The Concord Grape Harvest

We're having a big year with the grapes. Not only did we finish the arbor, but we have also enjoyed harvesting at least a few grapes of each of our four varieties. Our best crop of grapes by far is from our Concord vines. Unlike last year's harvest of just a handful of grapes, this year we have had literal bunches. We've been snacking on the them in passing for a week or two, and this week I brought in a little over three pounds:

Too many grapes to eat before they go bad, so it's time to make grape jam!

As always, I checked the Ball Blue Book first, but then went online to try to find a lower-sugar version. The last time I made a no-pectin jam from the Ball Book, it was good but way too sweet. These grapes taste so good off the vine — musky grapey-ness, but also lots of floral notes and a touch of acidity — that I didn't want to obliterate their flavor with all that sugar. 

I found a low(er) sugar grape jam recipe at Epicurious, but I played with it to use even less sugar and a faster cooking time to try to maintain as much of the natural grape flavor as I could. Here's what I did:

1. Gather ingredients: 3 pounds of Concord grapes, 2 cups of sugar, 1 lemon. You'll also need to fire up the canner and prepare about 7 of those tiny, 4-oz. jelly jars. 

2. Remove the stems and add grapes to the food processor:

I left the few unripe green ones in the mix, to no ill effect.

2. Blitz the grapes to separate the skins from the pulp:

This doesn't take many pulses, and you want to do it in small batches to avoid the liquid rising too high and causing leaks.

3. Combine the juice of the lemon, sugar, and grape mash into a large pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to keep from sticking:

I also added the spent lemon rinds, working under the assumption that they would help add some natural pectin to the mixture, which would in turn help the jam set up without having to cook it for quite so long.

4. Boil for 20 minutes, still stirring and generally keeping an eye on the pot:

5. Remove from heat, discard the lemon rinds, and process the jam in a food mill to remove most of the skins (and seeds, if your grapes are seeded):

You can also press it through a sieve if you don't have a food mill. Either way, be careful with the lava-hot, sugary syrup.

6. Put the strained mixture back in the pot on the stove and boil it until it sets:

Though the Epicurious recipe suggested an additional 35 minutes for this, mine was done in just 10. (I attribute this to those lemon rinds, but that's just a guess.)

7. How do you know when it's set? That's the scary part of jam making. I tested it with a metal spoon: 

The idea here is that when it has enough body to hold together and stick to the back of the spoon, it's done. Because it's hot, it will still look pretty runny, but you just have to trust it.

8. Put the jam in jars, screw on the lids, and process in the canner for 10 minutes. 

That's it. I was very anxious to give it a taste test, especially since I had played pretty fast and loose with the recipe. Adjusting the pectin-sugar-acid ratio in jams is tricky, because you need enough of all three to make it set. But each fruit has a different amount of each naturally (and this can also vary based on variety, growing conditions, etc.)

So we held our breath and opened one the next evening. And took a spoon to it:

Whew! Good and thick — definitely jelled. On to the taste test:

The texture is perfect! The flavor is grapey and very bright. I wouldn't say it tastes lemony, exactly, but it has a pretty strong acidity to it. (The kids didn't notice the lemon at all, and liked the jam a lot, so maybe my perception is altered a bit by knowing the ingredients.) It's definitely not too sweet, so mission accomplished there. I think in the future I will try using just the juice of half the lemon, but still use the rinds. 

The funny thing is that I'm not actually a huge grape jelly fan. But since I expect to have a lot of Concord grapes to work with each year, we can keep experimenting to try to tweak this recipe to the perfect balance for the unique flavor of our backyard grapes.  


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