Frequently Asked Jam Questions

What is the difference between a jam, a jelly, and a marmalade?  

There will be disagreement, depending on where you live in the world, and don’t even get me started on conserves and preserves.  For now though, the general agreement on this continent is the following:

A jam is made with fruit, which is sometimes chopped finely, sometimes crushed, and sometimes cut into pieces.  The jam has a thick texture and pieces are generally evident.  Additional pectin may or may not be necessary according to the pectin levels in the fruit itself. 

A jelly is made by extracting the juice from various fruits, but mostly berries.  The juice is collected and then boiled with sugar.  As with jams, additional pectin may or may not be required to achieve a good set.

A marmalade is generally made using citrus peel which is softened by cooking and then cooked with sugar giving it its characteristic bittersweet taste.  The good marmalades have visible peel when you hold the jar up to the light.   The pips and pith in citrus provide the majority of the pectin.  Thus, marmalade recipes rarely call for added pectin.  

In terms of jams in the rest of the world, there is a tendency in USA to call jams, jellies, and marmalades “jelly”.  In France, jams are called “confitures”.  Only in England, and by extension, many of the Commonwealth countries, is a citrus-based, peel-containing preserve called marmalade.   For example, jam is called marmalade in Germany, marmelada in Greece,  marmalade in France, and marmellata in Italian.  

Relishes, Chutneys and Condiments

Relish is a pickled vegetable or fruit that is cooked with vinegar and sugar.  

Preserved Chutneys are sweet and savoury and generally contain fruit, onion, vinegar, sugar, and spices.  

Condiments are a general category of foods that are produced to enhance the taste of other foods.  In this case, I am including Indonesian Satay Sauce, and some savoury/sweet fruit jams such as Pickled Strawberry.  

Why do some jams foam while cooking?

Foam is merely air bubbles.  Some fruits cause more foaming than others – strawberries and peaches are particularly foamy.   Many recipes, including some from the Bernardin book, recommend adding at teaspoon of butter or margarine to the jam while it’s cooking as a solution. I did this once and found that a) it didn’t change anything, and b) the butter became rancid in the jar after about 8 months.  And my apricot jam was ruined.  

Not boiling rapidly helps and constant stirring. I have seen recommendations to skim while boiling but you are removing product every time you do this.  After I take a jam off the heat, I stir hard for 30 or so seconds which reduces some of the foam.  I then let it sit briefly and then skim with a flat spoon.  Get off as much as you can but know that you will rarely get it all.   For jellies, I let the jelly sit for 2 minutes before skimming.  The foam tends to form one blob which can be gathered up.  This is also how you know your jelly will set – that the foam forms a skin of sorts.  

Note – there will be someone in your family who likes eating the foam.  Save it for a day or two and see.

How do I get started making and preserving jam?

Let’s say you have never made jam or canned.  You go on a holiday to the Okanagan at the height of fruit season. You get caught up in the moment and buy way more fruit than you can eat.  NOW WHAT!! 

You remember your grandmother, making endless jars of preserves during the hot days of August.   And while you may not want to make hundreds of quart sealers of food, you think that maybe you could make some jam and perhaps can some peaches.   How do you proceed?   

It is important to understand what you are doing and why before you begin.  Canning is science and works to kill microorganisms before you jar the product, and then stop microorganisms from getting into the product while it is sitting on a shelf.

It is also critical that you used tested safe recipes.  There are a lot of recipes on the internet that encourage bad practice. It is always up to you to determine the level of risk you are going to take with food preparation, but in the beginning it’s best to use safe recipes.  I have included two books that are considered to have safe tested recipes.  These will cost about $40 and are both well regarded in the canning community.

The Bernardin Complete Book of Home Preserving (Ball in the US owns Bernardin)

The Complete Book of Small-Batch Preserving – Topp and Howard

If you can’t afford the books, or don’t want to wait to obtain them, the US Department of Agriculture has an excellent website that provides a lot of good information.  The reason I go to the USDA site is that the Canadian Canning website has little information and refers you to the USDA one.  The link is:

Now you are ready to make jam or can fruit.  Pick only the best fruit you can find – at the point of ripeness and not beyond.  Overripe fruit does not make good jam despite what you’ve been told.  The pectin has begun to break down at the moment of peak ripeness and you will have more setting issues.   Follow the methods as outlined in the recipe.  Read up about altitude and how it affects the processing time.  

