Does the idea of home canning intimidate you? Fruit preserves are a great place to start, and with these jam making tips for beginners, you can feel confident that your creations will be safe, delicious, and just the right consistency.
How to can with confidence
If you’re new to jam-making and canning in general, I’m going to guess that you have two big concerns:
- That the jam won’t be safe and shelf-stable.
- That the jam won’t set correctly and you’ll end up with runny, crystalized, or overly thick jam.
Those are totally valid worries! But jam-making doesn’t need to be scary or overly complicated. Getting the set just right can take a little practice, but as long as you follow instructions and don’t burn the jam, you’re sure to get a tasty treat.
As far as canning safety goes – it is an issue to take seriously, since botulism is incredibly dangerous and impossible to detect with your senses alone. But if you adhere to the following jam making tips for beginners and follow your chosen, tested jam recipe carefully, you don’t need to be afraid. It’s easier than you think to can safely!
And just imagine the results! Homemade jam is far more delicious than the store-bought stuff – with complex flavors that melt on your tongue. Whether you eat it on toast or biscuits, in a PB&J sandwiches, as an ice cream topping, as the fruit on the bottom in homemade Greek yogurt (my personal favorite), or even as the glaze for pork chops, ham, or other meat, it’s a delectable treat and the perfect homemade gift any time of the year.
So let’s preserve the harvest, in the sweetest way possible!
Jam making tips for beginners
1. Use only safe, tested recipes
If you take only one thing away from this post, make sure it’s this one. If you want to store jam on the shelf, only use ph-tested recipes from reputable sources.
And don’t rely on your senses to tell you whether your canned goods are safe. Botulism can’t be seen, smelled, or tasted, but it can be deadly or debilitating nonetheless.
So I’ll repeat myself in caps: USE ONLY SAFE, TESTED RECIPES! My go-to is the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving. Don’t let the magazine format and dated cover mislead you – it has a wide variety of classic and creative recipes, clear instructions, and a guide to canning safety that I refer to often.
Still want to use Grandma’s famous jam recipe? Either contact your local extension office about having it tested, or just use it as a freezer jam, rather than storing it on the shelf.
2. Dress smart
So, this might seem like the silliest of my jam making tips for beginners, but if I know I’ll be making jam, I’ll dress accordingly. Jam is cooked at high, boiling temperatures, and sometimes that hot jam splatters. An old, long sleeved t-shirt that you don’t mind getting sticky, and an oven mitt go a long way (I especially like grill mitts that are designed for better dexterity than traditional oven mitts). Your hands and forearms will thank you.
3. Gather and sanitize all your supplies
- Canning jars and bands (I think quilted jars are especially pretty)
- New lids
- Boiling water bath canner
- Canning lifter tongs
- Potato masher
- Candy thermometer
- A large pot or dutch oven
- Oven or grill mitts
- Measuring cups and spoons
- A heat safe ladle
- A heat safe Funnel
- Headspace measuring tool
4. Use new inner lids every time
This might seem like a pain, but if you’ve used your canning jars before, you’ll want to purchase new inner lids before making jam to ensure a proper seal. There’s a shortage on them this year, but normally they’re inexpensive and relatively easy to find. I stock up whenever I find them for a good price.
5. Choose good quality fruit
Jam and other canned goods will always turn out best if you use fresh, ripe, in-season produce. The better the fruit, the better the jam will be. Underripe or overripe fruit will throw off the texture, set, sweetness, and potentially even the shelf-stability of the finished product.
6. Make sure you’re using the right kind of pectin
Low sugar or natural sweetener (fruit juice, honey, maple syrup, etc.) recipes will generally call for Pomona’s Universal Pectin or Ball Low or No Sugar Needed Pectin and I definitely wouldn’t recommend trying to substitute regular pectin – your jam won’t set properly.
7. Use a large pot
This is a personal preference thing for me that goes along with tip number 2. I hate having my arms burned by splatters of hot jam, and I’ve found that happens less when I use a larger pot.
8. Stir, stir, stir!
When the recipe tells you to stir, it means it! Stir continuously while heating the jam to avoid inconsistent texture and set or burned jam.
9. After letting the jam set, skim any foam off the surface
The white-ish foam that forms on top of your jam isn’t a problem; it’s just a result of the boiling process. If you stir thoroughly right after turning off the heat, you can often incorporate it into the rest of the jam.
But if you still end up with foam after the jam has set, just skim it off before pouring the jam into jars (and then immediately eat the foamy jam on toast, if you’re anything like me). It won’t hurt anything if you pour it into the jars, but it can ruin the pretty visual effect of rows of jewel-like jam. It’s mostly a preference thing.
10. Follow headspace instructions
Now, this is another instruction that can be tempting to ignore, but don’t do it! Different recipes have different headspace requirements, and the appropriate headspace is essential for creating a proper vacuum seal of the lid and jar.
The grids of the jar rim are in quarter inch increments, but if you’d like to be extra sure, you can use a headspace measuring tool.
11. Clean off the jar rim before placing the lids
After pouring in the hot jam, but before placing the lids, use a clean, damp rag to wipe off any jam on the jar rim or in the headspace area. This too will help ensure a proper seal.
12. Adjust water bath times according to your altitude
This is an easy, but dangerous, step to skip if you jump straight into a recipe without understanding safe canning practices. Always double check this before making jam!
Canning recipes are written for sea-level altitudes, but water boils at different temperatures depending on the altitude. Given that I live in the Mountain West, those recipes won’t work for me as written.
Every time I make jam, I double check my altitude (generally by googling or asking Siri), and then consult a canning altitude chart. Since I’m at about 4500 feet, I adjust my water bath boiling times by 10 minutes.
13. Keep the jars upright after water processing
You might be tempted to tilt the jars as you take them out of the water bath to get water off of the lids, but resist that impulse. Doing so can break the seal you’ve just worked so hard to make. And the water will evaporate off the hot lids on its own anyway.
You also may have been taught inversion canning – where you turn the jars upside down right after putting the lids on – at some point in the past. This is no longer considered a safe practice, and it creates a faulty seal. It also skips the crucial water bath step needed to prevent botulism. Don’t risk it!
14. Seeing a white powder on the outside of the jars? Don’t be alarmed
This happens every time I water-bath can anything, and at first I worried it meant I had done something wrong. It turns out it’s just mineral deposits from hard water – nothing to worry about!
So how do you get rid of it? Just wipe the jars down with a bit of water and white vinegar. And you can even add white vinegar to your canning water before boiling to prevent the powder from forming in the first place, a handy hint I learned from Food In Jars.
15. After the jars have cooled for several hours, test the lids
Let the jars sit and cool for 12-24 hours, then gently unscrew the band and see if you can lift the inner lid off. Hopefully it will hold tight, and you can put the jam away.
But if it’s loose or pulls off, all is not lost! Just repeat the waterbath process.
And that’s all there is to it! That doesn’t seem too hard, does it?
Do you have any other jam making tips for beginners? Please share them in the comments!