Why Good Marmalade Takes Time

Rangpur Lime Marmalade

A couple of weeks ago I went to a marmalade making class with Rachel Saunders at Blue Chair Fruit. It was a wonderful opportunity to spend an afternoon learning from someone who has been crafting beautiful marmalades for a dozen years.

These were my favorite things about the class:

  • It provided a thorough overview of what marmalade is and why it’s worth taking two or three days to make a good marm.
  • It left no doubts about how to cook marmalade — greatly reducing the chances of ruining three days’ work in the final five minutes. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever wrecked a batch of marmalade during the cooking phase. I’m waving both of my arms over my head.) This is where Rachel’s class really shines, giving students the opportunity to cook off four batches of marmalade and test them for doneness, with clear guidance every step of the way.
  • We got to hang out in a gorgeous professional kitchen, sampling marmalades, munching on fabulous snacks, and taking full advantage of Rachel’s knowledge. She encourages questions and offers thoughtful answers, making the class useful for marmalade makers at every level.

Blue Chair Fruit Marmalade Class

Because I’m already mad for marmalade and spend a lot of time steaming my head over a copper pot, my biggest takeaway from Rachel’s class was the ability to articulate an answer to something I’ve been wondering about for a long time: Why do I get the creepy crawlies every time I see a recipe for quick-cooked marmalade made with commercial pectin?

I have this aversion even though I am definitely not, as a rule, a packaged-pectin hater. Lately, I’ve been in a goofy phase where I want to throw pectin into all kinds of beverages to see whether I can make interesting jellies. (It’s easy and fun! Hard Apple Cider Jelly was my most recent experiment.) And I profoundly appreciate Pomona Universal Pectin for making low-sugar jams. Still, my head instinctively waggles no, no, no at the idea of “quick” marm.

It takes time for marmalades to develop their unique beauty, which lies in a slow-steeped, concentrated flavor. Here is how Rachel puts it in her Blue Chair Jam Cookbook:

Both jams and marmalades have an intense taste, but they arrive at it in opposite ways. Good jams are cooked as quickly as possible with as little sugar as possible, so as best to capture the essence of the raw fruit . . . . Jellies and marmalades take the opposite approach, achieving their strength through concentration. A good jelly or marmalade, instead of quickly “flash-cooking” its ingredients, cooks them slowly over a very long period of time (with marmalade, often days) in order to draw out every last drop of flavor and pectin from the fruit. Jellies and marmalades, while they taste intensely of fruit, do not taste of raw fruit at all.

For example, consider these three different citrus preserves . . .

Three Marmalades

In my little world of fruit, two of the above preserves are marmalades while one is a jam. It’s probably obvious which one is not like the others. The Rangpur lime-Meyer lemon concoction in front and the pure Meyer lemon to its right are classic marmalades — slow-made, more-or-less clear jellies with fruit solids suspended in them. The jar at the back is a Rio Star grapefruit jam, even though it contains the whole fruit — rind and all. What makes the grapefruit a jam is the way the fruit is processed and cooked. The grapefruits are simmered for two hours to thoroughly soften them, but then they are quickly blended in a food processor and cooked with sugar straight away. That’s a jammy thing.

On the other hand, if you want to make marmalade the traditional way, you’ll want:

  • the best fruit you can find
  • the right balance of that fruit with sugar, added water, and acid (lemon juice), and
  • the essential ingredient for creating the perfect balance . . . time.

When assessing a marmalade recipe, look for fruit you love; a rather high ratio of sugar to fruit (something close to 1:1 fruit/sugar weight will give you the best set); added water; and time. As you make more marmalade, you’ll come to understand why those last two elements are important. It can take one, two, or even three days for the full flavor of the fruit — and sufficient pectin — to infuse the water portion of the marmalade mixture. (Some fruits require quite a bit more time than others — and of course there’s such a thing as too much time. Oversaturating the fruit will make it mushy. Unless you know your fruit very well, follow the guidelines of  a trusted recipe. )

In short, time is necessary for the best flavor, texture, and set. Given proper care, your ingredients — the fruit solids, the sugar, the flavor- and pectin-rich liquid — will come together to make a marmalade that can’t be compared to any that was made in a hurry. Marmalade, old school. Sign me up.

