When the jelly doesn't set

It’s bound to happen.

I made no-sugar, no-added-pectin apple jelly before leaving last week and decided to wait it out and see if it might gel in my absence. I got home a couple days ago from a week-long, mother-daughter R & R trip to find a whole lot of honey apple syrup.

This is a two-part blog post, first a recipe and second what to do if the recipe (or any jelly) doesn’t work out as planned.

Part I: The jelly challenge

My jelly craze combined with a series of jelly successes lured me in. A recipe that reads “15 apples and 3 cups of honey” seemed like the perfect match of simplicity and challenge: no pectin and no sugar. Of course I had to try it. 

I love this book, Preserving Summer’s Bounty (from Rodale), but their honey apple jelly recipe is bunk. I’m rewriting it to reflect reality.

Honey Apple Jelly (no sugar, no store-bought pectin)

yield ~3 half-pints

1. Place in a preserving pot:

7 whole apples cut into quarters (skins, cores and all)

enough water to half cover the apples

2. Simmer apples, covered over med-low heat until they’re soft, which will be about 15-20 minutes.

3. Set up your jelly drip system and allow your apples to drip/strain for 6-8 hours. Don’t squeeze the bag because it’ll make your jelly cloudy.I had to move my operation to another counter so we could make dinner.4. Measure the volume of juice you end up with and pour no more than 3 cups into the preserving pan.

5. Add 1/2 cup honey for every cup juice, so if you have 3 cups juice, add:

1.5 cups honey

and cook the juice/honey mix over med-low heat to dissolve the honey.

6. Raise heat to med-high and bring juice to a boil. Honey is a big foamer in the jelly process, so resign yourself to skimming. Honey also emits a ton of moisture, which requires you to cook the mixture longer in order for it to come to temperature. This mixture will need to boil hard for probably twice the amount of time you usually would cook a jelly, i.e. instead of 10-12 min, you’ll boil it for about 20-24 min.

Also, since there’s no sugar in it you don’t run the risk of scorching the bottom of the pan, and hence don’t need to stir more than a few times. The honey needs to be for the most part undisturbed here or else it won’t come to temp consistently throughout the pan (and won’t set).

7. Pour hot jelly into hot, sterilized jars. Seal properly with two-piece lids and process in boiling water for 5 minutes.

Part II: Why didn’t it set and what you should do about it

Why mine didn’t set was not a great jelly mystery at all. I wasn’t surprised, and I should’ve followed my instincts. It seemed like too big of a batch to begin with (and by this I mean double the amounts I’ve drawn out above). If your pectin-less jelly recipe yield predicts more than 3 half pints, you should definitely halve the recipe.This is WAY too much jelly to cook in one batch, especially without sugar.There might be other reasons why your jelly didn’t set (especially if you’re using a jelly recipe besides the one above). Revist this post to see what kinds of things affect jelly’s gelling progress.

How to gel a syrupy jelly-failure

At this point, decide if jelly is that important to you. In this case I actually wanted to keep half of my gigantor batch in syrup form. Syrup is great in cocktails, over pancakes, dropped in tea or used in baking recipes, etc.

For the jelly-evangelicals (pardon the pun) out there, all you’ll really be losing upon the recook is a little volume and however many lids you used in the first run. I would not re-use lids here (or ever). Since you’re taking the time to re-cook and reprocess, a failed seal would be a real bummer.

Here’s how to re-cook your syrup and turn it into jelly.

1. Open your sealed syrup jars and pour them into your preserving pan.

2. Slice one apple thinly (core and seeds included) and drop that into the pan.

3. Bring mixture to a simmer (not boil) for about 10 minutes (or until the apple has softened). I’d recommend med-low to low heat for this. You don’t want to boil the jelly here.

4. Remove pan from heat and let the mixture cool for about 5 min before straining out the apples and seed debris. A wire mesh strainer should be fine here, but you can add a layer of (dampened) cheesecloth for a finer sieve if need be.

5. Return the syrup to your preserving pan, set heat at med-high and bring to a rolling boil for about 5 minutes. Time may vary here, but it’s not going to be much longer than this. Use a thermometer to gauge gelling around the pan, all your readings should be at or above 220F.

6. Remove pan from heat. Pour hot jelly into hot, sterilized jars and process for 5 min in a boiling waterbath canner.

Lessons learned

1. Recooking your failed jelly will not take nearly as long as the first go-round. And cooking it for too long makes dense, chewy jelly because the moisture has evaporated in some mysterious scientific phase change operation.

2. A poke-stick thermometer, even a fancy-pants digital one is annoying (and dangerous). I accidentally killed mine in this jelly run by getting syrup inside the back case after so much hovering over scalding steam during the batch’s slow progression to 220F.

I actually ended up overcooking the jelly in the re-cook because I was tinkering with my broken thermometer. I’m buying the one Marisa has (the one with the cord that sits in the jelly).I’m not crazy about the firmness of my re-cooked jelly. I like a really loose set. Next time I won’t overcook it on the re-cook.My recooked jelly set super-firmly, and as with everything, there were a number of factors involved.

3. Quince is apparently like straight-up gelatin. Using either scraps/cores or chunks of the actual fruit (in a jam) will thicken your spread more than you expect. Be prepared.

I don’t recommend using quince on the recook. A single apple should suffice.4. Use Pomona’s Pectin for honey-only or other no-sugar jelly recipes. Otherwise you end up cooking the hell out of the fruit juice, so much so that the jelly end-result ends up tasting like honey, just in a different form.

This episode of my jelly-novella is coming to a close. I wish you all well; go forth and gel!