It all starts with a bubbling pot of fruit — peels, cores, and all — cooked down and strained slowly through jelly bags or folded cheesecloth, sometimes more than once. The rendered juice cooks up sweet, clear, and silky. Poured into jars, it firms up. And the source needn’t be fruit: There’s a North Carolina tradition of making jelly from the juice of boiled corncobs.
SUCCESS SECRETS “Making jelly is a pain!” jokes Ruth Taylor, a product manager at IBM who moonlights in her commercial kitchen in Apex as the creator of Mrs. Ruth’s Jams. “Prizewinning jelly needs to be absolutely clear,” says Taylor, who has the blue ribbons to prove it. Well-made jelly is translucent and bright, free of bubbles, haze, and any trace of fruit. A good jelly will tremble slightly when poked. Getting a perfect, clear batch is a drip-by-drip process that can’t be rushed. Even a gentle squeeze of the jelly bag can turn an otherwise lovely batch cloudy.
BEST SERVED Jelly can appear on tables from breakfast to dinner, a spreadable form of sweet or heat. Pastry chef Ashley Capps of Asheville’s Buxton Hall Barbecue once made a cava jelly for New Year’s Eve that was so spectacular, it became part of a tasting menu’s dessert. “It was this glossy, iridescent, beautiful spoonful of jelly,” she recalls wistfully.
Jelly’s first cousin is easier to make because it’s jammed with fruit. Mushed, crushed, or macerated fruits become an amalgam of texture and flavor, but they must remain spreadable to be called jam. Our culinary ancestors threw into the pot whatever fruits were on hand — the last of the strawberries tasted even better with the plums that were just coming off the tree.
SUCCESS SECRETS Taylor grew up canning food with her mom. But not jam. “I hate to say this,” she laughs, “but my dad just liked Smucker’s.” Getting the right ratio of fruit pieces to juice can be tricky. She recommends that first-time canners start with a simple freezer jam, using fresh strawberries from a nearby you-pick field. “It’s a very basic recipe,” she says. “Absolutely simple. It’s pretty hard to mess up.”
BEST SERVED A biscuit never had a better dance partner. But Chef Capps loves jam in desserts, too. She suggests swirling a few dollops of strawberry jam into homemade ice cream or piling chunky peach jam onto a warm sticky bun. She streaks violet-colored plum jam through pound cake batter to give an old standard new appeal. “I would serve that with a nice spoonful of the plain plum jam,” she says, “and some soft whipped cream.”
You know you’re digging into a jar of preserves if you have to spoon it onto your toast. More syrupy than jams and jellies, preserves feature pieces of fruit that you can recognize — half a cherry here, a slice of peach there. Make it with citrus and peels, and you’ve got marmalade. Whatever fruit you use should be delicately suspended in a thick syrup that will soak into toasted crannies.
SUCCESS SECRETS Making fruit preserves is a science. Don’t mess with the recipe’s sugar/acid/pectin/fruit ratios, or you’ll end up with jars you either can’t eat (think botulism) or don’t want to. Your USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning should be properly stained and dog-eared from use. Even with the correct ratios, every cook has a trusted trick for testing doneness — from observing how quickly the hot syrup runs down a cold paper plate to watching when the drips “sheet” off a spoon and combine into one. Some canners add a slice of lemon to all of their preserves to naturally bump up the pectin and add a bit of zest.
BEST SERVED During spring and summer, Chef Capps and her team at Buxton Hall put aside some of the rhubarb, blackberries, black raspberries, and plums that they use for pies, and they make preserves. By midwinter, when she’s had her fill of chocolate and nuts and spices, her rows of jars are a perfect pick-me-up. “I get sad in the winter. I need fruit in my life,” Capps says, laughing. The jars are labeled “For Winter Blues,” and when she pulls one off the shelf, she knows, “I’m going to make something awesome.”
Fruit butter is made by cooking whole fruit — stem to seeds — and pureeing the mixture until it’s satiny-smooth. The fruit gets one more slow cook with sugar and spices before it’s ready to glide across bread.
SUCCESS SECRETS Nobody knows apple butter better than members of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Shelby, which hosts an Apple Butter Festival every October. For butters with just the right sweetness, congregants recommend Honeycrisp apples. “They’re juicy, firm, and they’re very meaty,” says Joan Fogle, festival chair. Last year, the church sold more than 2,000 fabric-capped jars, with proceeds going to local charities.
BEST SERVED Great on breakfast breads, but also a marvelous dinner companion: Try spiced peach butter on a baked sweet potato, or fig butter on roasted pork.