Blue Chair Fruit Marmalade Class


I’ll end this post with a small confession: I really wanted to include a recipe for that Rangpur Lime-Meyer Lemon Marmalade pictured above. The marmalade turned out wonderfully, but my process was so ridiculous that it would be a joke for me to try to explain it. (I went through some absurd machinations to get the right balance of liquid and fruit while trying to cook the two different types of citrus evenly.) Usually I’ll make a recipe at least a few times before I post it here. In this case, it’s going to take a while, because I can’t just go out and get more Rangpurs. They’re kind of rare! I have to wait for the next crop to come in on my mom’s tree — unless I’m surprised by an unexpected source. Anyway, if you can get your hands on Rangpur limes (actually, a cross between a sour mandarin and a lemon), they’re fabulous for marmalades and beverages. And Rachel has a nice recipe for pure Rangpur Marmalade in her book.

When I get more fruit, I’ll work on the Rangpur-Meyer recipe and eventually post it here.

Rangpur Lime Meyer Lemon Marmalade

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  • Reply kaela February 5, 2011 at 8:51 pm

    You’re preaching to the choir, sista! :)

  • Reply meg February 5, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    Fantastic post! Can’t wait to give it a go. Your pictures are gorgeous as well!

  • Reply Lindsay February 6, 2011 at 4:19 am

    I really appreciate this! I’ve got a pile of blood oranges I’m about to marmalade and I’ll take any advice I can get. :)

  • Reply Sunchowder - Wendy Read February 6, 2011 at 7:55 am

    Gorgeous photos and post :)

  • Reply tigress February 6, 2011 at 8:05 am

    hey! perfect timing for this post. i have been bathing my ruby reds since yesterday. getting ready for the showdown right now… ;)

  • Reply Kate @Hipgirls February 6, 2011 at 9:50 am

    Sounds like a great class, thanks for sharing pics and for discussing old school marm. I love learning about why recipes are written as such!

  • Reply Susan February 6, 2011 at 10:05 am

    I also appreciate you sharing your class with us and knowledge. Awesome pictures….just want to reach out and steal a spoonful! Thanks

  • Reply kaela February 6, 2011 at 12:09 pm

    So here’s a marm question for you: most of the traditional recipes call for you to add fruit + water, simmer (for 5, 10, 15 or 20 minutes) then allow to sit overnight. Sugar is added the next day at the cooking stage.

    Ferber, being the contrarian that she is, basically uses her standard jam technique for her Clementine Marm: add fruit + sugar, bring to simmer, repeat on Day 2, then cook on Day 3.

    What’s your take on adding sugar during the soak? What does Rachel at Blue Chair do? I’ve got a Cara Cara Chile Marm on Day 1, that I am soaking in just water, but wondered if you’d ever tried the same recipe both ways (and noticed any difference).

  • Reply Shae February 6, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    So nice to see all of this marmalade love. Tigress, you know I am waiting breathlessly for Rubies to show up here. Last year we had them in January. All the citrus seems to be coming in a little slower this year.

    Kaela: Cara Cara Chile! OMG. I just started eating Cara Cara oranges this season, and I can’t stop. In fact, wait, I’m going to go get one right now . . . okay, I’m back. I saw your comment while I was starting out on a long drive home, so I had a few hours to reflect on it.

    None of Rachel’s recipes (that I have seen) add sugar before the soak. And I have never done the same recipe each way to compare. But you know I have made that Ferber clementine marm a bunch of times. And here’s what I’d guess: You know how the rind in that clem marm comes out like candy — chewy and super sweet? (It has for me, every time, even though I add extra water to the recipe.) I think that has to do with adding the sugar early. Because aren’t you essentially starting to preserve the fruit as soon as the sugar goes into the mixture? So, essentially, you are pushing back at the fruit, preventing it from freely leaching its properties into the liquid.

    I think the benefit of letting the fruit soak without the sugar is that the fruit has a chance to thoroughly mingle with the water, leading to a better texture (of fruit and jelly) and better flavor balance overall. I wonder, also, if the water-only soak makes it possible to use a little less sugar, because there’s more pectin in the water and not so much bound up in the fruit? That last thing is just a wild-ass guess, though. Make any sense to you?

  • Reply Julia February 6, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    This is, as everyone has pointed out already, a wonderful, beautiful, information-packed post. Thank you! I was just the other day thinking how tricky marmalade can be. How very long it can take! How it’s not until the end that it bubbles up fiercely and then becomes action time. I always think as it takes forever: this will never work, it’s ruined! And then, it does it’s thing. It’s all about the patience.

    Regarding the clementine marmalade: I think you’re right that the rind is in a candying phase when the sugar is added early on, and that’s why the jelly is added later on, because it needs the extra pectin boost.

    I love these jamming theory comments!

