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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