Make Your Own Grape Jelly

Don’t miss Part 1 – Picking the Grapes from last week.
Part 2 – Making Jelly

To make the jelly, you will need:
Grapes (pick ‘em yourself for free in and around Houston)
Pectin (1 package for every five cups of juice)
Ball jars – I use the half pint size, but you can go larger or smaller
Lids and bands for the ball jars
A large stainless steel or enamel pot for cooking the grapes and jelly
Another large pot for sterilizing the jars
A large strainer to hold the cheesecloth

It’s easiest to clip the bunches (which contain from 2 to almost 20 grapes each) from the vines with a small pair of clippers, but they can be torn off the plant as well.   You will get about half as much juice as grapes by volume – so if you want 4 cups of juice, you’ll need to collect about 8-10 cups of grapes. 

Once home with your treasure, rinse the clusters and then pull the fruit off the stems.  Put the stemless grapes in a large stainless steel or enamel pot (do not use aluminum).  Crush them a bit with a potato masher or other tool – or if you use your hands, be sure to wear gloves.  I used my bare hand last week and had a burning, itching sensation in that hand for at least 24 hours afterwards!  The acid in these wild fruits is that strong.

Add about ½ cup of water for every four cups of fruit.  You don’t need much – the fruit is plenty juicy.  Then boil the fruit (stir it every so often so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan) until all the color has come out of the peels and the fruit is very soft.  Now you are ready to strain the juice.

Wet the cheesecloth in cold water and wring it out (unless you do this the dry cloth will absorb a lot of the juice).  Drape the damp cheesecloth (two to four layers thick) over a strainer or sieve suspended over a pot.  Pour in all the cooked fruit mash and let it drip through for at least a couple of hours, or overnight.  Although it is tempting, do not squeeze the cheesecloth to release every last drop of juice, or your jelly may be cloudy.

If you don’t have time to continue at this point you can put the strained juice in the refrigerator and come back in a day or two – or even several days later. 

Making the jelly

You need to sterilize the jars in which you are putting the jelly, unless you are making a small batch and want to keep it in the refrigerator.  Fill each jar about ¾ full with water, and put them in a large pan of water with the water coming about halfway up the sides of the jars.  Heat the water until it’s just barely boiling and continue to heat the jars for at least 15 minutes.  Just before you are ready to fill them, remove the jars from their hot bath with a pair of tongs and place them upside down on a rack to dry.  Put the lids and bands in hot, but not boiling water until you are ready to use them.

While you are sterilizing the jars, start to make the jelly.  Add a package of pectin (available in grocery stores in the “canning” section, where you can also buy Ball jars, lids, etc.) for each 5 cups of juice.  It’s best to make the jelly in small batches, in fact about 5 cups is a good amount.  Bring the juice plus pectin to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly.   Then add sugar.  I use about 1 cup of sugar per cup of juice, maybe a little less – the instructions on the pectin package call for more like 1.25 cups but I like the jelly on the tart side (but be warned that if you don’t add enough sugar it may not jell).  Bring the mixture to a full boil again.  This is the tricky part.  The pectin package says to boil it hard for one minute and then remove it from the heat.  My jelly did not jell right away when I followed these instructions.  I have had better luck with doing it trial by error – watching until the drips off the spoon get thicker, or pouring a bit on a cool plate until I can see it is jelling.  A good cookbook such as The Joy of Cooking will have complete jelly-making instructions, or you can look for suggestions on-line.

When you think the jelly is done, right the jars and pour the jelly into them, filling to within about 1/8” from the top.  Use a clean damp cloth to clean any spilled jelly off the rims of the jars.  Then, put on the lids and screw the bands on.  Don’t tighten the bands completely right away; wait a minute or so.  If a seal forms, you will hear the lids “pop” a few minutes after they are filled.

Some instructions tell you to then put the filled jars in a boiling water bath for about 10 minutes.  I have not done this and have had no problems with spoilage – but you may want to check with other sources. 

Then label your jars, and put them away where they won’t get jostled.  If you’re lucky the jelly will set within a short while.  If it doesn’t set after a few days, you will need to boil it more, maybe even adding a bit more pectin – and redo the jar sterilizing and filling procedure.  Don’t despair; if this happens all you have lost is time!  The results are worth it.