  • Reply kaela February 6, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    You know, the funny thing is I had no idea I was buying Cara Caras at my little organic market (or I might have bought more!). I just picked up a few extra (what I thought were regular navel) oranges to make a marm. When I sliced into them, I had to Google to find out what they were! Have to say, not *overly* impressed with the flavor, but it’s so hard out here on the East Coast; very hard to know when these guys were picked and how long they’ve been sitting around. Color is gorgeous though.

    As for the sugar; makes sense that the sugar could start ‘candying’ the fruit right away and lead to a chewier/tougher texture. *And* if it is chewy and firm, might there not be more pectin in there? I think I’m going to leave this one sugar-free until I’m ready to cook. Maybe if I get really ambitious (and find more Cara Caras) I’ll try it the other way too!

  • Reply Wild Plum Cottage February 6, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    Out of curiousity I once tried making orange marmalade with pectin – it was horrible. The last batch I made was a two-day process and is pure heaven. I’ll never make a quick marmalade again. Thanks for explaining the difference between the two.

  • Reply Mothercluck February 6, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    A terrific, informative post. Many thanks. Quite jealous of your time with Rachel Saunders. I’m still hoping she comes to LA!

  • Reply Meg H. February 7, 2011 at 4:39 am

    I have just begun to make marmalades and Rachel’s book is my bible! I have made her pink grapefruit-lemon marmalade as well as her Seville Cinnamon (but used a vanilla bean instead). Amazing! And while the 3 day process takes some time, it is well worth the work. So jealous you went to her class – I’m on the east coast. And love your blog – so inspired to keep making jams.

  • Reply The Turnbulls February 7, 2011 at 5:10 am

    I think a class with Rachel would be so awesome and it sounds like it was!! I’m more excited this year to make our marmalades than ever before…and, I’m starting to get really excited about visiting the sunshine state to see what kind of citrus we can get our hands on. It has been all we can do to wait.

  • Reply Cara Cara Chile Marmalada « local kitchen February 10, 2011 at 9:21 am

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  • Reply Denise | Chez Danisse February 14, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    These photographs are far too tempting. I’m now craving marmalade for no other reason than these photographs. I just ate lunch. I’m full. I think this might be one of those unnecessary desires ;)

    • Reply Shae February 16, 2011 at 4:48 pm

      Ah, but after lunch is dinner and then there is breakfast again. And there’s always snack. I’m glad you’re back, Denise. (I know, I said that already. But I am.)

  • Reply Val February 16, 2011 at 11:26 am

    I’ll be in San Francisco next month and am really tempted to take a class, but it would eat up most of a day … decisions, decisions.

  • Reply ecoteri May 17, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    Ok Gals. help me out here. I have about 6 jars of the most tasty Marmelade tar… in other words, the darn stuff has set so hard I cannot get it out of the jar, but it is tasty. What, for heavens sake, can I use this for. It sure ain’t designed to be spread on toast. the toast would be crumbs before the spoonful of sweet and tasty india rubber did much more than smear…

    I was so anxious to ensure I got enough pectin I think I massaged the cheesecloth bag with pips and rind for about 10 minutes too long. funny from this side, but I hate to waste!!!


    • Reply Shae May 19, 2011 at 8:21 pm

      I wonder whether you could very gently heat it, dilute it a touch, and then use it as syrup, sauce, or glaze?

  • Reply adam July 18, 2011 at 5:02 am

    After reading this blog you made me doubt the awesomeness of my 2 hr marmalade.

    Damn you!

    • Reply Shae July 18, 2011 at 9:58 pm

      Ha! Adam, I’m sure your two-hour marmalade is awesome. I may have a preference for traditionally made marmalade, but there are no jam police ’round here. :-)

  • Reply Elaine October 26, 2011 at 4:21 am

    My rangipur limes and meyer lemon are dropping fruit everywhere! You’ve inspired me to try and make a marmalade with them.


  • Reply Anne January 16, 2012 at 2:39 pm

    Dear Shae:

    I made the Italian Lemon Marmalade from the Blue Chair Cookbook. I followed all directions. Since I am new to all of this, I found it sweet then tart and the finish was very bitter. Is this the way it is supposed to taste? Commercial marmalades are available here in Buffalo, but not made by private establishments, so that is why I am asking. This was an expensive experiment. Any advice?

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    Hi Anne: I’ve never made this particular recipe and must admit that I’m not familiar with the Sorrento lemons it calls for. I’ll have to keep my eye out for those! I often find marmalades made with “typical” lemons like Eureka a little bitter but, when it comes right down to it, that’s all a matter of personal taste. For more guidance on this particular recipe, I’d recommend contacting the folks at BCF.

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