Marianna Fierro / For The Times
How to make berry jelly, and a secret ingredient to tame the sweetness.
This is the last installment of “L.A. in a Jar,” cooking columnist Ben Mims’ four-part series on preserving fruit at home.
The first fruit preserve I ever ate was muscadine jelly. A woman in my small hometown turned the Southern grapes into a ruby-toned jelly that she sold in local stores. The jelly was, as most are, very sweet and tasted vaguely of grape mixed with a not-tart raspberry. I didn’t mind; heaven for me was a big spoonful of that jelly plopped atop a slab of half-cold, half-melting butter on a steaming hot biscuit. It wasn’t until I was much older that I ate strawberry, raspberry and blueberry jams, and the deep purple grape jelly used on most PB&Js. I fell hard for those berry flavors too, but that muscadine jelly stayed with me.
It also left a lasting desire to make jelly cool again.
In our current cooking age, jelly has fallen out of fashion because it’s simply fruit juice sweetened with sugar and bound with pectin (more on that later). It’s the equivalent of drinking a glass of orange juice instead of eating the whole orange. Although muscadines are grapes, grapes are also berries, botanically speaking. So it makes sense that this last part of my L.A. in a Jar series focuses on jelly made with berries specifically.
We like whole fruit these days, even in sweetened preserves. But when I think about the best candidates for jellies, berries are it. They 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.
Bur first, what is a berry? Sure, we all know the “big four,” as David Karp — a pomologist and longtime L.A. Times contributor — calls them: blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries. (The last three aren’t technically berries in the botanical sense but are in cultural parlance when speaking about the fruit group.) What about mulberries or gooseberries or things that aren’t called berries, such as red currants, grapes and even tomatoes?
“The term ‘berry’ is a botanical structure, which more or less means ‘small fruit,’” Karp says. “Thousands of plants produce berries, but many aren’t edible. When we talk about berries here and now, it’s about the ‘big four,’ or what I like to call berries that humans can eat with pleasure. Sure, there are wild berries that people go hiking to find, but most come from limited species that have been bred for taste, have a short seed-to-fruit ratio and are quick to grow in a limited amount of land.”
Even though people here rave about stone fruit and citrus, it’s the berries that get most of the love. If the lines at berry stands at L.A. farmers markets are any indication, they are the most popular fruit people buy, no matter the time of year. One of the most beloved is blueberries, a berry that’s endemic to the Northeast and colder climates.
“Think about it,” says Karp. “Blueberries are well-adapted to fruit consumption. You can eat them while driving, and their juices don’t get on your hands. They’re also delicious and healthy.”
That last point is why the berries we eat are so popular. They’re like nature’s candy, especially the good ones that are balanced between sweetness and a “pleasing acidity,” as Karp describes it.
“The most delicious berries, in my opinion, are the hybrid blackberries, like the boysenberries, marionberries and loganberries,” Karp says. “These are all derived from the Hawaiian raspberry crossed with the Native American blackberry. There are also the black raspberries up in Oregon and the mara des bois strawberries in France. Blueberries have the largest number of varieties but are rarely sold by variety. But if you come across South Moon blueberries, they’re very aromatic and have a great balance of acidity and aroma.”
The nature of berries
In Southern California, we are undoubtedly spoiled for great berries. Murray’s Family Farms alone sells many of the more sought-after varieties, and if you know the right farmers to ask, they often have a delicious variety growing on their land. But while lots of them are cultivated here, the wild ones grow best in more northern climates. The Pacific Northwest, Michigan and New England, yes, but I’m talking even farther north, into Canada.
Sheryl Normandeau is a gardener and at-home preserver who wrote a book about the wild, native berries of Canada, “The Little Prairie Book of Berries,” precisely because of their abundance there and because there were so few resources for what to do with them.
“A lot of people know how to make syrup [with berries] but don’t go beyond that,” says Normandeau. “A lot of people say, ‘What do I do with this?’ and a lot of times, I was only seeing baking recipes, generally something with sugar. I tried to do savory recipes and small-batch preserves, because these berries are foraged goods, so you don’t get a bumper crop with them. You’re gonna get maybe one bucket. These recipes make finding small amounts of precious berries more accessible, and so there’s not so much spoiling. These berries have been around forever, but people are starting to want to do something with [them], and I find that so exciting.”
Normandeau understands that people want to make sweet things with their berries. Preserves in particular are so popular because of, well, the very nature of berries themselves. They have great-tasting juice and are often too soft to handle for too long, so crushing them into a sweet preserve is the surest way to highlight their best qualities.
“I love making jelly,” says Normandeau. “Most of my berry preserve recipes are jelly recipes, because berries have a great level of pectin for setting jelly and most berries have lots of seeds that people don’t like to eat. People freak out about making jelly, but it’s really not hard.”
Normandeau forages for berries like haskaps, saskatoons, chokecherries and currants, the last of which are traditionally used to make jelly because of their high pectin content. Her method for preserving these wild berries, which you can use for the big four as well, couldn’t be simpler.
“It’s nothing revolutionary,” Normandeau says. “Basically, I cover the berries with water, simmer at a low temperature until they burst, then run them through a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth so only juice comes through. You don’t want to press hard; otherwise, you won’t get clear juice — and this can take a few hours. Making jelly isn’t harder than making jam, but you need to take the extra time.”
Someone who has spent many hours learning the intricacies of preserving berries is Camilla Wynne, the author of “Jam Bake,” a cookbook all about preserving fruit and then using it to make wonderful, inventive desserts. She once had a jam-making business called Preservation Society but now develops recipes and teaches jam-making and baking online. Her favorite aspect of berries is, ironically, one of the things that’s least desirable to most people in fruit preserves.
