Make jelly like an artisan

Any fruits can be made into jelly if you add a box of commercial pectin. The method is foolproof: follow the instructions to the letter and after a 2-minute boil you will have a product of perfect consistency.

But what if your fruit contains natural pectin? You could still go with the commercial pectin method. Or you can try the old-fashioned way—using the right mix of fruit, a longer boil, and your judgement. In other words, you can make jelly like an artisan.

Fruits with natural pectin

Nanking Cherries on the tree
Nanking Cherries

So many of our native and backyard fruits contain natural pectin. These include:

  • apples—the tart winter varieties, not summer apples
  • crab apples
  • chokecherries
  • Nanking cherries
  • gooseberries
  • high-bush cranberries
  • wild plums

Riper fruits have less pectin and insufficient acid, so avoid using overripe fruits. The recommended mix is ¼ under-ripe fruit and ¾ ripe fruit.

The amount of sugar needed is 3 to 4 cups per 4 cups of juice. The less pectin in the fruit, the less sugar is needed. That’s because there will be more water boiled out. But don’t use less than 3 cups or you may have mold problems.

The acid level is also critical to jelly-making. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, the recommended pH is 3.5, which is the same as 1 teaspoon of lemon juice to 3 tablespoons of water.

How to make jelly

I just finished making a batch of jelly from my Nanking cherry bushes. From a 4-quart bowl of cherries, I extracted six cups of juice.

Here’s how I made it a batch with four cups of juice:

1. Prepare the jars

If you want to preserve the jelly to enjoy months from now, you need to sterilize the jars and lids.

Note: Always use new lids—used lids will not reseal.

Wash the jars and lids and put them in a large pot. Add water to cover and set it to boil. Boil them for at 20 minutes or more and then set to a slow simmer to keep them hot while they wait for the jelly. For each my Nanking cherry jelly batches, which takes 4 cups of juice, I use around 4 jars.

In my setup, I have jar tongs for lifting out the hot jars. The funnel is specially designed for pouring the hot jelly into the jars without spilling.

2. Make the jelly

Into a large pot, pour in 4 cups of juice and add the sugar. I used 3 cups as my cherries were on the riper side. Make sure your pot is at least twice as high as the juice plus sugar or the mixture may boil over.

Set the pot to boil on high heat.

Boiling juice and sugar. The foam is mostly skimmed off.

Foam will start to form. Scoop this off with a spoon so that the jelly will be clear. Be careful, because there will be a lot of hot steam at the surface. Or wait until the jelly comes off the heat to skim the foam.

As the water evaporates the liquid becomes more syrup-y and more bubbly. Now start testing for doneness by dipping a metal spoon into the liquid and lifting it out. Observe how the liquid slides off the back of the spoon. As it nears the gel stage, it goes from a single-stream drip to a two-stream drip or a sheet.

I usually give it a minute longer past this stage, just to make sure.

Remove the pot from the heat.

3. Pour jelly into the jars and seal

This step is all about preserving the jelly so that you can enjoy it over the winter.

Filling the jelly jars
Filling the jelly jars

Lift out a jar and set it down near the pot. Fill it with jelly up to about a quarter inch from the top.

Top the jar with a lid and screw on the ring, but not too tightly. You don’t want to squash and ruin the sealing ring on the lid.

After about an hour, you’ll hear the lid “pop” as it’s sucked inward. That’s the sound of a vacuum seal. To confirm the seal, unscrew the ring and lift up the jar by the edges of the lid. If the lid comes off, that jar has to go in the fridge.

Once the jars are cool, tighten the rings again and move the jars to a cool dark place.

More tips for successful jelly-making

Set aside time to do work without distraction. To be on the safe side, start with hour and half if you’re making a single batch and add a half hour for each additional batch.

The University of Minnesota Extension is a good reference for the science of jelly-making and how to test for pectin levels.

Finally, get creative. Consider mixing fruits to get interesting blends. If your fruit is low in pectin, add crab apples. If the fruit is not very acidic, add lemon juice. Consult some old recipe books for the blends that our grandmothers used to make.

Salad Dressings: How to Let Go of the Bottle

Bottled salad dressings are certainly convenient, but they are not necessary. I don’t mean to get preachy, but you know they’re expensive and they take a lot of space in your fridge.

