When jam's your jam, but recipes fail you
Dive into lilac-lemon jam and build your own expertise.
By Lisa Brunette
I wanted to try my hand at jam for the first time. It’s spring here, and we had a tree full of lilac blossoms.
So, I thought, why not lilac jam?
I’d already learned to make lilac tea, vinegar, and syrup. I’d also sprinkled dried lilac blossoms all over the Valentine’s Day cake I made for Anthony—though that one I probably won’t repeat, as they were a little bit dry and papery. If I get that fancy again, I’ll brush them in egg white and sugar to preserve them as candied flowers before covering the cake with them! But you know me: I have to test the easiest route first.
Jam is one of the things I hadn’t tried in my years of suburban homesteading experiments, for three reasons: 1) pectin, which is gross, 2) sugar, which I don’t need more of in my life, and 3) fiber, which most recipes strain out. But jam is a tried-and-true method for preserving food and well worth adding to the homesteading repertoire. Plus, I suspected there was a better way…
Here I’ll break down each issue for you and then give you my modified recipe for (heavenly) lilac-lemon jam, deeply tweaking two existing recipes to create something I couldn’t find anywhere.
The Pectin Problem
OK, pectin… It’s that stuff in the box, right? The powder that gels things up?
But what exactly is pectin? A naturally occurring substance found in fruit.
That’s why the old-old-fashioned method for making jam involved lots of fruit… but no additional ingredient to ‘gel’ it. You don’t need to add powdered pectin from a box. That’s a crutch, actually, a very modern one.
Boxed pectin is a highly-processed powder derived—but very far removed—from fruit. I ask you: Why use pectin strip-mined from fruit only to add it back into your, um, fruit? Couldn’t we just skip the frankenpectin and use the fruit’s natural pectin instead? Yes, yes, we can.
That brings me to the first recipe I drew from in my quest to make lilac-lemon jam.
Why marmalade, you ask? Because this fantastic recipe fromdidn't call for pectin. Pectin is one reason I paired lilac with lemon. I wasn’t convinced lilac blossoms, delicate little things that they are, would have enough pectin to gel up into a jam, but citrus most certainly does, as it's in all that white pith between the peel and pulp. That's why didn't need to add any nasty boxed pectin to her marmalade.
While Wynne’s recipe has you ditch the water you cooked the lemons in and then add water back in if needed later in the process (she says it can be bitter), I simply kept all of the water from the get-go, thinking it had a lot of that lemon flavor and maybe even pectin (and it wasn’t bitter to my taste). I added lilacs, not at the end like her amendments but as part of the jam boil, as well as lilac-infused sugar and lilac-infused water. And finally, I subbed half the sugar for honey. Which brings me to the next issue.
I’ve never been much of a sweet tooth anyway, but I know sugar’s just not great for us, especially in the large quantities we consume in the US. Nearly every recipe for jam or jelly calls for copious amounts of sugar, which puts me off.
Did you know that you cannot easily sell jam commercially unless it’s made with sugar? Even here in Missouri—a state that is much more conducive to small business endeavors than most—I can’t just whip up a batch of jam using honey as a substitute and sell it to you at a farmer’s market. I’d have to get clearance from a state-run lab first, where they test its pH level. Then, assuming it passes, I’d have to keep strict standards and records to ensure I create every other jar of jam the exact same way.
You might say there’s nothing wrong with the government protecting us from botulism. But why isn’t there an exception for honey? It’s a natural antiseptic and preservative, even moreso than sugar. Take this, from Smithsonian Magazine:
There are a few other examples of foods that keep—indefinitely—in their raw state: salt, sugar, dried rice are a few. But there’s something about honey; it can remain preserved in a completely edible form, and while you wouldn’t want to chow down on raw rice or straight salt, one could ostensibly dip into a thousand year old jar of honey and enjoy it, without preparation, as if it were a day old. — From “The Science Behind Honey’s Eternal Shelf Life”
Honey’s own pH is bang on what that lab will look for anyway, so it doubly makes no sense that sugar gets a free pass and honey doesn’t. Sugar is a relatively recent product in the food life of most of humanity, yet jams and jellies go back a long way. People preserved food just fine before the first sugarcane plant fired up.
Do you think this privileged status for sugar has anything to do with the powerful sugar lobby? And look how much their spending went up over the past few years!
The last stumbling block for me is the tendency of most recipes to filter out the fruit matter, the fiber. That’s especially true with flower jellies, of which you can find many recipes, but if you’re looking for a really good, chunky jam, one that’s full of petals? Ain’t happening.
That’s the other reason I turned to marmalade as a starting point; it’s a prime example of how using the whole fruit is possible, as it contains not just the pulp of the citrus but the peel as well.
I seriously couldn’t find a single lilac jam recipe that called for keeping the petals in. Since the petals are fully edible, that didn’t seem to make sense. I thought maybe I was missing something… Are the petals hard to chew or something, like when I put those dried petals on Anthony’s cake?
One recipe I stumbled upon—over at Rural Canuk—did at least call for infusing the sugar with lilac petals. It’s a great idea, as another way to get the perfume sweetness of lilac into the jam.
So I took elements of the two recipes, meshed them with what I know about lilacs and lemons and preservation in general, and away we went. You know what? It turned out beautifully. The only thing I’d do differently is eliminate the sugar altogether, instead of halving it with honey. Keeping the petals in was perfect! You can’t even detect them on your tongue, and they look cool in the jam jar.
This experience puts me in the mindset to question the “experts,” as if we needed another reason to do this after the past three years. While certainly you want to learn from people with experience, those people used to be your grandmother or other women in your family. We’ve ceded the role instead to cookbook authors and elite lifestyle editors—to our great detriment.
Initially, I reached out to the two Kitchen Projects authors here on Substack to get their input on whether my lilac-lemon jam riff on their marmalade would work, anddid respond, but not until after I went ahead and tried it. I’m kind of glad, though, as it forced me to work out the problem myself.
I often experiment, and sometimes I fail, and that’s OK. But more often than not, I succeed. On the first try, even! My final product from that first go might not look Insta-worthy, but I’ve got something to eat I made myself, and I’ve developed my own knowledge base and skills. Whether we’re talking making jam, baking sourdough, or fermenting veggies, this stuff isn’t rocket science; it was a matter of survival for my British Isles ancestors and is within the reach of every single one of us.
I try to understand the process behind what’s happening to the food, whether that’s the sourdough biology, the fermentation chemistry, or the jam engineering. But like I said, this isn’t rocket science. You’re just training yourself to know what things are supposed to look, smell, and taste like, and what to do if they don’t.
My point here is not to give you a recipe that you should follow to a T but rather get you into the mindset of crafting the process from scratch—or at least vamping on a recipe at will—all on your own. You’ve got this; you don’t need experts, special ingredients, or even a list of instructions. But here’s mine for you paid subscribers, in the spirit of sharing. Please take it and adapt it freely—and report back to me when you do!
Lisa’s Lilac-Lemon Jam
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