I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with muscadine jelly.
On the one hand, I love its gorgeous ruby-red color, and can't get enough of the sweet-tart flavor that's delicious on biscuits, bread, and - let's face it - straight off the spoon. But I wouldn't know anything about that. Of course.
But having recently canned batch #3 of jelly made from muscadines I picked late this summer, I'm beginning to get a tad frustrated. Considering the large number of folks out there canning jellies here there and everywhere, I expected it to be easier. But I'm learning that making jelly is truly an art form. The process is relatively simple - bring juice, sugar, and pectin (a natural thickening agent) to a hard boil, keep boiling for a certain amount of time, then ladle into clean glass jars and process in a water bath canner. What could go wrong? A lot, it turns out. Batch #1 was muscadine-flavored syrup. Batch #2 turned out almost rock-hard - I can literally turn the jars upside down and nothing moves. Batch #3 is the best so far, but it's still on the "loose" side of jelly. So what happened?
Jelly-Making Mistake #1: Upsetting the Delicate Pectin-to-Sugar Ratio
Jelly-making requires very precise measurements, unlike so many other types of cooking. A good jelly recipe has the ratio of sugar-to-juice exactly balanced to the type of pectin it calls for, and how much. For instance, you cannot substitute liquid pectin for powdered, or vice versa. And you must use EXACTLY the amount of sugar called for, unless you are using low- or no-sugar-added pectin. Silly me, on my first batch of jelly, I think I added the five cups of sugar. I kind of lost count. Note to self: Premeasure the sugar and pour into a bowl before turning on the stove.
Jelly-Making Mistake #2: Not Understanding What a "Hard Boil" Really Means
Most jelly recipes call for bringing your juice, sugar, and pectin mixture to a "hard boil," then boiling for one minute. A hard boil is not what happens when you make pasta or boil-in-a-bag rice. A hard boil is one that "can't be stirred down," as so many canning reference websites phrase it. If you stir the jelly mixture and the boil goes away, even a little, it's not boiling hard enough yet. Seriously.
Plus, if you're using liquid pectin, the recipe will call for you to bring the juice and sugar to a hard boil, then add the pectin and boil for one minute. Make sure the mixture returns to a hard boil before counting down that one minute. For batch #1, I was so anxious to start counting my one-minute boil that I didn't wait for it to return to a hard boil. And on batch #3, with no grandmothers to call with canning questions, I found myself googling "should I let jelly return to a hard boil after adding liquid pectin" on my iPhone with my left hand while stirring with my right. It's not easy and I don't recommend it!
Jelly-Making Mistake #3: Trying to Ditch Pectin Altogether Without a Candy Thermometer
"It must be the pectin," I told myself after batch #1. "That's why my jelly is terrible. They didn't have prepackaged pectin 100 years ago! Who needs pectin anyway?!"
Yes, you can make jelly without prepackaged pectin. It's naturally occurring in many fruits - especially apples - and using some underripe muscadines in the jelly adds an extra punch of natural pectin. When using this method, you simply stir the mixture for a really long time, until it reaches the "jelly stage." At sea level, the "jelly stage" is 220 degrees F. So, without pectin, you can boil the jelly mixture until it hits the right temperature, then process in your canner.
I didn't have a candy thermometer. So, there are a couple of ways to test if your jelly is ready. The one I chose involves inserting a cold spoon (from the freezer) into the mixture and watching to see if it "sheets" off the back of the spoon. Again, without a grandmother, it's not that easy to know the real meaning of "sheets," just like it isn't that easy to know about a "hard boil." (I'm learning that canning has its own vocabulary!) And this is how I ended up with rock-hard "jelly." Apparently my jelly was sheeting already, but I didn't know it. Sigh.
So, attempt #4 is coming up soon, along with an attempt to redo batch #3 by adding some additional pectin, cooking again, and processing again in fresh jars. We'll see what happens!
For more information on making jams & jellies, see this guide from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.