January and February are the traditional marmalade making months, mainly because it is the Seville orange season: the oranges with the bitter taste so typicalof the conserve. These dark chilly months are perfect for this labour of love; the careful preparing of the fruit, the slicing of the peel and the citrus scent pervading the kitchen is a perfect way to spend a morning or afternoon if its dull outside. Thats not to say that marmalade can’t be made at any time of the year, as long as you have access to good quality citrus fruit.
There are many recipes and methods used to achieve this sticky, amber conserve, and every now and again I try something different – though my biggest success is always with the traditional methods as found in my well thumbed copy of Marguerite Pattern’s book of ‘Jams, Pickles and Chutneys’ – it never lets me down. Having said that every batch turns out slightly differently, depending on the quality of the fruits and how quickly it sets.
Choosing the fruit
This is probably the most important part in the process as the freshness of the fruit will affect the pectin and setting point of the marmalade. This in turn will affect the boiling time and if added pectin will be required. It is difficult to know how old your fruit is when buying from the supermarket. Seville oranges are different to eating oranges. The skin is very thick and knarly which makes it difficult to know if the fruit inside is juicy or not. However you need to select firm, heavy fruit whether it be oranges, grapefruit, lemons or limes. If using grapefruit and sweet oranges avoid seedless varieties as it is the pips and pith that contain the pectin. Use the fruit as soon as you can, and store in the fridge until then.
Preparing the fruit
Always start by washing the fruit. Often fruit is sprayed with chemicals or wax and you need to give the whole fruit a good scrub to remove this before you begin. Whether you prefer thick or thin peel you will need a good sharp serated knife to do the job. Using a serated knife is preferable as the acid in citrus fruits will quickly blunt an ordinary steel knife. Always cut the fruit from the peel side – you will find a better grip. Some people like to use a food processor or mincer to save time, and it is worth experimenting with, but others, like me, enjoy the process of hand cutting the peel- its all part of the labour of love!
In the supermarket you will see a variety of sugars created for jam/marmalade making. Jam Sugar contains added pectin for use with fruits low in pectin, and not necessary for marmalade making unless using seedless fruits. Preserving Sugar however is to be used with fruits high in pectin (like citrus fruits) as it has large crystals that dissolve slowly and therefore requires less stirring during boiling, theoretically producing a clearer finished product. Unless you are planning to enter marmalade competitions this is not necessary and the difference negligible anyway. Ordinary granulated sugar works perfectly well and better than castor sugar. Some people like to add a proportion of brown sugar(25 per cent) or a tablespoon of black treacle to the boiling marmalade which darkens the batch and adds a caramelized taste. To aid the dissolving process you can warm the sugar first in the oven on a low heat.
knowing when your marmalade is ready is your biggest problem! You really want to reach the setting point as quickly as possible to maintain the flavour and ‘bright’ colour. Your recipe will have instructed you put the pith and pips in a bag to simmer alongside the fruit. When you are sure the peel is softened completely (about 1 1/2 hours) remove the bag of pips and squeeze the slimy pectin into the pan. Drain the softened peel, reserving the liquid, and weigh. For every 1lb of fruit add 1lb 2oz of sugar and 1 pint of the liquid. Be very careful now and do not rely on your recipe for accurate setting times, as it all depends on the amount of pectin that has been extracted during the peel softening process. Add the sugar and bring to the boil (stir occasionally so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of your pan) and allow to bubble away, but do not leave it at this point as it could be ready in as little as 10 minutes – or you could still be testing in 40mins! A sugar or jam thermometer is the best indication as to when your setting point is reached – it needs to be 220c – or you can test by placing a teaspoon on a cold saucer and leaving it in the fridge for 10 mins. If it is sticky and gel forming it is probably ready. I say probably because it is not until it has stood overnight that you truly know its final consistency.
Don’t panic! if your marmalade has not set properly by the next day – you may still be able to rectify it. There are a number of reasons the setting point was not reached. It could be that there was too much liquid to start with or the pectin was poor quality, or it was just not boiled long enough. In this case empty your jars back into the pan, add the juice of a lemon and and bring back to the boil. Keep a careful eye on it and start testing again after 10 minutes. If it is still not setting after 15 minutes switch off the heat and you will need to add a commercial pectin (Certo, brought from the supermarket). Follow instructions for the correct quantity to use. Ensure that the jars have been washed thoroughly and re sterilised before refilling with the marmalade. Another reason for your marmalade not setting is it could have been ‘overboiled’ – that is it has gone over the setting point. You will know this as the marmalade will have a jammy texture and appear a bit grainy. Again you can add commercial pectin (Certo) but it will not keep well : your best is to use it up quickly – it will be delicious in ‘Marmalade Bread and Butter Pudding’.
The marmalade recipes I have included each use a different method. I have included a dark, bitter tasting seville, a lighter brighter sweeter 3 fruit marmalade and an aromatic elderflower made from the fruits left over from the marinatation of elderflowers, in preparation for cordial.