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L.A. in a Jar: Southern California’s best jams and preserves

Marianna Fierro / For The Times

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“L.A. in a Jar” is a four-part series on preserving fruit at home throughout the seasons in Southern California, complete with helpful tips and guidance on everything you need to know about making and using fruit preserves, plus master recipes for stone fruit jam, apple butter, citrus marmalade and berry jelly.

Making jam is how I like to relax. Others may get massages, go hiking or do yoga. I prefer meditatively chopping, and then lazily stirring, fruit in a big pot until it’s thick and takes on the sheen of silk. I got into jam-making as a kid because I loved eating it so much. Whether it was strawberry Smuckers, muscadine jelly from an artisan near my home town in Mississippi, or an apple butter or peach jam from that “country store” restaurant, my sweet tooth called for preserves, so I yearned to learn to make them myself.

I’ve learned a lot about making preserves from years of cooking. I’ve made great preserves and really bad preserves — ones that set too soft and ones that were completely burned on the bottom. I’ve read just about every book on the subject and used their recipes to see how each approaches the art of mixing raw fruit, sugar and lemon juice into a luscious, spreadable fruit preserve.

Preserving fruit may seem like an intimidating undertaking akin to baking bread, but, well, you learned all about sourdough last year during the pandemic, so why not learn how to make the best stuff to spread on it and see how much easier it is to make than bread? Whether it’s a stone fruit jam with lots of tart chunks of fruit, a smooth and rich apple butter, a bitter marmalade mottled with citrus peel, or a glistening jewel-like berry jelly, preserving fruit is the best way to keep the best produce in the country around a little longer in your kitchen than it does in the markets.

In Los Angeles, we track the seasons not by looking at the sky or thermometer, but by looking at the produce stands at the markets. Through the year, most of the produce changes so much and so quickly that it may seem as if you’re shopping at a totally new site with each visit to your neighborhood market. And whether you live here or are visiting, you’ve no doubt stopped by a farmers market to gasp and gawk at the wonderful fruit and bought a lot more than you can deal with on an impulse, drugged by all the heady aromas and beautiful colors. That’s where making preserves comes into play. And it’s a California pastime that everyone, no matter the skill level or interest, should experience at least once in their life.

To show you how easy it is for the home cook to make, we’ve created four issues that highlight different forms of fruit preserves — stone fruit jam in summer, apple butter in autumn, citrus marmalade in winter and berry jelly in late spring — complete with the basic steps and tips to get it done, but without all the extra information that can make preserving fruit seem intimidating or boring.

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My hope is to convince you that preserving is actually quite easy, enjoyable and as low-maintenance as cooking a marinara sauce. The best part? You control the ingredients, which is important in a homemade version of a store-bought product typically rife with artificial sweeteners and subpar fruit. I’ll tell you what equipment you need to make preserves (I can practically guarantee you already own it all), how to make it with no recipe (you can memorize it) and how the preserves you make will last a long time without having to can them (your fridge is your friend!).

This is not a manual for the professional business owner or anyone looking to sell their product. This is a no-nonsense guide for casual home cooks, curious market shoppers, novice fruit fanatics and anyone else who just wants to learn a new, delicious skill that’s more fun and rewarding than making your 100th loaf of sourdough.

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Seasons of Preserves: Stone Fruit

While I love preserving fruit of all kinds, the best and most interesting preserves ones for me are made with stone fruit. There’s something in their balance of sweetness and tartness, and their meaty texture, that makes for a some seriously delicious, fragrant and intoxicating outcome.
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illustration of peaches, apricots, cherries and plums
(Marianna Fierro / For The Times)

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Seasons of Preserves: Apple Butter

Before there was Big Pumpkin Spice®, there was apple butter. It’s the food of fall — the original floral and lightly spiced sweet flavor that brings to mind visions of cozy sweaters, crisp autumn air and the beginning of the holiday season. Basically just puréed apples cooked with sugar into a preserve, it’s smooth and luscious and contains everything there is to love about this time of year in a spoon.
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An illustration of several apples
(Marianna Fierro / For the Times)

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Seasons of Preserves: Citrus Marmalade

Growing up, I hated marmalade. Possessing a giant sweet tooth in a sugar-loving part of the South, I found marmalade’s complex taste didn’t appeal to me. But then I grew up, and I found myself making fruit preserves that were more tart than what I liked when I was younger. Once I finally had the nerve to tackle marmalade, I thought, “If I can change plum jam or apple butter to suit my taste, why can’t I do the same with orange marmalade?”
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Lead illustration for L.A. in a Jar Citrus Marmalade.
(Marianna Fierro / For The Times)

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Seasons of Preserves: Berry Jelly

When I think about the best candidates for jellies, berries are it. Berries have a high proportion of skin and seeds to flesh and juice, so if you’re a seed hater, jelly is the way to go. You can cook the berries, strain out all that detritus, then work with the best part of the fruit. Berries also make jewel-toned jellies that are gorgeous to look at. And if flavored correctly, they’ll taste balanced and complex and not all tooth-achingly sweet.
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Illustration for by Marianna Fierro / For The Times for Ben Mim's summer pudding jam recipe.
(Marianna Fierro / For The Times)

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Get the recipes:

Master Stone Fruit Jam

Time2 hours 30 minutes
YieldsMakes 5 half-pint jars, or 5 cups

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Master Apple Butter

Time5 hours, mostly unattended
YieldsMakes 5 half-pint jars

Master Orange Marmalade

Time2 hours 30 minutes, plus overnight cooling
YieldsMakes 5 half-pint jars or 5 cups

Blackberry Jelly With Amaro

Time2 hours 30 minutes, plus overnight cooling
YieldsMakes 5 half-pint jars, or 5 cups

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