to use fruit in its prime,” Champagne said. Subpar fruit will make subpar jam.

There is a catch, however: in most cases, Champagne suggests that those perfectly ripe specimens make up 80 percent of the fruit you’re using, while the remaining 20 percent should be slightly under-ripe. Under-ripe fruit is higher in natural pectin, which will help the jam gel up nicely; plus, a touch of tartness will add balance and complexity to the sweetness.

“If you are being more selective with your fruit, and you’re also understanding [the qualities of] the fruit that you’re starting with, then your end product is going to reflect that,” Champagne said.

But Don’t Let the Rest Go to Waste

After you’ve picked out your perfect specimens, don’t toss out the less-than-perfect remains. As Champagne says, “there’s always something you can do with it.”

Her favorite way to use up blemished or overripe fruits is in drinking shrubs, concentrated syrups made by preserving fruits with vinegar, sugar, and optional herbs and spices. “It’s the perfect place to put it, because you’re just extracting the best of those flavors, [without] needing it to gel up or anything like that,” Champagne said. 

It’s also a category ripe for experimentation: you can dream up endless combinations of different fruits, vinegars, and flavors, for shrubs that span the seasons and the globe. Mix them into cocktails and mocktails, or simply enjoy them with a pour of sparkling water.

“Have fun in your kitchen—that’s the most important thing,” Champagne said. “Play with your food and play with your fruits.”

RECIPE: Strawberry Jam

RECIPE: Apricot Jam

RECIPE: Strawberry Ginger Shrub

“It Starts With Fruit: Simple Techniques and Delicious Recipes for Jams, Marmalades, and Preserves” by Jordan Champagne (Chronicle Books, $29.95).

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Author: Crystal Shi

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