Remaking my Sumac Jelly :(

Okay, it happens to every jelly maker at least once … or even 52 times! You spend all that time and care making a beautiful jelly … and then three weeks later … when even the slowest jelly should have set up by now … and despite the fact that you did every-single-thing the recipe told you to do … all you have in your jars is what could best be described as syrup … not jelly.

It’s sad when it happens–not to mention frustrating–but the problem is … it’s not always easy to fix because the lack of gel can be caused by any number of things, or a combination of factors. They include, but are not limited to:

  1. under-cooking your pectin
  2. over-cooking your pectin
  3. too much acid
  4. not enough acid
  5. too much sugar
  6. not enough sugar
  7. too much humidity
  8. not enough humidity
  9. timing your jelly based on someone else’s recipe, rather than what you see in your own pot/kitchen … causing #1 or #2
  10. probably more that I haven’t even thought about yet :)

Personally, I just got bit by #9 … so it’s made me do some research into the whole issue of why jellies fail … and how you can fix them.

If you’ll remember, I made sumac jelly a few weeks ago, using the sumac I gathered on my big adventure in Sept/Oct. That’s what failed on me. Now–granted–sumac is NOT a standard kinda jelly. The sumac drupes have no natural sugar of their own, so–first and foremost–working with sumac extract is not like working with fruit juice. It’s more like trying to gel plain water. Since it has no sugar of its own, you have to add enough sugar to the sumac extract to make the pectin work properly. That takes guess-ta-mating. Also, the sumac itself is the source of your acid for the jelly equation, but–considering it’s a wild plant that you extracted in a very non-exacting sort of way, and the fact that experts say it loses some of its natural flavors (and, probably, acid) after it rains–the actual acid level of your particular batch of sumac extract can vary widely, too. Plus, sumac isn’t something that pectin manufacturer’s tend to experiment with using their product, so I wasn’t sure going into my research if there was even some sort of chemical mis-match going on between the sumac and the pectin.

Thankfully, I was able to figure out what I’d done wrong. You see, I looked at several different sumac jelly recipes I found on the web in order to engineer the one I created for myself … and–in that creative process–I relied heavily on Charles Sander’s recipe for Elderberry-Sumac Jelly for my timing. Charles is one of the folks at Backwoods Home Magazine, one of the best real-world canning sites on the planet, as well as an excellent resource for all things relating to self-reliance. I trust their information above many others, and Charles gave the longest boiling time of any for sumac jelly. He said, “Allow all this to boil for 3 minutes, stirring all the while to prevent sticking or scorching. After the 3 minutes have elapsed, remove from heat.”

Unfortunately, though … three minutes wasn’t long enough for my batch :(

My biggest clue came in the fact that none of the jars I’d BWBed ever gelled, but the last couple of tablespoons of the jelly–the stuff that I scraped out of the bottom of the pot, put in a jar, and stuck in the fridge–DID gel … perfectly in fact! That was the really weird part.

It took me a bit of thinking and talking to several reliable sources in the online canning world … but I was finally able to put my finger on it. I originally thought that–because the last couple of teaspoons (the only part of the entire batch of jelly that DID gel) didn’t go into the BWB with the rest of it–the problem was that I cooked the jelly too much before I put it in the BWB … and then the heat of 10 minutes submerged in boiling water just wrecked it by over-cooking it even more. I was actually convinced of this until right before I started recooking it, when I finally realized … no … it wasn’t over-cooked. The fact is, it was under-cooked.

I know it sounds strange, but it makes sense if you think about it. You have a boiling hot pot of jelly, sitting on the burner of an electric stove. The timer goes off. You turn the heat off, but don’t take the pot off the burner as you start filling jars, thinking that–if you move fast–keeping it there will keep the jelly molten enough to get in the jars easily. Makes sense, right? SoooOOOoooo, the whole process takes maybe 10-15 minutes or so … and by the time you get to the bottom of the pot, you’ve steadily reduced the level of hot jelly … while the remainder has continued to sit over the turned off–but still warm–electric burner.

In other words, those last couple of teaspoons that were so perfectly gelled in my refrigerator without going through the BWB have cooked longer–and given off more moisture–than the rest of the batch. And–yes–the heat of the BWB will continue to cook the jelly for those 10 minutes your jars sit languishing in the boiling water … however, they’re sealed, so they can’t off-gas anymore moisture at that point. All they can do is stay hot, so the heat inside those jars isn’t doing the same thing to the jelly that the same heat would do in an open pan.

Armed with the idea that my jelly was still under-cooked, I decided that I wanted to add a little more pectin into the batch, too … just in case I was wrong. If I indeed WAS wrong, and the batch was indeed over-cooked … then I was going to need that extra pectin. And if I was right, if the jelly was indeed undercooked, then the worst that could happen to me was probably ending up with really stiff jelly.

Oh, darn! I hate when that happens! :)

I opened all the syrup jars and measured my total amount. I had just over six cups left. I know. I originally made eight cups. What can I say? Some of the syrup had found itself on a pan of hot buttered biscuits. It wasn’t all bad :)

I poured the un-made jelly into my favorite jelly-making pot, then stirred in about two tablespoons of additional Dutch Jel pectin, which I melted in about half a cup of water first. Just for the sake of clarity, two tablespoons is equal to about half a box of regular commercial pectin. I thought a whole box might be overkill, so I started low … and figured I’d add more if I discovered I needed it.

I turned the heat under the pot on full-blast! My jelly pot is the exact same diameter as the burner underneath, so it’s efficient. It absorbs/uses almost all of the heat the burner produces, and–bonus points–the entire bottom of the pot heats … so it heats the contents more evenly than it would if, say, the pot were bigger than the burner. If the pot was bigger than the burner, then the overhanging parts of the pot would be colder than the center … and that’s not the optimum way to make jelly. You want it to get hot fast … stirring it the entire time to keep it from sticking.

This time–rather than trying to use some arbitrary unit of time to determine how long I need to let my jelly boil–I used the Jelly-Mound Test. After my jelly had been boiling for about three minutes, I started dropping a bit on an iced saucer every minute or so, poking at it with my finger and testing the set. When it reached this point, I knew it was right this time :)

It ultimately took about 10 minutes of hard boiling to get to the right consistency this time: so, quite a bit longer than had been suggested. It’s probably because Charles is working in a lot less humidity than I am … plus, I’ll also bet he’s got a gas stove that heats up faster/hotter than my relatively cheap electric stove. All of these factors–and more–can make a big difference in how your jelly sets. It took a lot longer to get mine to the right consistency, but–this time–it’s perfect :)

And there’s nothing more jewel-tone and beautiful in your kitchen than a gorgeous jar of homemade jelly …….

…. especially the exquisite garnet of homemade Sumac Jelly :)

About Lane

Just a canner ... on this food journey called life :)
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