Given their grocery store ubiquity, it is easy to forget that grapes are best enjoyed seasonably. The best fall grapes are truly ephemeral, appearing on shelves as soon as the air begins to chill, and departing far too soon afterward. In California, much of the attention goes to those destined for wine barrels: cabernet, chardonnay, merlot, and pinot. But fresh table grapes, those with hearty skins and copious seeds, deserve just as much attention.
Gobbling down pounds of the fresh fruit are a great way to embrace their fleeting season, especially when paired with a nutty blue cheese or a few slices of smoky speck, but I wanted to harness their sweet-tart juice for the winter to come. I thought of conserves and jams, but couldn’t stop imagining a perfectly giggly and brilliantly purple jar of jelly.
Here’s the catch: I am not, and have never been, a huge grape jelly fan. Something about the combination of cooked Welch’s and corn syrup has never been an appealing condiment for crackers or almond butter sandwiches. Yet I’d never tried a homemade version. Besides, DIY recipes are always the most fun when they transform an unlikeable grocery store item into a winning pantry staple.
Jelly-making isn’t terribly difficult, but there are quite a few steps to get it right.
First, you’ll want to sterilize your jars to get ready for canning. I use my biggest stockpot with a small canning rack set in the bottom. It’ll fit 5 half-pint jars—perfect for this recipe. You can get the jars boiling while you prep the fruit; they’ll need a full 10 minutes to sterilize, and then you can leave them in the pot covered over low heat until you’re ready to add the jelly.
I used fat, juicy Concords for my jelly, but any flavorful grape with seeds will work. I like to weigh out the grapes inside my colander so they can go straight into the sink for a wash after weighing. Be sure to pick through the grapes to remove any stems, leaves, and moldy or dried grapes. If you see any unripe green grapes in the bunch, keep them. Underripe fruit has more pectin than ripe fruit, so it’s good to have a mix.
I also like to add a whole Granny Smith apple, cut into big pieces (core included) into the pot with the grapes. Granny Smiths are naturally high in pectin—they’re actually used in many DIY pectin recipes—and I like the contrasting sourness they contribute to the otherwise sweet jelly.
Once you’ve got the fruit prepped, place it in a large pot, and give it a few good mashes with a potato masher to get things going. Bring the fruit and juice to a boil, and then cook the fruit until the apples are softened. Periodically smash grapes while the fruit is cooking to make sure they release all of their juice.
Hard-core jelly fanatics often say that the only way to drain jelly is to let it slowly drip through a jelly bag overnight. A second straining the next morning is not unheard of. I am not that much of a fanatic. Instead, I drain the juice through a cheesecloth-lined colander. I try not to press on the grapes too much since it will make the final jelly cloudier, but a little nudge or two doesn’t hurt anything. After about 20 minutes, the draining will slow down, and you can discard the pulp.
To determine the amount of sugar you’ll need to set the jelly, you’ll need to measure out the juice. I like to use equal parts sugar and juice, by volume. This means if you have 4 1/2 cups juice, you’ll need to add 4 1/2 cups sugar. Add the measured juice and sugar back to the pot (which you’ve cleaned in the meantime, right?).
If you want to flavor your jelly in any way, now is the time. Tie up any spices or herbs in a small packet using cheesecloth and a bit of butcher’s twine. Here I’ve got a tablespoon each of fennel and black peppercorns. Leave enough string to tie the packet to your pot handle so you can fetch it out easily. Place the packet in the juice and sugar mixture.
Bring the juice and sugar mixture to a boil over medium-high heat while stirring to dissolve the sugar. Once the mixture reaches a vigorous boil, toss in a little butter. In what seems like an act of magic, the butterfat will help reduce foaming as the jelly boils. It won’t prevent boiling over, so be sure to stir regularly as the jelly cooks. If you’re using a seasoning packet, taste occasionally as you’re cooking the jelly to gauge the flavor. Once you can taste your seasonings, remove the seasoning packet.
