Saturday, October 9, 2010

'j' is for jelly

Or is it jam? Or marmalade? Or preserves? What the heck is the difference between all these things anyway? Let's investigate!

The first place I usually turn when embarking on food research is On Food and Cooking - The Science and Lore of The Kitchen, by Harold McGee. The book is a veritable treasure trove of scientific and historical facts for hundreds of culinary ingredients. According to Mr. McGee, the first sugar preserves were likely to have been pieces of fruit submerged in honey or the boiled-down juice of wine grapes.

Sugar, like salt, makes the fruit "inhospitable to microbes: it binds up water molecules, and draws moisture out of living cells, thus crippling them." Yikes! It appears that our sweet sugar has a Dark Side! He praises the sweetness, consistency and color of fruit preserves, noting that Nostradamus once described the color of a quince jelly as "so diaphanous that it resembles an oriental ruby" (Hmm...I have a feeling we will learn more about 'quince' a bit later in our alphabetical journey).

But what about the distinctions between the various types of fruit preserves? Fear not! Further research has revealed the following:

Jam - is made with whole fruit that is cut into pieces or crushed. The fruit is combined with sugar and heated to release the fruit's pectin, which acts as a setting agent. (Not to be confused with a secret agent.) The mixture is cooked until it is soft and easily spreadable.

Jelly - is a translucent fruit spread. The process of making jelly is similar to that of making jam, but with the additional step of straining out the fruit pulp after the initial heating. A muslin bag is typically used as a filter. The bag is suspended over a bowl by a string to allow the straining process to occur slowly and naturally, using gravity. Forcing the straining process will result in a jelly lacking in perfect clarity.

Preserves - are a bit trickier to nail down. The term is sometimes used to describe any fruit preserve (jelly, jam or marmalade), but is also know to mean a type of jam that includes larger pieces of fruit.

Marmalade - its roots probably lie in Portuguese quince paste (marmelada), but today the British-style marmalade is typically made from citrus fruits; orange is the most popular. The process of making marmalade is similar to that of making jam, but the citrus peel is included in the mixture to provide it with its distinct tang.

So you would like to sample them all you say? Well you're in luck! The French company Bonne Maman makes wonderful preserves, jellies and marmalade in over a dozen flavors. It should also come as no surprise that I'm more than a little curious about some of the savory options available (jalapeno jelly? port wine jam?) and can't wait to embark on that quest.

Did you know that these delightful fruit spreads have provided inspiration to many musicians over the years? It's true! As evidence, I leave you with jam, marmalade, and jelly. Enjoy!


  1. Jalapeno jelly is great on cheese... like a gruyere.

  2. You've never had jalapeño jelly??? Silly ex-Texan!

  3. Your most prolific month since Sep '09. Is this a sign of things to come?

  4. This is great! I just made a sweet and sour pepper jelly that uses peppers. (I also like to draw. :) thanks for this!

  5. Thank you so much!! I just took a quick tour of your blog and it's wonderful! I'm going to add you to my blogroll and am looking forward to reading more of your posts. I'd love to try your recipe for sweet and sour pepper jelly too! :v)

  6. Oh okay now I see the recipe right there on your most recent post! Yay! It looks delicious! :)

  7. Hi there, this is Emily from EZ's Recipes coming over to check out a fellow Kansas Citians' food blog! Fun blog! Nice to "meet" you!

  8. Thanks so much Emily - nice to meet you too! Your blog is really wonderful - I loved your post about the many health benefits of pumpkin seeds! Yay for pumpkins! : )

  9. Hello and thanks so much for stopping by La Lamp Shade today!


    If the Lamp Shade Fits

  10. Thanks Raina! La Lamp Shade is most fabulous! : )