When Jelly Won’t Jell

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Sound familiar?
Fired a with housewifely wish to see her storeroom stocked with homemade preserves, she undertook to put up her own currant jelly. John was requested to order home a dozen or so of little pots and an extra quantity of sugar, for their own currants were ripe and were to be attended to at once. As John firmly believed that `my wife’ was equal to anything, and took a natural pride in her skill, he resolved that she should be gratified, and their only crop of fruit laid by in a most pleasing form for winter use. Home came four dozen delightful little pots, half a barrel of sugar, and a small boy to pick the currants for her. With her pretty hair tucked into a little cap, arms bared to the elbow, and a checked apron which had a coquettish look in spite of the bib, the young housewife fell to work, feeling no doubts about her success, for hadn’t she seen Hannah do it hundreds of times? The array of pots rather amazed her at first, but John was so fond of jelly, and the nice little jars would look so well on the top shelf, that Meg resolved to fill them all, and spend a long day picking, boiling, straining, and fussing over her jelly. She did her best, she asked advice of Mrs. Cornelius, she racked her brain to remember what Hannah did that she left undone, she reboiled, resugared, and restrained, but that dreadful stuff wouldn’t `jell’.
She longed to run home, bib and all, and ask Mother to lend her a hand, but John and she had agreed that they would never annoy anyone with their private worries, experiments, or quarrels. They had laughed over that last word as if the idea it suggested was a most preposterous one, but they had held to their resolve, and whenever they could get on without help they did so, and no one interfered, for Mrs. March had advised the plan. So Meg wrestled alone with the refractory sweetmeats all that hot summer day, and at five o’clock sat down in her topsy-turvey kitchen, wrung her bedaubed hands, lifted up her voice and wept. Little Women – Louisa May Alcott

It happens to all of us – our “nice little jars” wind up with something more like syrup than jelly. Meg didn’t have the advantage of commercial pectin. I suspect the key to her problem is found in the line “their own currants were ripe.” When making jelly without pectin – home made or commercial – if at least one-quarter of the fruit isn’t under-ripe, jelly won’t jell. If you’re a lazy cook like moi, you simply call it syrup and use it to top ice cream, cake or pudding. If you’re made of sterner stuff, however, you may be able to rescue it with the following strategies. Always give your jam or jelly plenty of time to set up before deciding you’ve got a recipe failure. It may take commercial pectin a solid 48 hours to set up completely. By the way, I’m assuming that the jars sealed properly – if not, and they’ve been sitting on the shelf for a while before you discover the problem, consider it a failed cooking experiment and toss it out.

The first suggestion comes from a 1910 recipe scrapbook kept by a young woman named Mildred Mudge. “When Jelly Won’t Jell – When your jelly will not jell, and that happens to every cook at times, do not turn it back into a saucepan to cook it over; that breaks the little **missing text** (I suspect the word is bonds or strands) that have formed even though not enough to make jell, and you will have at best a sticky, stringy mess; but take a large dripping pan, half fill it with water, set your undisturbed glasses of jelly in it, not close enough to touch, put into a hot oven, and let them bake till sufficiently jelled. It sometimes takes three-quarters of an hour, but the jelly will cut as smooth and clean as though stiff enough at first cooking. In making jellies, if they will not jell easily, add a pinch of powdered alum. The result is a fine, firm jelly.”

If you decide to rescue the recipe, remember you can’t remake more than 8 cups at a time – anything more than that is too large an amount to thoroughly heat the pectin. Pour the jam into a low, wide pan like a stainless steel skillet. Whisk ¼ cup of sugar and a tablespoon of commercial pectin together, then whisk it into the jelly. Stir until the sugar and pectin mix has dissolved. Let it sit while you prepare your jars and lids as you normally would when making jelly. We’re not going to water bath, so don’t worry about having a pot for that purpose. Bring the jam to a boil over high heat and boil for 5 to 10 minutes. Stir constantly. You should be able to see or feel the jelly becoming thicker. Once you feel it’s ready, pour into jars, apply new lids and fasten the rings. Give it 24 hours and test the seals.

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2 Responses to When Jelly Won’t Jell

  1. littleleftie says:

    I had my black currant jelly not set a few years ago—my first ever attempt at making jelly instead of any type of jam—and I ended up calling Bernardin and got their instructions on how to save it using commercial pectin. Worked, to be sure, but was a huge pain in the butt to have to re-do it all.

    My question—slightly off topic—is about pickling beets. Bee, do you water bath those? Honestly, I never have, in over 45 years of canning. But each recipe that I have read lately online reads to water bath the jars for 30 mins. I heat the prepared beet slices in the brine liquid until almost boiling…and jar immediately. My bottles have always sealed well. Thoughts????

    • Bee says:

      I can’t give you a definitive answer on this one. I can’t find any independent comparative research on the issue specific to pickled beets. I know for plain beets (a low acid vegetable) the recommendation has always been to pressure can, and that does make good sense to me. Once you pickle, you change the acidity. All of my sources do say to waterbath the pickled version. When I make pickled beets, I ferment them and store in the fridge – no waterbath. I only make the sliced version and I don’t make very much, because I’m the only person in the family who likes beets. I’ve never had any problems, either. So maybe it’s really not necessary and maybe we’ve just been lucky – no way to know for sure.

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