Summer is the ideal time to learn how to preserve the season’s fruits. This summer, make your own jams, or sample some of India’s artisanal, less sugary spreads
We know them as jam, jelly, compote, conserves and preserves. They inject hope into our toasts, dosas and rotis, fill up rolls, pies and tarts, and even turn up as relishes for grilled meats. Look closely at this sweet sensation and you will find not just a nifty lesson in kitchen chemistry, but also a pedigree that is linked to the history of cane sugar and the desire to prolong the enjoyment of fresh fruits beyond their growing season.
With the summer in India bringing along a bounty of jam-friendly fruits like mango, pineapple, watermelons, apples and bananas, this would be a ideal time to re-examine how jams can be made healthier and with a little more heart for the personal touch.
Boiling fruit at high temperatures breaks down pectin, the naturally occurring links of sugar molecules in the cell walls. When white sugar and the right amount of acidic elements (such as lemon juice) are added to this mix, the pectin forms a ‘gel network’ that traps the water content of the jam, leading to its ‘setting’. The chemistry is easy to describe, but difficult to execute perfectly, which is why newcomers to homemade jams are better off when the fruits are in surplus and therefore cheaper for multiple try-outs.
To get jam right, select fruit that is ripe and firm. Overripe fruit will lead to a soft-set jam due to the low levels of acid and pectin, while half-ripe ones will be less flavourful because of the low quantity of natural juice in them. The best way, therefore, would be for cooks to first taste the fruit that they want to convert into jam. ‘Pectin stock’ made from apples and oranges can be used to balance out low levels of the sugar molecules in fruits like pineapple and guava.
“The secret to making jam is how one cooks it. And patience is truly a virtue here,” says Nakul Kulkarni, professional pastry chef and managing partner at the T’art Boulangerie and Patisserie in Bengaluru.
To avoid lumps, cooks should not stir the jam too much once they add the sugar, and should ensure a constant cooking temperature (around 105°C), says Kulkarni. Jam can turn cloudy if the scum that forms when cooking sugar is not skimmed off, he adds.
A runny jam may not be cooked enough. Kulkarni suggests using a candy thermometer to find the perfect setting temperature. If the jam is too thick, one could loosen it by adding a little sugar syrup and gently warming the mixture. “Overcooking may lead to the sugar burning or caramelising, which can alter the taste and in some cases, make the jam unpalatable, so cooks should be careful about when they switch off the flame,” says Kulkarni.
Jams down the ages
- The history of fruits preserved in sugar meanders across the globe. From quinces preserved in honey by the Greeks to gooseberries soaked in jaggery syrup ‘murabbas’ by the Indians, jam has evolved around the world and earned some very famous fans too.
- When soldiers fighting the Crusades brought back sugar from the Middle East to Western Europe, the ‘sweet spice’ became a symbol of privilege, and many jam recipes were created for royal palates.
- Much before he began prophesying the future, French astrologer and physician Nostradamus wrote the more earthly ‘Treatise on Makeup and Jam’ in 1555, and included recipes for cherry jam, quince jelly and pear preserve.
- Marmalades were invented as a seasickness cure for Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1561.
- But it wasn’t until the Napoleonic wars that the preservation of food for army supplies took off in earnest, thanks to Nicholas Appert, the chef and inventor who developed ways to preserve fruits, vegetables, dairy and soups in hermetically sealed bottles that were boiled in hot water.
The generic recipe for jam uses equal amounts of sugar and fruit. But as many artisanal jam and jelly makers will let you know, one doesn’t have to follow this rule to a tee.
Gagandeep Kaur Gill, CEO of Orchard Lane, Bengaluru. Photo: Special Arrangement
Boutique jam manufacturers are returning to the roots of the production technique, veering away from oversweet spreads that use synthetic additives and preservatives, and reviving interest in healthier options.
“The global standard for jam is to have 50% sugar to 50% fruit. This could be because sugar acts as a preservative in jam. But after nearly a year of experimentation, I realised that as long as we follow the hygiene procedures, we don’t really need that much sugar [to ensure a longer shelf life],” says Gagandeep Kaur Gill, CEO of Orchard Lane, a four-year-old company that makes 14 types of preservative-free jams and jellies in Bengaluru.