I tried making the jelly with and without pectin, but found that the jelly made with pectin needed far too much sugar to set properly. I wanted to taste grapes, not sugar. To set the jelly without pectin, you need to cook the jelly until it reaches a temperature of 220 degrees throughout. But don’t just look for a single 220-degree reading. There are often pockets of higher temperature sugar in the pot, so be sure to give the jelly mixture a few good stirs and check the temperature several times. As extra insurance, I’ll often cook the jelly until I get a reading of 222; that way, I know that the rest of the jelly is at least 220 degrees.
Carefully remove the jars from the canning pot. Use a ladle and canning funnel to fill the jars with the jelly mixture, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace between the top of the jelly and the top of the jar. Wipe any jelly drips from the rims of the jars with a wet towel dipped in hot water. Top the jars with the flat lid and screw on the rings just until it is closed (“finger-tip” tight). You don’t want to close the jars too tightly because you want oxygen to bubble out while the jars are boiling.
Return the filled jars to the canning and the water back to a rolling boil. Once the water reaches a boil, set a timer for 5 minutes. Many older canning books call for at least 10 minutes of boiling because it was believed that anything canned using a water bath need at least that long to reach 210 degrees in the center of the jar. But since the jelly is not dense and the jars are small, they only need 5 minutes to reach the proper temperature.
Remove the jars from the canner and place them on the towel-lined counter or baking sheet. Let them cool completely before storing them. You should hear all of the lids “ping” shut; if not, you’ll need to refrigerate any jars with imperfect seals.
Spooned atop a schmear of homemade cream cheese, this grape jelly is worlds away from the dreaded Welch’s of my youth. The sweet, faintly musty flavor of the concords truly shines through; it’s a great snack today, but will be even better come January when fall grapes are a distant memory.
Recipe: Concord Grape Jelly
Makes about 5 half-pint jars
5 pounds concord grapes or other flavorful, seeded grape
1 Granny Smith apple, chopped with core, seeds, and skin
4–5 cups granulated sugar
2 tablespoons seasonings like lemon peel, ginger, black peppercorns, fennel seeds, or rosemary sprigs (optional)
1 packet liquid pectin
1/4 teaspoon unsalted butter
1 canning set-up including large stockpot or canning pot, canning rack, jar lifter, and jar funnel
6 half-pint mason jars
1 large bowl
First, sterilize six half-pint canning jars: Place jars on a rack set in the canning pot. Cover the jars with water by at least 2 inches. Bring water to a rolling boil, and let jars boil for 10 minutes. Reduce heat to low, cover pot, and let jars sit in hot water until jelly is finished cooking.
Place jar lids and bands in small bowl, and ladle boiling water from canning pot to cover completely. Let the lids sit in the water until the jelly is finished cooking.
To make the jelly: Place the grapes and apple in large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Smash a few grapes with potato masher to release juice. Bring mixture to a boil, and cook, smashing occasionally, until the grapes are very juicy and the apples are softened, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer to cheesecloth-lined colander set in large bowl. Let juice drip gently until pulp is relatively dry, about 20 minutes. Do not squeeze or press on the pulp. While grapes are draining, clean out pot.
Measure the volume of juice. You should have between 4 and 5 cups. Measure out an equal amount of sugar by volume.
Combine juice and sugar in now-clean pot. If using seasoning, tie spices and/or herbs in small packet of cheesecloth. Tie packet to the handle of the pot and place packet in the juice.
While stirring to dissolve the sugar, bring mixture to a vigorous boil over medium-high heat. Add butter, and stir to dissolve. Continue to boil jelly, stirring regularly to prevent boiling over, until the jelly mixture registers 220-222 degrees. This should take about 20 minutes. Remove from heat, discard seasoning packet, and skim off any foam from surface of the jelly.
Carefully remove jars from canning pot, draining water from jars back into pot, and place on towel-lined counter or baking sheet next to the cooked jelly.
Using a ladle and funnel, pour the jelly into the hot, sterilized jars leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Wipe rim with a wet paper towel or clean dishtowel dipped in hot water. Top with flat lid. Screw on ring finger-tight.
Place jars on rack in canning pot and bring water to a rolling boil. Rapidly boil jars for 5 minutes. Submerge the jars in a pot of water and boil for 5 minutes. Carefully remove the jars and let cool on towel-lined counter. Check the jar lids to make sure they’ve fully sealed; refrigerate any jars with imperfect seals.