Citrus Preserved

Marmalade is a work of art that anyone can create—and with more ease than you may think.

Library of Congress
Home canning once struck me as remote and quaint—far too time-consuming to contemplate actually doing, and with the element of risk that the jars would be inadequately sterilized and I'd poison both myself and the recipients of my lovingly homemade gifts. Besides, if I wanted to store something particularly ripe and seasonal, I had the unquaint freezer. Late one summer I found myself alone at a friend's California house with exceptional tomatoes going to waste in the garden, an unopened box of canning jars in the pantry, and a deadline waiting in the study. The whole enterprise took on sudden allure. It turned out to be remarkably, even disappointingly, easy.

The question before anyone thinking of "putting food by," as the title of an authoritative manual has it, remains this: Wouldn't it be easier—and just as satisfactory—to go to the store? If the food in question is something you've grown yourself, objectivity is impossible. If, however, the food is bought, considerations of time and shelf space come into play.

In many experiments with marmalade over two winters, I decided that for citrus it's worth it. The flavor is brighter, sharper, and more distinct than it is in marmalade you can buy. (Terminology is loose, but the general distinction is that jellies are made from juice alone, jams include crushed fruit, and marmalades include citrus rind. Preserves are whole fruit or chunks of fruit in syrup, and conserves include nuts, spices, and other oddments.) You can actually tell what fruit you're eating—not always possible with marmalades from even the most homestyle-seeming producers—and even though you're using pounds of sugar at a time, the taste of the finished marmalade will be much less cloying.

Also, lemon marmalade is scarce. Indeed, I never tasted lemon marmalade until I made it. After one spoonful I realized that whatever the dictates of tradition, oranges were expendable. (The name "marmalade" didn't originally refer to citrus anyway; it derives instead from a word for quince, another tart fruit that home cooks boil with sugar.) My revelation came in another house, as I avoided another deadline, with a lemon tree outside the kitchen window; it was confirmed at home, where I used the wonderfully sweet Meyer lemons, thanks to Diamond Organics, which ships them year-round (the number is 800-922-2396). Meyer lemons, which grow in many California back yards, are thin-skinned and almost seedless, with a clean, only lightly acidic flavor. Their two peak seasons are the early fall—and now.

I was lucky in my choice of gardens: tomatoes and citrus provide easy and safe introductions to home canning, because both are high in acid, which naturally retards the growth of most micro-organisms. (Pickling is the commonest way to home-can vegetables, not because so many cooks love vinegar but because it renders low-acid vegetables safe.) Sugar, too, retards bacteria, because it chemically binds with water and ties up a natural medium for growth; it's safe to eat most jellies (and honey) long after it might be wise to throw out other bottled foods. In sweet home-canned goods the goal is to make something that jells, lest you bottle syrup. This can be a very tricky matter for many fruits. Acid, sugar, and pectin determine the "setting" point, and luckily marmalade is high in all three. Commercial pectin is usually made, in fact, from the pith (the white part of the rind) of citrus fruits.

Most marmalades, then, will jell readily and pose little danger of spoilage—if you use the classic proportion of one part sugar to one part fruit. Low-sugar preserves require the addition of commercial pectin, which makes for complications, and low-sugar marmalade is also subject to fermentation. After experimenting with reducing the proportion of sugar for fruits that seemed sweet and raising it for particularly sour ones, I came to the convenient (and to me surprising) conclusion that one to one always produces the clearest and best flavor.

This ratio is by weight: in home canning, as in serious baking, a kitchen scale is essential. So is a thermometer, to remove anxiety from the decision of when the marmalade is done. Either a jelly or a deep-fat-frying thermometer will serve; most hardware stores sell them for a few dollars. You don't need a special preserving kettle, attractive as the tinned copper ones are, with their slightly flaring sides and curved, swinging handles. Any heavy-bottomed pan wider than it is deep, so as to encourage fast evaporation, will do. Canning jars with screw-top metal lids—easier to manage, if less appealing, than jars with clamping glass lids—are available at most supermarkets and hardware stores.

Small batches are always more manageable: the preparation is easier, and so is bringing the marmalade to the setting point. As the writer Jeanne Lesem points out in her concise and informative, most of us do "not need or want … dozens of jars of anything." Still, there's no better gift than a jar of your own marmalade. Don't lose the decorative labels that come in most boxes of jars—they're necessary for pride of authorship.

The British are the world's masters of marmalade, and they have evolved many ways to make it. Guided by the no-nonsense voice of May Byron, whose Jams and Jellies was published in England in 1917 (Dover reprinted it in 1975), I tried them all, and boiled the techniques down (sorry) to three: what I call whole-fruit, cut-rind, and shredded-zest.

