Some of the fruit available this summer is the best looking and tasting I’ve seen in a while. Large, juicy apricots with a rose and coral blushes on them. Sweet cherries that are blemish-free and ready to make an explosion of flavor in your mouth. Pineapples that are just the right sweetness, and inexpensive too.
The stone fruits are especially good: Plums, peaches, nectarines, and all those odd cross-breeds, like apriums, pluots and plumcots, peacotums and more. Not all of these are found at your neighborhood grocer’s, though specialty outlets should have most of them this time of year.
I picked up six pounds of apricots (two batches of jelly), three of nectarines and three of white flesh peaches, and nearly seven pounds of sweet dark cherries. Time to get into the kitchen and make some pepper jelly!
If you’ve been following this series, you already have a good idea how to prepare a tasty batch of pepper jelly. I’ll use this post as a refresher, or for those just joining the pepper jelly
madness effort. First, the ingredients:
- 2.5 – 3 pounds fresh fruit, finely chopped or processed until the desired consistency (I never purée)
- 2.5 cups granulated sugar
- 1/3 tablespoon Better Stevia liquid concentrate (equivalent to about 3 cups sugar)
- 3 tablespoons Ball RealFruit Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin
- 10 ounces apple cider vinegar (the Real Stuff, not flavored white vinegar)
- 8-10 ounces of fruit juice (I use grape or apple with most preparations)
- Sweet Spices: Nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and such, to taste
- 2 habanero chiles, puréed with a small amount of fruit and some of the juice
You can use about 6 ounces or so of fresh lemon juice in place of the cider vinegar, if you prefer. Go light on the spices, or you’ll cover the delightful flavor of the fruit. I normally use about 1/2 teaspoon of each of two or three, like cinnamon and cloves. In fact, these two will give the peaches a flavor similar to top-quality spiced peaches, a Christmas favorite in many households.
For dark-colored fruit I often use red chiles, like cayennes or ripe serranos. It’s easier to make a mild pepper jelly with these chiles too, as a little habanero goes a LONG way. However, a batch of 8 half-pint jars of jelly, which this preparation targets, won’t be terribly zesty with only two habaneros present. You can also tone down the heat by removing the seeds, but that’s a lot of trouble; not the mention the risk of getting capsaicin on your fingertips, then onto other sensitive items (like your eyes). Me, I simply chop off the top and drop the chiles into my baby food processor and grind them down. Easy peasy!
Next up, the equipment. You’ll need a big soup pot, one that can seat a whole batch of half-pint jars (with rings on) without any tilted jars. Another pot, not quite so big but bigger than you might first think, will be the jellly pot. For instance, I use a pot that, with a strainer insert, can easily boil a whole pound of pasta. The insert’s not need for jelly making, of course. But the large size is very handy. You see, you’re going to have to bring the jelly mixture to a hard boil for several minutes, to get the pectin to activate. If your pot is too small, I can guarantee (this is the voice of experience speaking) that you’ll boil over and have a sticky, smelly mess. Make that a BIG, sticky, smelly mess. So be sure your jelly pot is large enough!
You’ll also need a small saucepan with a lid, for heating water. Your canning flats go into that, so the rubber softens. It’s part of getting a great seal on the jars, later on.
The jars need flats and rings, one each (of course). Rings are reusable (as are the jars, once they’re empty; so be sure to have your friends bring back the empties!), flats aren’t. Flats are cheap, though; a box of a dozen costs around a buck.
Other key tools: Canning tongs, for handling hot glass jars; a lid lifter (a magnet on a stick), to get the hot flats out of their water bath; a funnel or two, for filling the jars, and a small bowl to place the funnel on when you’re not using it (this trick catches any drips from the funnel into something easy to clean); several clean dish towels. A large, slotted stainless steel spoon and a stainless steel ladle are great too. (Why stainless steel? Easy cleanup.)
I also use a small, metal measuring cup whenever I want to test the “set” or gel point of the jelly. Once you have enough experience you may not need to do this test. If you’re learning how to do jams & jellies, though, I strongly recommend you test your jelly batch before putting it into the jars. Nothing is more disappointing (or wasteful of time and resources) than a jelly that doesn’t set. (Unless you like syrup?) Search online for how to test homemade jams and jellies for proper gel; it’s easy, and only takes a couple of minutes. And you can eat the test sample immediately on crackers for a snack while you’re slaving over a hot jelly pot!