“I love seeds in berry jams,” says Wynne. “Whenever I see a seedless jam, I think, ‘Why?’ I would take extra seeds if I could.”
As for her favorite berries to preserve, the variance of wild ones native to the upper parts of North America paints a different picture than the big four in Southern California.
“Black currants are my favorite, but unfortunately, they’re inaccessible to U.S. cooks,” Wynne says. “It’s a shame you don’t get currants in the U.S., because they’re so high in acid, high in pectin, so they’re great on their own or for adding to other jams. But there are also so many berries that grow wild and are so regional to America. Blackberries and huckleberries in the Pacific Northwest, for instance. It’s amazing that you can fairly well re-create the flavor of black raspberries by combining blackberries and raspberries in a jam.”
That practice of combining floral, sweet berries with more tart varieties is on full display in her Summer Pudding Jam, so called because it combines the big four, which also happen to be the berries used to make the fruit sauce for British summer pudding. The sweeter blueberries and blackberries mix with the tart raspberries and floral strawberries in the ultimate berry jam. And Wynne has a simple method to making the jam.
“Honestly, do you ever cook things just because they’re all the same color?” Wynne asks with laughter. “I came up with the jam because I was growing lots of berries but I didn’t have enough to make jam out of any single one. But I knew from making desserts that all berries do taste good together. They all have varying levels of acidity, so they play off each other well. The tiny seeds of strawberries, larger seeds of raspberries — once combined, they create an uber-berry. They come together to become more than the sum of their parts.”
Wynne recommends starting with this recipe, because it’s also easier to make.
How to find pectin in your fruit and use it to give your jellies the proper set.
“Strawberry jam is what people start with because it’s most loved, but it’s also the most difficult to make,” says Wynne. “They’re low in pectin and low in acid, so they don’t cut the sugar as well. And they foam formidably, which can be scary. So I fear people are often discouraged when they start [making jam] because of this, but combining them with other berries helps with that.”
Wynne has other tips for currantless jam makers this side of the border that help the berries transform into better jams and jellies by filling in the gaps that nature may have left out.
“I puree one-third of my blueberry jam because blueberries don’t break down very well, and they don’t have much pectin,” says Wynne. “So pureeing some of the berries helps the jam to more easily ‘catch a gel.’ I do that with sour cherries too — anything that stays rather intact and doesn’t have high pectin levels. Adding citric acid helps a lot too. Raspberries have great acidity on their own, but not other berries, so adding citric acid to them brings back that fresh fruit vibrancy in a really remarkable way. It also helps balance their sugar and give a fresher taste, since cooking dulls berry freshness. Citric acid helps bring it back.”
Speaking with Wynne, Normandeau and Karp gave me great insight into how specialized and unique berries really are. Though blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries — and all their countless hybrids and varieties — may taste wildly different and contain different properties, they work across their “family” in much the same way that other fruits work within their own species.
Combining different types of stone fruits, apples and citrus makes for more interesting preserves with depth of character. Berries do the same by mingling with other berries that help balance them out, giving them a little of what they’re missing to make them better.
When I thought about how to make the jelly of my dreams, I took that advice and applied it to preserves. Starting with blackberries was the obvious choice, as I find them the most dynamic and complex in flavor — a trip to pick ripe marionberries in Oregon 14 year ago cemented my love for that particular berry as well.
But unlike Wynne, I don’t much care for seeds, so getting rid of the blackberry’s large seeds was more impetus for me to turn the fruit into a delicious jelly.
A journey toward jelly
First, I start with the best blackberries I can find and combine them with half their weight in green apples, like Granny Smiths, which are very high in pectin. You can use powdered pectin, of course, but if you’re making jelly the old-school way, go really old-school and leach the pectin from the fruit the way preservers did before powdered pectin became a thing. Plus, the flavor of the apples’ skins and cores further helps balance the amount of sugar you’ll need to make jelly.
I then cover the fruit with water and simmer it until it has given up every last drop of juice and flavor as well as the pectin from the apples. Next, I pour the fruit in a colander or sieve and let it drain for a few hours — or overnight if you want to divide the work into two days — to allow every bit of moisture to drain from the solids.
Once I have that pectin-rich, juice-packed liquid, I strain it one final time through a cheesecloth-lined sieve. This may seem unnecessary, but in jelly making, you want a clear, gemstone-quality clarity — and this final step helps achieve that.
Finally, I combine the berry liquid with sugar, a hearty dose of lemon juice and a pinch of salt. The sugar helps sweeten the berry liquid appropriately and helps with its final set, so don’t try to add less — if you want a low-sugar jelly, you might as well just drink fresh juice. And the lemon juice balances that sugar further and reacts with the pectin to make it set well too. Once those ingredients are mixed together, simmer the liquid until it has been reduced and has the proper proportion of pectin and juice — and balance of tartness and sweetness — to make the perfect jelly.
My final touch is optional but highly recommended. Jelly needs a lot of sugar to work, but the answer to taming its sweetness isn’t to use less but to add other ingredients that help balance it out.
The lemon juice does that a little, but I like to add a shot of booze to cut the sugar and provide a backbone to the jelly that highlights the flavor of the blackberries as well. Bitterness is the one flavor missing from the jelly equation, so I reach for an amaro to add its unmistakable, pleasant astringency to the sweet jelly.
The result is a fruit preserve that says to the berry, “I want to help make you an even better version of yourself,” then delivers on that promise. That it reaches that potential in jelly — an oft-maligned, déclassé preserve — makes the success even sweeter.
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