Can I use Chai seeds as a thickener?

The quick answer is no.   Chia is a grain and grains are not considered safe for home canning.  The internet is rife with unproven and untested recipes and methods for jam making.  Grains affect the pH of the product, increase the possibility of contamination, and require different canning and longer processing.  Many of the recipes on the internet recommend that the jam is stored in the fridge and then only for 2 weeks maximum.  

Can I double the recipe on the Pectin box?

You want always to get as much water as you can out of the product while cooking.  Doubling no pectin jam recipes significantly increases the cooking time and thus, starts to caramelize sugars.    Also, for jams with liquid pectin, you would require a really big pot and I mean, industrial size, to contain it when it boils.  

Why does my fruit float in the jar?

This is a common occurrence with jams that have pieces of fruit in them.  Fruit contains trapped air which is lighter than the solution the fruit is in.   There are ways to minimize this but I have never found any of them to work well.  A simple fix is to stir the contents of the jar after opening.  

My jam or jelly didn’t set – now what?

Sometimes it can take a few days for the set to happen.  So patience is a factor.  However, if you leave it for a week, and it still has not set, I suggest opening the jars and reboiling adding ½ cup of sugar.  This has worked well for me.  Sometimes the fruit has too much water in it (you have no way of knowing this) and the pectin and sugar can’t take up enough of the water to get the set.   For a sheet that goes into the myriad of reasons for problems with jelly, refer to

Why is there liquid seeping out of the jelly I made?

Weeping jelly is most often caused by too much acid in the fruit or recipe in general. A low pH gel is very brittle and will squeeze water out, producing a liquid layer between the jelly and the glass. Solution: raise the pH. This can be accomplished by either omitting or reducing acidic ingredients or adding a buffer like Sodium Citrate.  However, for home cooks, by the time you make more, that fruit might not be too acidic.  Syneresis is the term that describes liquid oozing out of a large number of foods such as jams, jellies, sauces, dairy products, surimi and tomato juice, as well as meat and soybean products.

What is the difference between dry and liquid pectin?

I am reposting an article here by Fred Decker.   It explains it far better than I can.  

Jams and jellies often hold a special place in a cook's heart, preserving the rich flavors and aromas of the summer's fruits and berries to enjoy throughout the year. Many fruits or berries are rich enough in natural pectin so that you can simply boil them down until they gel, making an exceptionally flavorful preserve. Others require added pectin, which is sold commercially as a liquid or a dry powder. You can use either type of pectin successfully, provided you understand how to use them.

It must be noted though that they are not interchangeable.  Cookbooks and websites dedicated to jams and preserves bristle with warnings about substituting liquid pectin for dry -- and vice versa. The broad consensus is that it's a bad idea, and that the two are not interchangeable. There is a basis of truth in that assessment, but it's not completely accurate. It might be better to say that the cooking method required for each type of pectin is different. Rather than replacing wet with dry, or dry with wet, and following the original recipe's instructions, you must follow the appropriate technique for the type of pectin that you're actually using.

Liquid pectin is relatively easy to use. Combine the fruit and any other ingredients that your recipe requires in a large pot, bringing it to a boil. Dry pectin recipes indicate that you should hold back the sugar, but if you're using liquid pectin instead, you should stir it into the fruit and juice mixture while it's simmering. After cooking for the specified time, which can range from 10 to 30 minutes depending on the recipe, pour in the liquid pectin. Boil the mixture vigorously for one minute to fully disperse the pectin, then pour or ladle your jelly into sterilized jars.

If you're substituting dry pectin in a recipe calling for liquid pectin, you'll need to make similar but opposite adjustments. Set aside the amount of sugar as indicated in your recipe, then sprinkle in the powdered pectin with the fruit or fruit juice and bring it to a simmer. When the juice or fruit has cooked for as long as the recipe specifies, stir in the sugar and boil it vigorously for one minute. Stir it well as it boils to ensure that the sugar dissolves fully -- and then pour your jam into sterilized jars.

