What's Actually in Grape Jelly?
"Is any food item more further removed from its source material than grape jelly? Not saying it's not tasty, but also ... nothing resembling the taste of an actual grape." This was the question my friend and former colleague Doug Gross posed on Facebook this morning and I am eager to be of use. In the mild defense of specifically Concord grape jelly, several years back I ate an actual Concord grape for the first time in my life and thought, Ohhhhhhh—that's what they were trying for. Good for them. Because there is a vague resemblance in the same way that if someone tells you they have a distant, famous relative you can kind of squint and see it a little around the nose and mouth.
Most jellies—your bigger brands like Welch's, Smuckers, 365, Polaner—are specifically labeled as Concord, and there is Concord content within, in the form of Concord grape juice. Quick refresher on what jelly actually is: Jam is made by mashing or cutting whole fruit and cooking it down with sugar. Jelly is made with juice or by straining out the solids (like pulp and skins). So having grape juice in your jelly isn't a cop-out, but rather crucial to its identity.
It may be the addition of the other ingredients that has deepened the flavor chasm. I scanned a slew of conventional grape jelly labels and while Concord grape juice is almost invariably the first thing listed, it's often followed by high fructose corn syrup and corn syrup (for sweetness), pectin (which makes it gel), citric acid, and sodium citrate (both of which add tanginess). Counter that with a basic homemade Concord grape jelly recipe that just includes grapes, sugar, and possibly lemon juice, and you see why there might be a disconnect.
Am I saying that Doug should either adjust his expectations of commercial grape jelly so he does not fall into a sarlacc pit of flavor sadness each time he spreads some on his toast, or go to the trouble of sourcing a flat of Concord grapes and putting up a big-enough batch to ferry him through until the next season? Those are a couple of possibilities, sure, but I might also suggest that Doug look toward organic grape jelly, which tends to deploy organic cane sugar rather than corn products for sweetness, and keep us posted on his findings. And I'm going to stop typing now before I make some terrible pun about what a grape idea that'd be.