A few years ago, we planted a couple of grape vines to add variety to our vegetable and flower gardens. We expected the plants to be a fun addition, but little did we realize what flavorful jelly they would offer, or that making grape jelly is so easy.
Our ranch borders the eastern Sandhills in north-central Nebraska, so we selected standard Concord vines that are winter hardy. The vines were easy to plant in our sandy soil, and, in traditional ranch-innovation fashion, we used a couple of discarded hog panels wired to three steel fence posts for the trellis.
The grapes didn’t seem to mind because within two years they produced enough fruit to make a batch of jelly.
Picky about picking
Great jelly comes from great grapes, so it pays to be selective. Pick grapes when they are in their prime and their color and flavor are intense. Pluck them in clusters to minimize damage, and remove the individual berries from their stems after washing.
Although it is best to make jelly right after picking, this is not always feasible. You can store grapes (for a few days) in the refrigerator until you have the time to process them. Jelly-making doesn’t have to be done all at once. It can be put on hold at several points until you have time to complete the process.
Proper pulp processing
Select firm, unblemished grapes and place them in a kettle. You will need about 3½ pounds of grapes to make about 8 half-pints of jelly. If you find you do not have quite enough grapes, try adding a few from the store or local farmer’s market.
Add about a half cup to 1 cup of filtered water (not chlorinated tap water) and place the kettle over heat. Bring the mix to a boil and simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes. This process releases the juice, which will be abundant. Mash the grapes with a potato masher or fork. Turn off the heat and let the mixture cool to ease handling during the filtering step. Cooled grapes can be refrigerated overnight if necessary.
Filter the juice using a colander lined with cheesecloth (or similar fabric) placed over a suitable container. I like cloth diapers because they are much sturdier than cheesecloth, can be reused many times and launder well. Ladle the grape mash into the colander and allow the juice to filter into the bowl.
When most of the juice has filtered, carefully pick up the edges of the cloth and twist them together. Gently squeeze the cloth to hasten filtering. Do not squeeze forcefully as that might cause seeds to erupt through the cloth and into the juice.
When finished, discard the seeds and pulp in the compost pile.
Cooked, filtered juice can be stored in clean jars in the refrigerator for several days if needed. I like to allow the juice to cool at least overnight because any sediment will settle to the bottom and can be discarded.
Preserving the jell
When you are ready to make jelly, have sterilized canning jars, flat lids and rings ready. Fill a water-bath canner and place it over high heat (see “Canning Made Easy,” September/October 2007).
Measure the sugar (usually 7 cups) recommended by your brand of fruit pectin into a large mixing bowl or plastic pitcher and set aside.
Measure 5 cups of filtered grape juice into a deep-sided 8-quart kettle to accommodate the rolling boil that will be needed later. If you do not have a full 5 cups of juice, you can add a little water or add canned or bottled (not reconstituted frozen) unsweetened grape juice to make a full 5 cups.
Sprinkle fruit pectin, such as Sure Jell brand, over the surface of the juice, and stir until dissolved. Place over high heat and stir constantly until the mixture comes to a rolling boil. Add the sugar all at once and stir until a full rolling boil returns, and boil for one minute. Turn off the heat. Let the hot jelly settle for a minute or two and skim off any surface foam. Ladle the clear liquid into sterilized jars, wipe rims with a clean cloth and place the flat lids in position. Screw the rings on tightly and lower jars carefully into the boiling water-bath.
Allow the water-bath to come to a full rolling boil with the jars in place. Boil for 5 to 10 minutes and turn off heat. Carefully remove jars with jar tongs and place on a clean cloth. Allow the jars to cool.
Check the lids to see if a seal has been formed. If seals have not formed on any of the jars, refrigerate them. Canned jelly should be stored in a cupboard and used within a year.
Making grape jelly is a simple, pleasurable way to preserve a little summer sunshine along with the intense flavor of home-grown fruit that can be savored throughout the year.
Biologist and freelance writer Jennifer Burtwistle is a former city-dweller joyfully embracing life as a ranch wife and mom in north-central Nebraska.