I have given lots of grape jelly away to friends and acquaintances and it is always well-received.  It is particularly gratifying to know that I’ve gone and searched out these plants, picked the fruit, and really done the whole process “from scratch.”  The jelly is delicious – you won’t want to eat the insipid, overly sweet Welch’s Grape Jelly once you’ve made your own from wild mustang grapes!

Make Your Own Great Grape Jelly!

Part 1 – Picking Grapes

168::365  strawberry jam
Creative Commons License photo credit: .j.e.n.n.y.

Almost everyone enjoys jam or jelly on their toast or in a peanut butter sandwich.  But how many of you have ever made your own?  It’s certainly not necessary from an economic point of view – commercial jams and jellies are relatively cheap – but making homemade jams and jellies is fun, easy and satisfying!  Perhaps the best part is picking the fresh fruit – that can be a fun outdoor adventure for the whole family.

Fruit preserves such as jams and jellies have a long history.  The tradition probably originated in the Middle East and was brought back to Europe by the Crusaders.  Many different fruits can be used – the only limitation is the imagination of the cook and/or seasonal availability.  Sugar (or another sweetener such as honey) is an essential ingredient, unless you are making a “fruit spread,” which does not contain added sugar.

Another essential ingredient is pectin.  Found in the cell walls of plants, pectin is what makes jams and jellies “jell.”  Some fruits, such as apples, naturally contain enough pectin that none needs to be added.  Others, such as strawberries and grapes, don’t “jell” easily on their own.  Extra pectin, usually derived from apples or citrus peel, must be added to these fruits along with sufficient amounts of sugar.

The earliest recipes for fruit preserves come from the world’s first known book of recipes, written in the first century by a Roman author.  Entire books on making jams were published in the late 1600s.  In the United States, early settlers picked native fruits and preserved them with honey or maple sugar.  Apple parings provided pectin when needed.   Apple “butter” was invented in this country in the early 1900’s by the Smucker family at their cider mill.  And in 1917, Paul Welch obtained a patent for a pureed grape product he called “Grapelade.”  His first batch was sent to our troops in France during WWI – and after the war, the demand continued.

Today, strawberry jam and grape jelly are far and away the most popular varieties of fruit preserves in the US.  Other popular flavors are raspberry jam, orange marmelade, and apple jelly.  In addition to all the fruit flavors, jams and especially jellies can be flavored with vegetables or herbs:  mint or jalapenos, for example, are often added to a base of apple jelly.  

So, I hope you are intrigued enough by this ancient art to want to try it for yourself.  I have spent the last few weekends picking and processing over 30 pounds of wild “mustang” grapes.  And I’m hoping that I can find time this coming weekend to do another batch.

Weintrauben Fläsch
Grape Vineyard
Creative Commons License photo credit: marfis75

There are several species of wild grape native to Harris County, but most do not have edible fruit.  Mustang grapes (Vitis mustangensis) are one of the most common grapes in our area and are easily recognizable by the leaves, which are covered with a grayish white wool on the underside (so these leaves are NOT the best for making stuffed grape leaves!).  The fruit looks very much like domestic Concord grapes – dark purple, almost black when ripe, often with a bluish bloom on their surface.  The peel slips easily off the whitish, juicy fruit inside.  When ripe they are quite tart, and not unpleasant tasting – but a word of caution!  Mustang grapes are very acidic, and most of us can’t eat more than a couple before our mouths are burned by the acid.  However, these grapes make an absolutely delicious jelly, and I’m told make great wine as well. 

The best place to find mustang grapes is along bayous or fencerows in semi-wild areas.  The vines may grow high up in trees, in which case the fruit is out of reach.  You need to look for someplace where the vines come close to the ground – and be aware that there are both male and female grape vines (the male vines are necessary to fertilize the fruit on the female vines, but never produce fruit themselves).  This year, the female vines are loaded with fruit so keep looking until you find a patch with accessible clusters.  Grab your kids, or mom, or friends, and go pick!

Come back next week for instructions on how to make jelly from the grapes you pick…