Last year my youngest daughter fell in love with grape jelly, specifically my mother's homemade grape jelly made from Virginia Concord grapes grown on her friend's backyard vines. And this was fine with me because my mother Linda sends us several jars of the stuff each year. But as my daughter has grown, so has her appetite for grape jelly, and I knew that I would eventually need to learn how to make my daughter's favorite toast topping.
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I was not excited about this prospect for a number of reasons.
Although I make a wide variety of jams and fruit butters, I've never embraced the art of jelly-making. The idea of straining the large quantities of dark purple juice required for making grape jelly always seemed too messy and time-consuming.
And making grape jelly usually requires the addition of pectin. I've been fairly opposed to the idea of cooking with commercially produced pectin up until this point. I suppose it's the purist in me that likes the idea of using the naturally occurring pectin in fruit to create a gel set in whatever jam or preserve I'm making.
Of course, even commercially produced pectin comes from fruit (usually apples) so I'm not sure why I feel so snotty about it. Adding pectin to jelly helps it set better. It shortens cooking times, which can help the resulting jelly taste fresher. Using pectin also produces higher yields, meaning you get more jelly with the same amount of fruit if you use pectin. Clearly, this is an issue I'd have to work through to satisfy my daughter's craving for grape jelly.
But perhaps the biggest deterrent to the jelly-making process is that I have never had a good source for Concord grapes. I usually make my preserves from fruit that we grow in our own garden. Not only can I pick the fruit at exactly the right time, I can also be sure how it was grown and that it hasn't been subjected to pesticides. It's also extremely satisfying to use fruit that would otherwise go to waste. (If you've ever had a loquat tree or any other tree that produced a massive amount of fruit, you know what I mean.)
A secret stash of Concords
This situation changed about a week ago when my husband called me from his office to say he had discovered a secret stash of ripe Concord grapes growing along the fence of the office parking lot. The next day he brought me a bag of Concord grapes he picked from the neglected vines. A Sherman Oaks, Calif., parking lot is definitely not a Shenandoah Valley grape arbor, but I was willing to make some compromises. Oddly enough, he brought me this present on the day before my mother arrived for a two-week visit from Virginia. I figured this was the universe telling me that it was finally time to learn how to make grape jelly.
When I opened the bag of grapes my husband brought home, I realized that we didn't have nearly enough grapes to make a full recipe of jelly. Luckily, my mother was on hand to offer up the brilliant suggestion of substituting commercially bottled grape juice for the missing quantity of fresh juice. She told me she remembered my Grandma Willie doing this "in a pinch." I figured that if it was good enough for Grandma Willie, it's good enough for me.
If I ever find a good source for Concord grapes, I'm going to try making grape jelly without pectin. (You can't make jelly with commercially bottled or canned juice without adding additional pectin because the naturally occurring pectin in the grapes gets removed in the process of making bottled or canned juice.)
In the meantime, this jelly is just fine. It's even been approved by the jelly connoisseur of our family, my 3-year old daughter, who eats massive amounts of it with a big sticky smile on her face.
Concord Grape Jelly by Linda Lutz
Yields 8 cups of jelly. A few words of wisdom from my mother (and me): Do not double the recipe. It's OK to use partially ripe grapes to make some of the juice. Up to one-fourth of the total quantity of grapes can be slightly green. When making jelly, be sure to pay attention to the brand of pectin you use because different brands come in different concentrations. (This recipe calls for Sure-Jell powdered pectin.)
5 cups of Concord grape juice (approximately 3½ pounds or 2½ quarts of grapes off the stem)
1½ cups water
1.75 ounce box of Sure-Jell powdered pectin
½ teaspoon butter
7 cups sugar
Tools and equipment
8 eight-ounce jelly jars with lids and rings
1 large stock pot (at least 16 quarts)
1 large sauce pan
1 jelly bag or several layers of cheese cloth (enough to fill the interior of your colander)
1 canner with canning rack
1 or 2 food-safe gloves
1. Remove grapes from stem and place in a large pan of water.
2. Quickly rinse grapes and place in colander to dry.
3. Put 2 cups of grapes in a large non-reactive stockpot and crush the berries with glove-covered hand. Keep adding 2 cups at a time until all the berries are crushed. As my mother says, "there's nothing like good old hands for crushing grapes."
4. Add 1½ cups of water to the stockpot and bring to a boil.
5. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 10 minutes.
6. Pour grapes into dampened jelly strainer (or several layers of dampened cheesecloth in a strainer). Be sure to put the jelly strainer over a bowl that's large enough to collect 5 cups of juice.
7. Let sit for several hours or up to half a day. The longer you let it set, the more juice you'll get out of it. Do not smash the grapes or squeeze the bottom of the jelly bag.
8. Measure 5 cups of juice in a large non-reactive saucepan.
9. Gradually stir in pectin.
10. Add ½ teaspoon of butter to reduce foaming.
11. Bring mixture to a rolling boil over high heat, stirring constantly.
12. Add 7 cups of sugar quickly, stirring to dissolve.
13. Return mixture to a full rolling-boil and boil hard for exactly one minute, stirring constantly.
14. Remove pan from heat and let sit for several minutes.
15. Skim off foam with a metal spoon. (The metal spoon will almost act like a magnet.)
16. Scrape foam all to one side and scoop it out of the stock pot.
17. To prepare the jar lids for canning, pour hot water over lids in a small sauce pan, as recommended by the directions on the box that the lids come in.
18. Using the funnel and a one-cup measuring cup or ladle, pour hot jelly into hot, sterilized jars, leaving ¼ inch of head space at the top of the jar.
19. Wipe the jar rim clean with a wet (and clean) dishcloth or paper towel.
20. Take a lid out of the water and place it on top of the jar. (It's OK if the lid is still wet.)
21. Screw on the metal ring tightly.
22. Process in a hot water bath for 5 minutes, according to USDA recommendations.
23. After the processed jars have cooled, be sure that you get a tight seal. The center of the lid should be slightly indented. You can check this by pressing the center with your finger. If the lid pops back up, it isn't sealed. If jar does not seal properly, keep it in the refrigerator and use within several weeks.
Grape jelly is best eaten within a year to keep the texture from changing. In our house, it never lasts that long.
Zester Daily contributor Susan Lutz is a photographer, artist and television producer. A native of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, she currently lives in Los Angeles, where she is writing a book about heirloom foods and the American tradition of Sunday dinner. She also blogs about the subject at Eat Sunday Dinner.
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