Gill has literally flipped the standard recipe, as Orchard Lane’s jams contain 80% fruit, and a nominal amount of sugar to balance it out. Most of the produce used by Gill is sourced from women organic farmers in in Chinya Nagamangala on the outskirts of Bengaluru.
With nearly 40% business coming from online sales, the lockdown has not affected Orchard Lane’s manufacturing process, says Gill. Their products are also available offline in select organic retail stores in Delhi, Gurgaon, Chennai, Punjab, Kerala and Bengaluru.
Dates and gooseberry (amla) jam recipe
- 200gm dry dates (seedless)
- 150gm gooseberries (amla)
- 2 whole star anise
- 65gm jaggery powder
- 10-12 pepper corns
- 10 roasted and sliced almonds
- 14gm butter
- Juice of half a lemon
- 700ml water
- Wash, peel, de-seed and cut the gooseberries into smaller pieces. Cut the dates (preferably seedless) into two or more pieces and set aside. Heat a non-stick saucepan, add the butter and sauté the star anise and peppercorns until well roasted. Add the jaggery powder and sauté just until the jaggery melts. At this point add the gooseberries and sauté until all of the jaggery coats them. Very carefully add water to the pan. To this, add the chopped dates and stir for a few minutes. Allow the dates and gooseberries to cook thoroughly. When the water starts to evaporate, and the mixture starts to come together and thicken, keep stirring to prevent the bottom of the pan from burning. Add the lemon juice (this extends the shelf life of the jam). Cook until the water has evaporated and the gooseberries and dates are almost completely mashed. Add roasted almond slivers to the jam. Store when cool in an air-tight container in the fridge.
- Recipe by Chef Nakul Kulkarni
Jam makers tend to rely heavily on additives and preservatives, partly because of the machinery that they use, says Gill. “Capillaries and tube systems in jam machinery cannot be cleaned completely in time for the next batch, which is why many companies add stabilisers and preservatives to safeguard the product,” she adds. To overcome this, Orchard Lane uses specially designed equipment that can be dismantled, washed and reassembled after each cycle within a few minutes.
Mind the labels
Customers should also be wary of ‘no-sugar added’ label, adds Gill. “Very often, cane sugar is projected as the bad guy and is replaced by dangerous substances like erythritol, fructose or aspartame. Erythritol and fructose cause chronic digestive and gastric problems, and aspartame is known to be a carcinogen,” she says.
Concern about preservatives was also the inspiration behind The Earth Reserve, a Coorg-based brand of food and cosmetics that focusses on natural ingredients.
Started by artist George Ramapuram, his sister Thresi Ramuram and wife Nidhi George Ramapuram in 2016, the jams and preserves are made from the fruits that grow on the family’s 300-acre estate in Chikkanahalli, Coorg.
The handpicked fruits — watermelon, red Barbados cherry, fig and carambola among others — are made into jam on wood-fired stoves by George, Thresi’s mother Sheela Ramapuram and her team of assistant cooks.
“Our pineapple jam is infused with spices for an interesting twist. The stewed banana jam and grape jam are rooted in traditional recipes,” says Nidhi. “But because we don’t use preservatives and the produce is seasonal, we make only small batches, so very often, there’s a waiting list for some of our jams,” she says.
From traditional production to packaging in glass containers (sealed with handmade wooden lids), the Earth Reserve’s jams don’t just look like collector’s items; they symbolise the brand’s move towards a more sustainable lifestyle.
“We have to try and improve the way we live, and make small changes like using glass containers and reducing plastic usage. These are challenging in the beginning, but that’s the only way to reduce the burden on our bodies,” says Thresi.
At times, customers have surprised them by finding new uses for their jams too. “We’ve had people writing back with how they have used our lobi-lobi jam as a dip and the pineapple and mulberry jams as a topping for ice cream. Our passionfruit juice has been used to make sangria!” says Thresi.
Sheela Ramapuram making jam at the family estate in Coorg for The Earth Reserve. Photo: Special Arrangement/THE HINDU