Several principles became clear. The first is that the fruit should be cooked until completely tender before the sugar is added. Sugar can toughen rind, and the goal of the long soaking that English recipes often call for—one, two, even three days—is to soften the fruit and release pectin into the water. You can soften the rind by simmering it for an hour, and inadequate pectin won't be a problem with any of the methods I recommend.

The second principle is that the sugar should be heated before you add it, which greatly shortens the time required to reach the setting point. ("This is a fact but rarely known," Byron says. "Remember that it is the fruit which requires cooking; the sugar only needs to dissolve," and the mixture to thicken.) There's no trick to heating sugar. Spread it in a baking pan, foil-lined for greater ease, and leave it on the middle rack of a low oven (275-300°) for fifteen or twenty minutes.

You can vary the fruit according to what you find at the market: weighing the fruit, water, and sugar liberates you from worrying about whether the citrus at hand is the right size or juicy enough. The best oranges for marmalade are bitter, or sour, oranges, which contain many pectin-rich seeds and are nearly as tart as lemons. The English call them Seville, for the Spanish region of Andalusia where in the sixth and seventh centuries conquering Moors created vast orange plantations. For a thousand years, until the Portuguese imported sweet oranges from their colonies in India, all European oranges were bitter. (Classic dishes like duck à l'orange and crepes Suzette were created for bitter oranges, which, like all oranges, are thought to have originated in China.) Today bitter oranges (Citrus aurantium) are extremely hard to find, and their season is short—usually from mid-January to mid-February. In Spain they are grown chiefly for the British marmalade market; occasionally you can find them in fancy-fruit and whole-food stores in the United States.

Sweet oranges (Citrus sinensis) are often seedless, but their thick pith makes up for the pectin lost in seeds. They work fine for marmalade as long as you include lemons to counteract their sweetness. Both "juice" and Valencia oranges are cheaper, higher in useful seeds, and often less overwhelmingly sweet than navel oranges; sourish tangerines, which often contain many seeds, are also excellent in marmalade, as are limes, if you like them. Blood oranges, with a purplish interior, are now grown in California (Sunkist calls them "moro" on the label) and are available in many supermarkets during their late-winter season, which extends into early spring; they have a winey, lightly tart flavor and make a lovely garnet-colored marmalade.

"Three-fruit" marmalade usually refers to orange, lemon, and grapefruit. I avoid grapefruit, because I find it domineering and so thick with pith that the final flavor is too bitter unless you cut most of the pith away beforehand. Yet I covet the pithy citron, a citrus that looks like a big, bumpy lemon, whose aggressively pungent flavor is familiar as one of the candied rinds in the dreaded fruitcake. It is grown in California chiefly for use in Jewish festivals (the Hebrew name is etrog; call Lindcove Ranch, at 209-732-3422, to see if citron is available). The essential two fruits for classic marmalade are oranges and lemons, in a ratio of roughly three to one. Beyond that it's up to you.

By far the easiest method of marmalade making requires no initial peeling or slicing at all, and produces what Jane Grigson, whose writing gives me the pleasure others find in Jane Austen, called in "the simplest, easiest, best-flavoured marmalade." Whole-fruit marmalade is foolproof, because it contains all the fruit's pith, and the seeds release their pectin during the boiling. It has the deepest flavor and darkest color of any kind, and is the closest to Dundee or "Oxford-cut" marmalade, with the definite taste of rind.

Whichever fruit you use, be sure to scrub the peels in warm water with a clean scrub brush (organic fruit is of course preferable for the absence of any chemical treatment). Boil the whole fruit in water to cover until it is very tender when pierced with a fork—from one to one and a half hours. Lift out the fruit and weigh it, reserving the water; set an equal weight of sugar to warm in a low oven. Halve the fruit and cut it into whatever shape you prefer—thin slices or quarter-inch cubes are usual. The cooked and halved fruit can be chopped by pulsing it in a food processor, but I prefer cutting by hand, which goes quickly and allows you to determine the shape; also, a few pulses too many will produce puree. You can pick out the seeds as you go, but it isn't essential—they will float to the surface when you boil the fruit and sugar, and are easily skimmed off.

Now comes the marmalade part. Bring the chopped fruit and an equal weight of the cooking water to a boil in a wide, shallow pan and add the warmed sugar. Boil hard uncovered, stirring to prevent sticking, and skimming off any scum and seeds, until a thermometer reads 220° F or (as is easier to see on most thermometers) 105° C. Technically the setting point is seven degrees Fahrenheit above the boiling point, which varies depending on altitude. It can take long, watched minutes of boiling for the mercury to rise each of the last seven (or eight, to be safe) degrees. If you have heated the sugar in advance and you divide the batch so that you boil only four to six cups in one pan, the climb shouldn't take more than twenty or thirty minutes.

