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For nearly five years I worked at a wonderful food job that kept me mostly behind a desk. I’d spend my days researching ideas, editing recipes, and writing about food—by evening, I was famished. Not just because I’d spent all day thinking about food… It was more than that: I was hungry to cook.
I lived alone, but I had plenty of friends and neighbors to share in my spoils, so I set out to teach myself to make everything I could from scratch. From sourdough breads to spice blends to my own ketchup—I was obsessed. It didn’t take long for this obsession to take a pointedly new direction: canning.
I had eaten homemade canned goods growing up, but had forgotten how intensely satisfying it is. Canning really does capture the best of season so that you can keep a little of it on your shelf.
Before long, I was sweet-talking my way into the back at my market to pick out cases of Concord grapes. I spent hours sorting through seconds at the farmer’s market to find the perfect too-ripe peaches. And I bought a ton of mason jars. I mean, a ton. I ran out of places to store the finished products. I knew I was officially crazy for preserving when my brother visited and went into my entertainment center searching for a DVD and came out with pickles in both hands.
While summer was my main preserving season (it can really be an almost full time job if you’re trying to get some of everything stored away for winter), I loved finding preserving tasks to keep me busy all year long. Enter marmalade: the best way to spend a wintry afternoon, bottling up the best citrus season has to offer.
Here's what you need to know:
- What is marmalade?
- Prep your equipment.
- Prep the fruit.
- Cook the marmalade.
- Transfer to jars.
- Can (or not).
I find that a lot of people use terms for certain sweet canned goods interchangeably. While this likely won’t bother anyone too much as they’re slathering their toast with the (literal) fruits of your labor, there are a few differences in worth noting.
- Jam: made from whole fruits, cooked with sugar until the mixture reaches spreadable consistency yet still chunky; can contain added pectin, but doesn’t have to (depending on the amount of natural pectin in the fruit)
- Jelly: made with the juice of fruits, cooked with sugar to spreadable consistency; can contain added pectin, but doesn’t have to (depending on the amount of natural pectin in the fruit)
- Preserves: refers to whole or chopped fruit that has been canned, either in its own juices, in syrup, or in water; preserves made from small fruits can have a spreadable consistency and a texture similar to that of jam, while preserves made from larger fruits aren’t necessarily spreadable
- Conserve: usually made from multiple types of fruit, often with other additions such as dried fruits or nuts; has a chunky, spreadable consistency similar to jam
- Marmalade: made in a technique most similar to jelly, but containing chunks of fruit; traditionally made with citrus, marmalade includes the zest along with some chunks of the fruit itself; the addition of the skin of the fruit gives marmalade a slightly bitter flavor along with its sweetness; because of the high level of pectin in citrus skin, marmalade doesn’t usually have added pectin
It’s important to remember that most recipes for preserved fruit products contain a large quantity of sugar; that’s because it’s the preserving agent! There are recipes for lower-sugar jams, jellies, and marmalades out there, but I’m still going old-school here, so the recipe contains a large amount of sugar.
This is one time where it’s wise not to improvise. It’s best to look for a recipe that’s been formulated to require less sugar, as the recipe is usually supplemented with a specific low-sugar brand of pectin to maintain proper thickness.
The main concern for making any preserved item is having a large pot—large enough to accommodate the fruit when it’s raw, and then large enough that the mixture can cook down efficiently to the proper texture.
It’s wise to have a heat-safe stirring utensil at hand, either a wooden spoon or a Silicone spatula. Just remember that some citrus fruits have a tendency to stain (talkin’ to you, blood oranges), so take that into account before selecting your heirloom wooden spoon.
Other equipment needs include a sharp knife for getting the most out of your citrus.
And if you want to can your marmalade (Do it! Do it! I promise it’s not scary!), you’ll also need basic canning tools: a large boiling water canner with a rack, canning jars, canning tongs (regular tongs will work if you don’t have). You’ll need to sanitize your jars and get everything ready. Check out this canning guide to get started.
