Last night was a big night for me. I made jam without added sugar for the very first time. This pear lemon jam is primarily sweetened with white grape juice concentrate; it achieves a set with the help of Pomona’s Universal Pectin.
Why did I do it?
I am not going to act like the food police and say that sugar is bad. I have been a sugar lover for my entire life and, somehow, I have been blessed with the capacity to easily metabolize as much of it as I want. Every time I have my glucose levels checked, they’re perfect — and really they have no business being so, given the excess of sugar in my diet. But lots of folks around me don’t have it so easy where sugar is concerned. I’d like them to have more options and, frankly, for the first time in my life, I’m feeling a little bit sugared out myself. I want to try something different. (Plus, I will be turning 45 in a couple of weeks and I am starting to rack up a long list of things that are changing as I get older. Moderating my sugar intake can’t do anything but help keep things in balance.)
Of course there’s no such thing as a truly sugar-free jam. It’s fruit, right? There’s all kinds of sweet in it. What I’m talking about here is cutting out the cups and cups of cane sugar, whether refined white or unbleached organic, that go into most preserves. I’m not going to start exclusively making (or posting) cane-sugar-free jams, but I do want to start experimenting with alternatives.
Cutting out the cane sugar raises interesting questions. Safety isn’t the issue — because it’s not the sugar in our jars that makes a recipe safe; it’s the acid level. Here, the acid level is high enough to keep the sealed jar contents safe and unspoiled, but this jam might not look great after a couple months. I’ve had low-sugar jams — strawberry, rhubarb, and, yes, pear — turn brownish in their jars over time, so I know I’m inviting discoloration here, too. Lots of sugar helps jams look lovely; it makes them shiny and helps them hold their color. The appearance of this jam is likely to go off, but I don’t know how long that will take or how bad it will be. We’ll see.
I also know that, after the jars are opened, the jam won’t keep as long in the fridge. Sugar helps open jars stay fresh, but I don’t know how big the difference will be.
Perhaps the most significant open question is whether, as I continue to experiment, I will like the flavor of preserves made without added sugar. Honestly, I expected this jam to be disappointing, and it’s not. It’s really good. It tastes just like what went into the jars: pear, lemon, white grape juice. (And I think that’s one of the main things to keep in mind with no-sugar jams: What you put into it is exactly what you’re going get out of it. So use the best, sweetest, most perfectly ripe fruit you can find. That’s critical for all jam, but doubly so here.) It’s a tad earthier than regular jam, but it’s definitely sweet enough for me. If no-sugar jam could always turn out this well, I might just switch for good and all. But I don’t know what weirdness lies in wait as I contemplate other recipes.
I hesitated to write out the instructions for this jam in the same way as usual: Do this, do that — Step 1, 2, 3. Because this is the first time I’ve made a jam like this, it felt like learning a new dance in the kitchen. The steps aren’t complicated, but you have to pay attention or you will trip. What I really wanted to do was simply describe what I did and invite you to join me in the dance, but I found that a first-person recipe-narrative was annoying to read. So. The recipe looks like most of the recipes I write; please just keep in mind that I’m at the very beginning of my learning about no-sugar jamming.
If you do want to join the no-sugar dance, I’m giving away a copy of a book that can help. You’ll find information about the giveaway at the end of the post.
No-Added-Sugar Pear Lemon Jam
4 pounds pears, peeled, cored, and simmered down to 3 cups mashed fruit (I used a mix of red and green D’Anjou)
1/4 teaspoon Splenda (this is so very optional)
1 cup white grape juice concentrate
3 teaspoons Pomona’s pectin powder
4 teaspoons Pomona’s calcium water
1. Sterilize 4 half-pint jars.
2. Finely slice one lemon, after removing the pithy core. (Truth be told, I used a Meyer lemon for this sliced lemon and a Eureka lemon as the second lemon, but I am going to recommend that you don’t use Meyer lemons in this recipe. That’s because Meyer lemons are less acidic than other lemons and I want to be sure the recipe stays well within Pomona’s guidelines for acidity.) I sliced my lemon as shown in How to Slice Citrus Fruit for Marmalade. (Briefly: Cut the lemon in half along the stem line, notch each half to remove the pithy center, turn each lemon half over, and slice it finely; the linked post shows photos of this.) Put the lemon slices into a small saucepan, cover them well with water, and simmer for ten minutes. Set aside. (Don’t discard the water!)
