Making Grape Jelly on the Farm

             The new house that hubby and I just bought included two mature muscadine grape vines. I’ve never tried canning before, but it’s been something on my to-do list for becoming more self-sufficient.  I figured that while, yes, we were still unpacking, why let all those awesome grapes go to waste?

I wanted to learn how to make jelly the old-fashioned way, before adding additional pectin became popular.  Pectin is a compound found naturally in many fruits and is what allows the juice to congeal into jelly—sort of like how jell-O goes from liquid to bouncy.  Adding additional pectin allows the juice to congeal with a higher percentage of water in it, so you get more jelly per pound of fruit.  The downside is you have to buy additional pectin, and I wanted to learn how to do it the down-home homestead way. I found some great tips and information on the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s web site:

Phase 1

First, I picked the grapes. I cut off the top of an empty plastic gallon water jug and used it to hold my grapes.  From my two vines I collected right at a gallon of grapes.  Not much, but enough to learn on. The fruit I picked was in all stages of ripeness, but I made sure to include a handful or so of barely-ripe grapes because a friend told me they have the most pectin.

grapes 1

Next I cleaned the grapes.  Nothing really special about that—just ran them under the faucet and made sure there were no obvious twigs or bugs in there.

grapes 2

I then crushed the grapes in order to release the juice.  That part was hard—muscadines have thick skins!  I used a big mixing bowel and sturdy potato masher.  This step probably took a solid 15-20 minutes, but it’s important to crush every grape. 

grapes 3

Next I transferred the whole mess to a big saucepot on the stove—this step is all about evaporating the excess water from the juice, so you want to have a wide, shallow pan to allow maximum evaporation. I brought the crushed grapes to a boil and simmered them for a solid 10 minutes.  This was also a good time to hunt down any uncrushed grapes that had escaped thus far.   

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After I removed the saucepan from the heat and allowed it to cool, I retrieved my strainer and mixing pot (which I had rinsed out) and separated the juice from the pulp.  This took a few tries and I had to use my potato masher to squeeze more juice out of the pulp, but I eventually got it all out. The yield was about 3½ cups of juice.  I then transferred the juice to a plastic container with a lid and stuck it in the fridge to set overnight. I do not know if you have to refrigerate the juice before making the jelly, but everything I read said to do it and I didn’t have time to complete the recipe anyway, so…..

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This first phase was completed after work one evening and took me right at two hours—which included the time to go outside and pick the grapes.  While the grapes were simmering I prepared a quick dinner and stuck it in the oven. 

Phase 2

Two nights later I decided to finish the jelly, so I removed the juice from the fridge and ran it through a fine strainer to remove any remaining seeds or small bits of pulp. 

grapes 8

Next I sterilized my jars and canning tools.  I put the jars and tools in a big soup pot and filled with water until the jars were covered, then I brought everything to a boil and let it go for 10 minutes.  I was really confused on what to do with the can lids—I know you shouldn’t boil or heat them too much because the wax right around them will melt and will not produce a good seal, so I just washed them as thoroughly as I could. 

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Once the jars and tools were done boiling I put them on a clean cookie sheet and stuck them in my oven, which I had pre-heated to 200 degrees.  It’s important to keep your jars hot so that they won’t cool down and crack when you fill them with boiling hot jelly.  I kept the pot and hot water for later.

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I also placed several clean metal spoons on a clean plate in my freezer.  I would use these later to see if the jam was ready to be canned.

grapes 10

The juice got put back in the saucepan and was brought to a medium boil.  I slowly added just over 2½ cups of sugar, one half-cup at a time, until it was all dissolved.  The recipe called for 3 cups of sugar and 4 cups of juice, but I only had 3½ cups of juice, so I had to make do and estimate. I stirred the jelly the entire time it was boiling.  The only things going into this recipie is fresh grape juice and sugar.

Once I noticed a foam layer appearing on top of the juice, I started testing it with my chilled spoons to see if it would “sheet”.  The test was a lot easier than I thought—basically when the juice isn’t ready, it will drip off the spoon after you stick it in.  Once it’s ready, those drops will form into a “sheet” and come off all at once.  It’s because the jelly is congealing as soon as it cools, so it’s getting thicker very quickly even though it’s still a liquid at boiling temperature.  Those used spoons were good for licking, too.

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Once the jelly was ready I quickly skimmed off the foam layer, grabbed the jars out of the oven, and used my sterilized big canning spoon to scoop the juice into the jars, leaving a small headspace gap on the top.  Then I placed the metal jar caps and rings on and tightened them down—the jars were really hot so that required one of my canning tools.  I got a whole kit of tools for $12 and they definitely came in handy, even if I didn’t use every single one of them.

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Turns out I had exactly enough juice to fill three 8-ounce jars.  I had read that I didn’t need to process the cans further for jelly, but I was paranoid that I hadn’t cleaned my lids well enough, so I went ahead and processed them.

To process, I returned the filled jars to my soup pot and water, making sure the jars were completely submerged. I boiled the jars for another 10 minutes.

grapes 14

I carefully removed the jars from the hot water using another one of my canning tools and put them on the stovetop to cool. I read that I needed to wait to hear a “pop” from each jar to make sure it sealed properly.  The “pop” is caused by the air inside the jar contracting as it cools and forming a vacuum.  The vacuum sucks the top of the lid down, causing a quick “pop” sound.  Only a few minutes went by before my first pop, with the third pop occurring 5 minutes after that. Happy-dance time!

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Phase 2 only took an hour, start to finish, but there was a lot going on.  I wouldn’t have had time to do anything else while I was working on phase 2 like I did in phase 1.

That weekend hubby and I sat down to a Southern breakfast tradition: warm biscuits and homemade muscadine jelly.  It turned out great!  Canning seemed pretty intimidating at first, and I still have questions, but at no point was I faced with a rocket-scientist type problem, and none of the steps were all that difficult. I look forward to next year when my garden is up and running and I can preserve some other things! Yum yum!

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