A Southern cook spreads his lifelong love of jam with an easy, four-ingredient recipe
My love affair with making jam and jelly started with a dollop and swirl. When I was growing up in Mississippi, my family always had jars of local muscadine jelly in the pantry for scooping onto steaming hot biscuits, toast, or into a bowl of plain, instant grits. The deep, purple jelly bled light pink into the white porridge, masking its often bitter flavor with fruity sweetness. Learning how to make fruit jam meant introducing a hint of the lavish life in a very thrifty home. Its delicate grape jelly taste was all I knew until I tried commercial strawberry and blueberry offerings from the likes of Welch's and Smucker's—made with fruit juice, plenty of corn syrup, and pectin.
I began squirting grape jelly from plastic packets onto my Egg McMuffins with glee. I relished opening those cubes of diner jelly, peeling back the golden cellophane to reveal the jiggler ("mixed fruit" was my favorite) and spreading it over my cheese-stuffed omelet at Waffle House. And I, like every red-blooded American child before and after me, used it as a foil to the not-unpleasant dryness of a peanut butter sandwich. My sweet tooth was born from this love of jelly, and that love was deep and gloppy.
This affinity for bad fruit spreads may have started me on my course as a lover of all sweets, but real fruit jams—made simply and with the best fruit I could find—kept me there. Real jam is fruit’s highest calling, especially in summertime, when it’s made in massive batches to preserve the glut of produce before it spoils. In the cold, less generous months, those summer-made jams are the lighthouse that gets me through the winter until spring's first strawberries arrive. The bright, sweet jolt of jam cuts through the richness in roasted game meats. It adds elegance and a perceived healthy-ish-ness when spread over morning toast, scones, and biscuits. And slathered between tiers with whipped cream, it gives layer cakes a reason to exist.
A few years ago, while working as a pastry chef in San Francisco, I developed my own easy formula for how to make jam because I loved eating it ,and wanted to make my own from the gallons and gallons of seasonal fresh fruit the restaurant got and couldn’t possibly use up. Like many people starting a new project, I was intimidated by the use of store-bought pectin and craved a more relaxed, romantic way to get my jam fix. Through years of experience of candy making, I knew that sugar, when proportioned just right with water, has enough ability to thicken anything as pectin does—but you'll never get that same hard-set, shearing effect. I wanted a product thin enough to spread easily over toast, but thick enough to not flow over the sides. What I came up with was an all-in-one jam-preserve-fruit butter hybrid that only has four simple ingredients.
The formula I developed for my jam goes a little something like this:
First, weigh your fresh, cut-up fruit and place it in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. I like apples, pears, plums, or peaches in wedges, figs quartered, and berries left whole. No need to be fussy about it; you want everything in bite-size pieces, which will hold up to long cooking, but also fall apart just enough to thicken the jam naturally.
Second, take one-third the weight of the fruit and add that amount of granulated sugar. Then, take one-third the weight of the sugar and add that amount of fresh lemon juice to brighten the fruit through all that sugar.
Next, lightly season the jam with salt, as if you were seasoning onions in a pot at the beginning of making soup: sufficiently but not overwhelmingly. (For about three pounds of fruit, I use about one teaspoon kosher salt.) Stir the fruit, sugar, juice, and salt together and let it sit for as long as you can possibly stand it, so that most of the water in the fruit can be drawn out and act as the conduit for the sugar to dissolve. I often let mine sit overnight in the refrigerator, but if you're in a rush, one to two hours is fine.
Then, place the pot over medium heat and stir and cook and stir and cook until the fruit begins sticking to the bottom of the pot. This is when you'll know that most of the moisture in the fruit is evaporated and only fruit matter and sugar remain. Some pieces will still be whole, but a lot will have fallen apart in a beautiful sludge bubbling under their own weight. Let the fruit cool completely, pack it in jars (for canning or not), then refrigerate the jam until set. Like most foods, this cooling and setting phase is crucial so as to give the jam time to set up chemically, but also gives flavors time to mingle a little more and get to know who they'll be sharing a jar with for the next two weeks.
Once you've mastered this formula, begin playing around with different sugars and acids to better suit the fruit you're using. I love honey and orange juice with figs, while brown sugar and grapefruit juice make an astounding strawberry jam. As any good Southern jam maker would, I also developed a pepper jelly using a mix of tomatoes and strawberries with sugar, orange juice, and a couple of chopped serrano chiles.
Fruits that don't fit our modern, harsh beauty standards, and those that are about to go too soft or overripe, are perfect for jam since shape is not important here. I'll often pick around the last bits of fruit at a farmers market before it closes, and take home all the busted and bruised babies I can carry for a fraction of what the whole beauties were selling for that morning.
Once the jam is made, I can it all, keep one jar for myself and give away the rest. After all, once you've fallen in love with jams—the secret to happiness, the distillation of summer feels, and the balm to life's ails, boiled down into one glorious glop—you'll want to spark the sweet tooth in everyone you meet.
Ben Mims is a food writer, recipe developer, and author of Sweet & Southern.