3. While the lemon slices are simmering, peel, core, and roughly chop the pears. Put the pears into a large, nonreactive saucepan and add the water in which you simmered the lemon slices. Squeeze the second lemon and add the strained juice to the mixture. (The squeezed lemon should yield at least 2 tablespoons of juice.) Bring the pear mixture to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to a gentle simmer. (All in all, you’ll simmer the mixture for 20-25 minutes, stirring as needed to prevent sticking or burning.)
4. As the pears are simmering, grind the lemon slices. (To do this, I rummaged around my cabinets until I turned up one of the oddest appliances I own: a mini food processor. I got it at a time when I was a dweller in tiny apartments and mostly it has been a bother. It’s too small to do much of anything except — grind a single lemon. Perfect.) Add the ground lemon to the simmering pears and stir well. As the mixture continues to simmer, periodically smush it with a potato masher.
5. This step is optional. If you feel panicky about sweetness, like I did, you can grab a packet of Splenda from the bottom of your purse and throw it into the mixture. (Actually, don’t throw it. Open it and take care with it, sprinkling it from high over the pot to distribute it well.) One packet is 1/4 teaspoon of Splenda. I know that now. What I don’t know is how much difference the Splenda made. It just made me feel better to put it in there.
6. When the pears are almost soft and the texture is close to what you want for your final jam, put 1 cup of concentrated white grape juice in a little saucepan and bring it to a boil. Transfer the boiling juice to a blender or VitaMix and add 3 teaspoons of Pomona pectin powder. Vent the lid and blend the pectin mixture for 1-2 minutes to thoroughly dissolve the powder. (This is the point at which you’ll really be dancing, because you have to continue to watch and stir your pears as you blend your pectin solution.)
7. Remove the pear mixture from the heat. Confirm that you have 3 cups of mixture. (If you have too much, set aside the extra and eat it like sauce! If you need a bit more liquid, you can add a touch of water.) Add 4 teaspoons of calcium water to the fruit mixture, stirring well. (The calcium is in the Pomona’s box with the pectin powder, along with instructions about how to mix it; it’s easy. I mix mine in advance and store it in the fridge for up to a couple of months.) Bring the pear mixture back to a boil and stir in the pectin solution. Cook the jam, stirring constantly, for exactly 1 minute. Bring it back to a boil (actually, mine never stopped boiling) and remove it from the heat.
8. Pour the jam into sterilized jars, wiping the rims clean before adding lids. Process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath. Ping. Ping. Ping. And ping.
Canning & Preserving Without Sugar — Book Giveaway
When I decided to learn about canning and preserving without sugar, I bought this book called, sensibly, Canning & Preserving Without Sugar. The book is out of print (last published in 1997), so I bought it from a seller of used books on Amazon. Somehow, though, I got trigger happy and accidentally ordered two copies. That’s good news, because now I can give away the extra one.
The book is full of inspiration for no-sugar canning. (It’s where I got the idea to try pear and lemon together, though the process I use is a mix of techniques discussed in the book and directions from the Pomona’s package insert.) The author discusses many different kinds of alternative sweeteners and includes jams, pickles, relishes — you name it. The book also offers a lot of information about preparing produce for freezer storage.
I did already find one bit of conflicting information. The book says that, when using a calcium-activated pectin, the calcium should not be cooked at all after it is added. But the Pomona directions say something different; you always add the calcium before the final boil. I called Pomona’s JAMLINE to check this out (how cool is it that they have a JAMLINE?) and was told that, while they were aware that some sources say not to cook the calcium, they don’t know why that is so. It’s fine to add it before the boil. So take that for whatever it’s worth to you. It doesn’t diminish my own fascination with this book.
If you’ve never canned without added sugar, how do you feel about it? Intrigued? Intimidated? Unmoved? If you’d like to give it a go, leave a comment saying so, and I’ll enter you in a random drawing for my extra copy. (Remember, it’s used — clean but not pristine.) I’ll choose the winner in one week, on March 12.