The term marmalade is associated with citrus, and it's a slightly bitter spread due to the inclusion of citrus zest. Marmalade is made by cooking fruit juice, fruit pieces, and fruit zest with sugar until the mixture reaches the appropriate consistency. The zest is a crucial component in the marmalade, as it contributes to both the flavor, color, and texture of the final product.
The main way to make marmalade is to cut whole citrus fruits—zest, fruit, and juice all included—in small pieces. At its heart, this technique uses almost the whole fruit! It should be noted that if you make marmalade by this method, it’s recommended that you soak the fruit overnight in the amount of water designated by the recipe to soften the pith, which results in a better-quality marmalade. This is the most classic technique for making marmalade, and it works well. If you like it, go for it!
But it’s not the only way: Some citrus fruits have a larger ratio of pith to fruit, which would make for an excessively bitter marmalade. Grapefruits, for example: The zest and flesh is flavorful, but there’s a large amount of pith separating the two. To combat this, just peel the zest, then carefully cut the pith away from the fruit (as you do in the first stage of supreming a piece of citrus) and roughly chop the fruit, taking care to reserve the juices. Finally, cut the zest into thin strips (as thin as you can!) before adding them back to the prepared fruit and juices.
This method has become my favorite way to handle all kinds of citrus for marmalades, because it yields a really nice marmalade with that “just-right” balance of bitter and sweet. It also eliminates the overnight soaking period, which makes the whole process a little shorter.
Combine the fruit, any juices, zest, water, and sugar in a large pot. Bring the mixture to a simmer, stirring frequently, until the sugar dissolves. Attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pot and continue to simmer until the mixture reaches 220° F. At this point, check your marmalade to make sure it’s set.
I like to use the frozen plate test: Place a plate in your freezer before you begin the recipe. When the marmalade reaches 220° F, drop a small amount onto the frozen plate. It should gel immediately, appearing like a marmalade normally would—set with a spreadable consistency. If your marmalade isn’t set, continue cooking up to 224° F, checking again for set. Once the marmalade has passed the set test, it’s ready to be jarred.
I am obsessed with my canning funnel. You should get one. It makes life so much easier. If you don’t have one, you can just use a ladle, but you’ll probably be dreaming of how you wish you had a canning funnel while you do it.
Carefully ladle the hot marmalade into the sanitized jars. Leave 1/2 inch of headspace between where the marmalade ends and the top of the jar.
Wipe away any drips on the inside or outside of the jar—these can prevent the jars from sealing appropriately! Apply the lids and rings and seal the jars carefully.
I like to go all out and finish my marmalade in a boiling water canner. It’s really not as scary as it sounds, and it means I can store all my beautiful marmalade at room temperature. If you don’t want to can your marmalade, just let your marmalade cool to room temperature, then transfer the jars to the refrigerator. They’ll keep in there for up to 3 months (the same shelf life as any opened jam/jelly/marmalade).
But if your refrigerator space is as precious to you as a certain ring is to Gollum, canning may be the way to go. Your canner should still be set up from sanitizing your jars and lids. Make sure it’s at a hearty simmer, and use your canning tongs/tongs to return the jars to the pot. The jars should be fully covered in water, and they should be on the rack inside the pot (not touching the base of the pot). Bring the water back to a full boil. Boil the jars of marmalade for 10 minutes. Turn the heat off of the canner, and let the jars sit in the water for 5 minutes more. Remove the jars carefully from the water and allow to cool to room temperature on a wire rack. It’s important to not disturb the jars during this process—and it’s ideal to leave them at least 10 to 12 hours before moving them. If you want more details on the whole canning process, refer here again!
Once they’re cooled, check the seals by pressing your finger on the top of the lid. It shouldn’t move at all: If it does, the jar hasn’t sealed properly. If it doesn’t move, you’re ready to open or store your jars!
Once the jars have cooled, it’s best to store them in a cool, dark place—no excessive light or heat. Stored properly, the marmalade will last up to one year. Once you open a jar, store it in the refrigerator, where it will keep for up to 3 months.