Some pepper jellies can be made without adding pectin. Apricot is an example. However, the slow cooking and watching (and endless testing) is boring. I use a smaller dose of pectin for my apricot batches, and they turn out fine.
So here’s the procedure. Put water in the canning bath, enough to cover 1 jar without a lot of excess above. That way, when you put in 6-8 filled jars you’ll have the proper depth of boiling water during the canning. Get that water to heating, it’ll take a while. Put water in the small pan for the lids, and turn that on to a low heat. You don’t want that to boil until just when you need it! Also, I load my oven with 10 pre-cleaned jars (extras in case I drop one, etc.) and turn that on to about 225° F to keep the jars hot. You don’t want to be putting hot jelly into room-temperature jars, even if they’re nice glass! You might pop one (thermal stress) and then you get Another Big Mess.
Measure out the sugar, pectin and acid (vinegar or lemon juice). If you plan to add fruit juice, have that measured and ready as well. Put the jelly pot over high heat and start adding: fruit, chile purée, vinegar and fruit juice. Stir to combine. Add most of the sugar, but not all! Stir that to dissolve the sugar. Add the stevia concentrate, then whatever spices you desire. Put some ice chips in a shallow bowl with some water, and begin chilling your gel test measuring cup. (A big soup spoon works.) Stir the pot regularly to avoid scorching the jelly; it should come to a vigorous boil in a few minutes.
Add the pectin into the remaining bit of sugar (I save back about 1/3 of a cup), and stir/shake until the pectin and sugar are evenly combined. With the jelly boiling nicely, and while stirring, sprinkle the sugar-pectin mix onto the jelly. Stir a lot once it’s all in there! Many times pectin will cause the jelly to foam up; this is when you could get that first Big Mess I warned about. If stirring won’t keep the foam from overflowing, try adding about a tablespoon of real butter. Often that amount of fat partially quenches the foaming and you get better control. Be sure you’re boiling hard, though, or the pectin won’t activate and you’ll have fruit syrup.
Test the gel point by spooning up a sample of jelly and chilling it in the ice water. You should see the gel forming within a minute or two. If not, keep boiling. In special situations you may need to add more pectin-sugar blend. There’s a key point here, though: Boiling hard for too long (usually over 20 minutes) will kill the pectin. So you need to stay on top of this one! There’s an ideal window, with trouble on either side.
If you see a good gel happening in your sample, turn off the heat and begin to fill jars. Use one of those handy depth-measuring sticks to tell if you have the proper headspace for canning. Too much space, the jar can suck in water while canning. Too little and your jar won’t seal. (The depth-measurers usually come in a canning kit with tongs, lid lifter, funnel and more; they can be purchased individually.)
Clean the jar’s sealing surface with a damp towel, then place flats on each jar. Put a ring on each one, loosely. As you place a jar into the water bath, you can hold it for a moment in your tongs and tighten the ring down. Finger-tight is perfect! Too loose, you’ll get water into your jelly. Too tight and the headspace air won’t be able to get out during canning, and then the jars won’t seal. Remember: The ring isn’t the sealing device, it’s a flat holder and protector. The seal happens where the rubber part of the flat meets the glass surface of the jelly jar. A good seal happens when a partial vacuum is made during canning.
Boil the jars for the proper length of time in the canner. Usually ten minutes is perfect. Take the finished jars out of the water bath with your tongs and stand them on a clean, dry dish towel. Leave them alone until they cool to room temperature! You’ll hear pops from the jar tops quickly, usually within a minute after removing them from the water bath. This means you’ll likely get a great seal, preserving your special homemade goodness for a nice long while.
If there’s any extra jelly in the pot, place it in an extra canning jar and put a plastic lid on it. When refrigerated, it’ll be good for weeks or even months. Although the only way it’ll last that long is if it gets pushed behind something else.
Those white flesh peaches? They made an awesome pepper jelly, with two habaneros providing what I call “zingjam” level zest in the eight half-pints I got for this batch. (Below that, no heat; above, it begins to sting a bit.) The color is interesting, as I didn’t peel the peaches; the skins give the finished jelly a beautiful reddish-orange hue. I’ve already tried it on toast, crackers and ice cream. It’s an amazing topping!
So now that you know how I make my low-sugar pepper jellies, get out there and give it a try yourself! Nothing tastes better than your own homemade jams, jellies and preserves. If I can do it, YOU can do it…
Enjoy the (Summer Fruit) Heat!
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