My Bittersweet Valentine: An Introduction to Marmalade

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I married a marmalade man. This year, as a special treat for Valentine’s Day (don’t tell him!), I’ll be making him a tart, sultry (and dare I say sexy?) blood orange version. In case you want to join me in making marmalade for your sweetheart, here are a few things to know:

What Makes it a Marmalade?

Today, the word marmalade is used to describe a citrus jam containing bits of candied rind. We typically associate marmalade with oranges, but all manner of citrus fruits are good marmalade candidates. Meyer lemons, clementines, Minneola tangelos, grapefruit, limes, and kumquats are just a few of the fruits that can be cooked into excellent marmalades.

The Fruit

When selecting fruit for marmalades it’s best to find organic, unblemished specimens, since in many cases the entire fruit, peel and all, ends up in the jar (conventional citrus is often sprayed with a wax coating that’s time-consuming to scrub off). Overripe fruit is not recommended. The ideal source is freshly picked from a backyard tree, but for the rest of us, store-bought organic fruit will do just fine.

The Sugar

Sugar plays many roles in the marmalade jar: sweetener, thickener, and preservative. The right concentration of sugar deters the growth of micro-organisms. For this reason, reducing the sugar called for in a marmalade recipe is not recommended.

The Pectin

Pectin is a natural gelling agent found to varying degrees in many fruits. With citrus, pectin is most heavily concentrated in the peel, membranes and seeds, decreasing in concentration as the fruit ripens. Many marmalade recipes do not require the addition of commercial pectin to form a gel, relying instead on the high amounts of natural pectin found in citrus, or the addition of other high-pectin fruits, like lemons or apples.

Commercial pectin is a packaged product rendered from high-pectin fruits, often with the addition of preservatives and other agents (like citric acid) that promote the formation of a gel. Marmalades made with commercial pectin require less citrus rind and shorter cooking time, resulting in a spread where sweet often overwhelms the flavor of the fruit. Marmalades made without the use of commercial pectin often contain more peel and require a longer cooking time, resulting in a spread choc-full of tender, candied peel, with an intense citrus aroma and bittersweet flavor.

The Set Point

Identifying the set point, or point at which the mixture forms a gel, is key to making great marmalade without the use of commercial pectin. Gelling occurs when the right concentration of sugar, acid, and pectin is reached. Undercooked marmalade can result in a runny syrup or spread. Overcooked marmalade can result in an overly-dense spread with a caramelized sugar flavor that overwhelms the brightness of the fruit. The easiest and most reliable way to test for doneness is with a candy or deep fry thermometer. The marmalade is ready when the temperature reaches 220 degrees F. Subtract 2 degrees for every 1,000 feet of altitude.

Processing the Jars

Home canning strikes fear into the hearts of many, but with proper knowledge, it can be a safe and wonderful craft. There are a variety of ways to process marmalade safely. One of the best resources for information on home canning is The National Center for Home Food Preservation, an excellent reference to ensure your recipe is up to date with current practices.

So now that you know the basics, let’s roll up our sleeves and make us (and our sweethearts) some marmalade!