Whichever type of pectin you use, it works the same way in your jam or jelly. The fruit itself has some natural pectin, a sugar-like carbohydrate that makes up part of its cell walls. Those pectin molecules separate as you cook the fruit and are reluctant to reconnect partly because they attract water molecules, which stop the bonding. If you boil the juice vigorously to evaporate part of the water -- and bind up most of the rest by mixing it with sugar -- you remove that obstacle. Bring the mixture's acidity to a pH of 2.8 to 3.5 by adding some acid, and the pectin molecules will suddenly reestablish their bonds, making a soft and delicate gel that traps the jelly's liquids in place.

That reaction takes place very quickly once you achieve the correct conditions, which is why the two types of pectin are handled differently. Liquid pectin is ready to thicken immediately, so you can add it literally at the last minute once the jam or jelly has the right combination of sugar and acidity. Dry pectin must first rehydrate in the juice, dissolving and dispersing throughout the fruit mixture. When you add sugar at the last minute, the dissolving crystals bind up the bulk of the jelly's moisture in a matter of seconds and clear the way for the pectin to do its work.


On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee 

The Cook's Thesaurus: Thickeners 

Why don’t the new Bernardin lids work as well as the old ones? 

Preheating Bernardin® lids is not advised. The sealing compound used for our home canning lids performs better at room temperature than it does pre-heated in simmering water (180°F). Simply wash lids in hot, soapy water, dry, and set aside until needed. Preheating can lead to less vacuum being achieved during water bath canning, and to buckle failures during pressure canning.

How do I make sure everything is sterilized?

Here are the modern, up to date rules for sterilizing jars and lids for home canning, as of 2015 onwards.

You don’t need to sterilize jars anymore if your water-bath processing time will be over 10 minutes, or, if you are pressure canning. You can if you want to, but it’s wasted time that is best spent on ensuring safety in other ways;

Don’t sterilize or boil the canning lids. Since 1970, you haven’t needed to heat or sterilize the canning lids. You don’t even need to warm the lids any more, you can just use them room temperature;

It’s still recommended that you heat the jars, so you are not risking breakage by exposing the cold glass of the jar to hot contents and a hot canner. There are a variety of methods by which you can heat them, provided the end result is a heated jar;

You never needed and still don’t need to sterilize the canning screw-band rings. They don’t touch any food.

Should I leave the rings on the jars after I’m sure there’s a set?

Many people take the rings off the jars to store because the only purpose of them is to hold the lid in place while the sealing process takes place.  Some have reported that water gets trapped between the ring and the jar and causes rust.  I leave them on for ease mostly.  They are generally loose enough to dry out over time if water is trapped.  And you need the rings once you open the jar to eat the product.  

How do I strain fruit to extract the juice for jelly making?

You can use several methods.  I put cheesecloth in a colander and strain for about 2 hours.  I find you get really clear juice this way.  There are jelly bags made for this purpose that are sold with a stand.  Throughout time, canners have used a clean pillowcase hung between two chairs to strain the juice – make sure you didn’t use fabric softener.  A Coffee filter will not work because it is too fine and the juice won’t go through.  Some people use pantyhose.  Whichever method, remember not to squeeze the bag – it will result in cloudy juice.

Can I use Jello to set jam?

Jello is made from pig’s bones and thus, contains protein.  This is unsafe for home canning.  

Why did my jam crystallize?

One cause is insufficiently dissolved sugar granules (i.e. turning up the heat to boil the preserve before the sugar crystals have melted). With warm sugar it's more likely that the sugar will dissolve quickly and thoroughly. I don't think there's any particular chemistry in it, but warming the sugar reduces the cooking time to reach the jell point. That improves the odds of a good set without an overcooked taste. 

When putting the sugar into the fruit, take care not to get sugar onto the side of the pot.  This is like fudge – one crystal can affect a whole batch.