I love the craft of preserving--for me it usually take the form of making pickles. Periodically I make jam, but only if I've managed to get my hands on more seasonal fruit than I can eat or bake with before it spoils. A case in point? My Meyer lemon trees have been weighed down with fruit. I adore Meyer lemons, but how many can I use on my own? I gave some away as holiday presents but that still didn't make a dent. And the fruit needed desperately to be picked. So, how about making Meyer lemon marmalade?
I've successfully made marmalade from a wonderful Ina Garten recipe in her Barefoot Contessa at Home cookbook, but her large oranges didn't really translate into my much smaller lemons so I searched through my cookbooks until I found an actual Meyer lemon marmalade recipe in my ginormous compendium of all things Ruth Reichl, The Gourmet Cookbook. I was tickled to have just what I needed from one of my cooking bibles.
Other than tripling the recipe to use 4 1/2 pounds of lemons, I followed it precisely. It took me hours to halve the lemons, remove and reserve the seeds, then quarter the juicy halves and thinly slice them. I pulled together all the seeds into a cheesecloth parcel I tied with string. I mixed the lemons with water and the seed pouch and let the mixture stand at room temperature for 24 hours.
After racing out in the rain to get more sugar (12 cups!), running all my jars through the dishwasher, and then setting up my canning equipment, I started the cooking process. Everything went fine. I put a couple of small plates in the freezer to chill so I could test that the marmalade had cooked enough. The soaked lemon mixture simmered for 45 minutes, reducing by a third. Then I stirred in the sugar and brought it all to a boil, stirring and skimming.
Per the directions, after 10 minutes I pulled out a frozen plate, dropped a dollop of golden marmalade on the plate, put it back in the freezer and waited for a full minute. I tested it. Still runny. I cooked the mixture for five minutes more, tested it. Still runny. I did this four more times and by then the peels were collapsing. Enough.
At this point the jars had been sterilized so I started filling them, hoping that the mixture would set. I processed the filled and sealed jars and set them on the counter overnight, cleaned up the kitchen, and crossed my fingers.
I shouldn't have bothered. The next morning I had what I generously called Meyer Lemon Marmalade Syrup. It tasted delicious, but was still runny.
Fortunately, because I posted some of this on Facebook, pastry chef Kathleen Baran Shen of Bake Sale Bakery offered some advice. And this is why I am writing this--because this Gourmet recipe didn't mention it--you need to measure the temperature of the mixture and that temperature needs to hit 223 degrees to reach the jelling point.
"There are varying amounts of water in every lemon and the temperature assures a specific percentage of water remains in the mixture," she said. "Just cooking for a set amount of time doesn't get you a specific end result.
"Pectin needs a few things to set," she explained, "proper sugar concentration, acid, and to be cooked to the right temperature."
She added, "If you want to go to the trouble to dump it out and recook it, use a thermometer and bring it to 223 degrees and re-jar it. It will be good."
Kathleen was right, of course. I had some leftover jars of "marmalade syrup" in the fridge--jars I didn't have room to sterilize. I dumped the contents into a pot and followed her directions. After I poured the recooked mixture back into the re-washed jars, I let them cool and then put them back in the fridge. A couple of hours later I opened one up. Sure enough, it was perfectly jelled. I went back and emptied all my marmalade syrup into a large pot and brought the mixture to the right temperature, re-washed and sterilized the jars, filled them, processed them, and relabeled them--this time as just Meyer Lemon Marmalade. Okay, a slightly darker marmalade, though. Turns out that while sugar doesn't caramelize until reaching 300-plus degrees, if you don't stir constantly as you get close to the magic number or use a copper pot that conducts heat more effectively, the bottom gets hot enough to caramelize. And, as Shen added, some color change will happen no matter what as the fruit changes color when cooked. Second lesson learned!
So, if you are starting out as a jammer be sure to find the right recipes and also don't give up because it didn't come out right the first time. Kathleen not only saved my batch of marmalade, she saved my hard-earned lemon harvest--and gave me the gift of knowledge that will be used for my next jamming foray.
Here's my version of Meyer Lemon Marmalade, adapted from the Gourmet recipe with Kathleen's advice included. In terms of special equipment, you'll need a large canning pot and rack; canning jars, lids, and bands; a jar lifter; a funnel; a lid lifter; cheesecloth and string; and a candy thermometer.
Meyer Lemon Marmalade
Yield: About 6 cups
1 1/2 pounds Meyer lemons
4 cups water
4 cups sugar
1. Halve the lemons crosswise and remove the seeds, placing them in a bowl as you work--they'll provide the pectin you need to thicken the mixture.
2. Tie the seeds in a cheesecloth bag and reserve.
3. Quarter each lemon half and thinly slice crosswise.
4. Combine the lemon slices, seed bag, and water in a pot and let stand, covered, at room temperature for 24 hours.
5. When you're ready to make the marmalade, wash and sterilize jars in a large canning pot filled with heavily simmering water. Keep the jars in the water and keep the water simmering. Wash the lids and put them in a small saucepan. Fill with water and bring to a simmer. Wash the bands and set aside.
6. Place the lemon mixture on the stove and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer uncovered until reduced to about 4 cups--about 45 minutes.
7. Stir in the sugar, attach the candy thermometer to the side of the pot, and bring to a boil over moderate heat. Stir occasionally and skim off any foam until the mixture reaches 223 degrees.
8. Place a kitchen towel on the sink where your filled jars can cool. Remove a jar from the canning pot and drain it of water. Fill it with marmalade to within a 1/4" from the top. Wipe off any excess marmalade from the jar, particularly where the lid and band will go.
9. Place a lid on the jar. Seal the jar with a band and gently twist it. Do this with each jar and then return them to the water bath. (Note: If you have any leftover marmalade, place it in a container and refrigerate it to use right away). Discard the bag of lemon seeds.
10. Cover the pot and bring the water back to a boil. The jars should be in actively boiling water for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave the jars in the bath for another five minutes. Then remove the jars to the towel on the counter out of a draft. Don't worry if there's water on the lids. It will evaporate. Let the jars alone overnight. Within minutes you should hear popping as the lids seal.
Questions about the nuts and bolts of preserving? My bible is the Ball's Complete Book of Home Preserving. You'll find a step-by-step guide to the canning process. It seems intimidating at first because of the number of steps but it actually is very easy.