As the marmalade approaches doneness, it thickens and darkens. Non-thermometer tests for doneness include the spoon, or "sheet," test: when poured from a wide spoon held six to twelve inches above the pan, the liquid will slowly combine into one stream, or sheet, rather than dripping in two or three rivulets. Or you can try the saucer, or "wrinkle," test: put two teaspoons or so of marmalade onto a cold saucer and leave it in the freezer for five minutes. It's ready if when you push it with your thumb, the surface wrinkles. I've come to rely on this easy test to confirm that enough evaporation has occurred after the mixture has reached the right temperature.

Whole-fruit marmalade sets like a dream, almost before it cools—other homemade marmalades can take at least a day to set, exposed to air. (You needn't be alarmed if marmalade in a jar remains loose, since the final boiling to sterilize it drives the air out of the jars.) The tradeoff for the ease and guaranteed jell of whole-fruit marmalade is a somewhat murky appearance; the jelly is cloudy rather than clear, and is often flecked with white dots from the pith. But the bitter undertone of pith is a flavor many marmalade fanciers consider absolutely essential. You can accentuate it by substituting brown sugar for a third to half of the weight of the sugar. Sliced fresh ginger or pieces of candied ginger are also good additions.

The cut-rind method results in a less complex but purer fruit taste, with a lighter color and clear jelly. Cut-rind marmalade is looser than whole-fruit, but I prefer its cleaner, more staccato flavor.

Scrub the fruit and juice it, scraping out each juiced half and reserving all the seeds and pulp. Slice the rind into pieces of the size you prefer. Turn out t he reserved pulp and seeds onto a doubled square of cheesecloth and tie it closed. Weigh the rind with the bundle and add enough water to the juice to bring it to an equal weight. Simmer the rind and the bundle in the liquid in a pot tall and narrow enough for the rind to remain submerged. Cook until the rind is completely tender—about forty-five minutes to an hour. Twenty minutes or so before it is done, heat an equal weight of sugar. When the rind is cooked, remove the bag, scraping off any bits of rind, and squeeze it gently over the pot. Add the heated sugar and boil until thick.

The purest flavor of all results from first removing the zest (the colored part of the rind) with a potato peeler or a sharp knife and slicing it into shreds or small squares, and then paring away and discarding the pith. This is the best way to showcase the delicate flavor of, say, blood oranges—or Meyer lemons. Be sure that lemons for an all-lemon marmalade are fresh; the riper any fruit is, the less pectin it contains. I follow the cut-rind method, simmering the shredded zest and the sliced flesh with an equal weight of water for about forty minutes, adding an equal weight of heated sugar, and boiling it hard for several minutes after the thermometer says it's ready—with lemon marmalade small batches and fast evaporation seem particularly important to ensure a jell. The zest of Meyer lemons is a pleasure to remove and cut, and the intense, perfumed flavor is incomparable. I can't wait to spread lemon marmalade on a (bought) sponge-cake shell and top it with the season's first berries and whipped cream.

Canning need not cause anxiety. Straightforward instructions, sometimes even with pictures, appear right on the boxes of jars, and any number of books contain reassuring information. My favorite is Preserving Today, which is about to be reprinted in paperback; Edon Waycott's has useful prefatory material. , by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, is an oversized picture book that is surprisingly substantial, with excellent recipes.

A few tips the canning instructions sometimes leave out: Use the biggest pot you own, and put a folded dish towel or, preferably, a terry-cloth towel at the bottom, to keep the jars from rattling against one another (the cloth won't burn, and terry cloth stays put). Before filling the boiled, sterilized jars, let cooked marmalade rest for ten minutes so that the peel won't sink to the bottom; when it's ready you'll see a skin on the surface that will ripple at a touch. Boiling-hot glass is far more fragile than cool glass, so resist the urge to shift the position of the jars in the boiling water, and lift them out carefully onto a clean towel (never onto cold metal). Thick rubber gloves give you a surer grip than the tongs most books recommend.

I've found that marmalade isn't balanced and ready to eat for at least a month (store jars in a cool, dark place). They say that all jams should be consumed within a year, but when I recently tasted last year's marmalade, I found it even better for the aging—stronger, with a marvelously fresh flavor. But then, by that time I practically felt as if I had grown the fruit myself.