Salad dressings back in the day

What did people do before there were bottled dressings? My grandmother, who established her cooking habits before they were widely available, made just one kind of dressing all her life. It was simply vegetable oil and white vinegar, a dash of salt and pepper, and a pinch of sugar.

She put that on salads of iceberg lettuce or shredded cabbage. For the tender leaves of lettuce from her garden, she used cereal cream instead of oil.

By the 1960s, Kraft bottled dressings were everywhere in Western Canada.

The refrigerator in our house carried Kraft’s most popular selection—Thousand Island, French, Italian, and Creamy Cole Slaw, usually all at the same time. Why so many? I wonder if it was because our salad ingredients were always the same and we thought we’d eat more if we had variety. More likely, they were just so convenient to buy.

These salad dressings took a lot of space in the fridge—and we never knew how old some of those bottles were.

Today, the range of pre-made salad dressings on the market is huge–you can fill your fridge with one or many. But you know in your heart that the longer the shelf life, the less likely they are to be healthy and nutritious.

Pitfalls of salad dressing recipes

If you want to make your own, you’ll find thousands of recipes in cookbooks and on the Internet. However, you may find that most recipes seem suited for special events and large parties. The yield is always much more than you can use–which means storing the rest in the fridge (until you finally throw it out).

Whenever I followed salad dressing recipes to the letter, the proportions were not always right for my ingredients or my tastes. If I didn’t have the knowledge and confidence to adjust recipes, I would be stuck and disappointed.

You can make your own perfectly-proportioned and sized salad dressing. All it takes is ingredients in your cupboard and less than five minutes of your time. The money and fridge space you save will be bonus. And no, you don’t need a special dressing mixer or shaker.

make your own basic salad dressing

What’s in a salad dressing—the Basics

Salad dressings contain the following components:

  • fat: oil, cream, buttermilk
  • acid: vinegar, lemon juice, buttermilk
  • sweetener: sugar, honey, balsamic vinegar
  • optional emulsifier: Dijon mustard
  • various optional flavourings: garlic, shallots, peppers, Dijon mustard or dry mustard, herbs, and salt and ground or cracked pepper

Emulsification: the blending of oil with water. Vinegar and lemon juice behave like water.

Emulsification is improved by adding Dijon mustard. However, vigorous mixing will do the trick.

Oils

Most salads are based on lettuce, cabbage or other crunchy vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, or pasta. For lettuce and tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil works well. But potatoes, cabbage, and cucumbers need a more neutrally-flavoured oil, like canola or other vegetable oil.

Cold pressed oils are perfect for salads. They have superb flavour and nutritional value (lots of omegas) when used unheated. They are more expensive, but you would probably use them only for salads and not for frying.

  • Extra virgin olive oil is a cold pressed oil.
  • For a vegetable oil, you can get cold-pressed canola oil. My go-to vegetable oil is cold pressed camelina, a tiny seed from a plant related to the mustard.

Vinegars

Three types of vinegar can cover a wide range of salads:

  • Red wine vinegar for salads with lettuce or tomatoes or pasta
  • Rice wine vinegar for cucumbers and cabbage
  • Apple vinegar for potatoes or pasta.

How to make an oil-based salad dressing

  1. In a cup or a small bowl, pour in about two tablespoons or more of oil, depending on how big your salad is.
  2. Add an equal quantity or less of vinegar or lemon juice, or both.
  3. If you are using Dijon mustard, add it now—a small blob will do.
  4. Add the remaining ingredients, if you are using them:
    • sweetener—a pinch of sugar, a teaspoon of honey, a few drops of balsamic vinegar.
    • salt
    • pepper
    • garlic, shallots, dried herbs
  5. Whisk with small whisk, or a fork, until blended.
  6. Taste: Take a small item from your salad ingredients (lettuce leaf, chunk of cucumber, macaroni), dip it in the dressing, and taste. Adjust the oil, acid, and other components until you are satisfied.
  7. Pour the dressing over the salad, add the finishing touches (cracked pepper, chopped herbs), and toss.

And that’s it! You have made a beautiful salad with a healthy and nutritious dressing that is perfectly matched to your ingredients and your tastes.