No Pectin Cherry Jam


(Reader alert: This is a blog entry with lots of memories before getting to the recipe. If you are just looking for how to make cherry jam, scroll to the bottom of the post.)

I grew up in the upper Midwest where the climate was too cold for sweet cherries but where “pie cherries”–a kinder name for sour cherries–were common in many back yards. In our area, pies were the main way these were served, and there was even some kind of state level cherry pie contest back in the 50s. I haven’t found it yet on the internet, but I remember that a family friend, Mary Stewart, was a finalist (maybe even winner?) for it. Because she had to have a “perfect” pie for the finals, she was baking one about every day, so we had a lot of opportunities to both watch her demonstrate her method and have the fruits of much of her labor. I remember watching in wonder as she deftly lifted the pastry strips and made the most beautiful lattice tops, something I have never been able to duplicate.

Even after our family moved to a home where there was a cherry tree in the orchard, that was never enough to keep our family supplied with all the fruit we loved, for our own pies and just plain “cherry sauce:” sweetened canned cherries served as a simple dessert on brisk winter evenings.

To make sure there were always plenty of quart jars of the bright red fruit on the basement shelves, Mom would buy at least one 30 pound can of frozen Michigan cherries each year. These were a wondeful convenience food, as the shiny copper-colored cans contained pre-sweetened and pitted cherries, ready to be heated, divided among many quart jars, and put in the water bath canner to be preserved for colder days ahead.

There was one year, however, when something went wrong, either in the labeling or at the factory where the cherries were processed. We didn’t realize it until sometime in the fall when Mom made the first cherry pie from the batch for friends at one of our usual Sunday dinners.

The pie was as beautiful as all of Mom’s pies, but the first person to take a bite (of course, one of the guests) immediately stopped chewing and slowly withdrew not one but two cherry pits from his mouth. Now, it was not at all uncommon to find a very occasional pit in these mechanically pitted cherries, but all of soon became aware that this batch of cherries was completely unpitted. Amidst the ensuing laughter we all enjoyed a very tasty pie as we spit out pits almost like one might eat a seeded watermelon. I have since found some sites online that indicate cooks in some countries deliberately leave the pits in, considering them to provide a richer cherry flavor. I’m not sure about that, but I do know we spent the rest of that season enjoying the cherries as usual, just now knowing what we would encounter as we ate.

Apparently from my youngest days, I was a great lover of cherries, begging, so my parents would tell me, for “just one more bowl full,” no matter how many I had already had.  It’s no surprise then, that I planted two cherry trees a few years ago after moving back to the Midwest. My kids here in town had already planted trees on both their lots so they were a couple of years ahead of me.

And that is a good thing.

My first cherry crop, prior to squirrel depredation

Last year, when I thought I finally had a large enough harvest to perhaps make one dessert or maybe even a batch of jam, I came home from a weekend out of town to find my tree totally without any fruit. It appeared that it was both birds and squirrels, since birds usually eat the fruit and leave the seeds, and the squirrels were seen nibbling away on whole cherries as well as the leftover seeds. This year, there were quite a few more cherries so I was sure I would have at least some left to enjoy.


In only a couple of days, both trees were pretty well stripped clean, before most of the cherries had even a bit of pink on them, so I hadn’t yet gotten netting over them.

Fortunately, my kids were again luxuriating in their own harvests, and last night one of my daughters-in-law picked over 5 pounds of cherries for me. While I did hold the ladder for her a few times, she really did all the work and handed a bulging bag over to me for whatever use I might have for them.

So today I made some delightful cherry jam in little over an hour and a half. No special equipment and only cherries, sugar, and lemon juice. Now I have over a quart and a half of jam to put in pretty little containers to go along with loaves of fresh bread for housewarming, Christmas or hostess gifts. And still enough to spread on toast for a quick breakfast now and then.

Some hints along the way:

I found one site that said you should start out by wearing something red. While that may work, you really need to be sure that you are wearing something that is not at all valuable, since you almost assuredly will get cherry juice someplace on your shirt (and pants and tablecloth and…), and you also most assuredly have great, great difficulty washing any stains out. So be warned; this is not the timy to be a fashionista.

Pitting the cherries:
If you have lots of cherries available to you, you may want to invest in a cherry pitter, but if you are like me, I’d rather not clutter up my shelves with one more single use gadget. My kids’ great-grandmother would take an old-fashioned, brand new hairpin (not a bobby pin) and use it to pop out the pits quickly and cleanly. Not having access to hairpins, I soon discovered that a small paper clip can achieve the same results.

It is a little hard to describe, but try this:  holding the paper clip in your right hand (lefties, use your left hand), insert the end without the double loop into a cherry at the place where the stem had been attached. Press the paper clip in far enough to “catch” on the pit and pull gently. The pit will just pop out and into the bowl that  you should of course have waiting. Put the pitless cherry in another bowl and repeat. Once you get a rhythm going, you may be surprised how quickly this goes.

Do it now:
Cherries are much like peaches, apples, and other fruits that brown very quickly after being cut or pitted. To keep the jam as bright as possible, plan to move immediately from the pitting stage to making jam.

Pitting cherries is the kind of activity that is much less tedious and much more fun if done with others. It is a great job for grandparents and kids, especially with the promise of cherry jam over fresh bread at the end of the process!

Not enough cherries?
One of the nice things about not using pectin to make jam is that you can just use the ratios of sugar to fruit and lemon juice and adjust to whatever amount of fruit that you have. However, when I ended up with only about 2 cups of cherries one day. I didn’t really want to go through all the steps for so little product. Since my raspberries have started their usual lavish production, I just stretched the jam by combining the two fruits. My variation is below. You could also stretch the cherries with finely chopped apples. Other combinations could also work, but you should be aware that the pectin levels of different fruits vary enough to make the results a little more or less firm. Not to worry: If it’s too thin, you have a fine topping for ice cream, pancakes, etc. If it is too thick, you can always warm it with a little added water, apple juice, etc.

Cherry Jam without Pectin

5 pounds sour cherries, about 10 cups pitted
1/4 c lemon juice (for most consistent results, use the reconstituted bottled stuff like ReaLemon)
4 to 5 cups sugar

1.  Put a small glass or china plate in the freezer. Pit the cherries. As you pit the cherries, toss them occasionally with the lemon juice to slow the browning.

2.  If desired, chop the cherries lightly in a processor or just leave them whole. 
3.  Put the cherries in a large pan–since the mixture will boil up, as much as double in height, be sure to use a large enough pan. Stir in the sugar and allow the sugar and cherries to sit for 20 to 30 minutes.
4.  Bring the cherry mixture to a boil over medium to high heat, stirring often to avoid sticking. Continue cooking until the jelling point is reached.

How will I know what that “jelling point” is? Use one or more of the following tests:

  • A candy thermometer should reach 220 degrees for at least 3 to 4 minutes.
  • Put a teaspoon or so of jam on the plate from the freezer. Run your finger down the center of the jam. If it holds its shape and does not run together, the jam is firm enough.
  • Put a little of the jam on the stirring spoon and allow it to run back into the pan. If the jam “sheets” off the spoon–the droplets come together and fall down slowly–it is ready.

5.  Remove the jam from heat and ladle into sterilized jars. If you want to keep the jam on the shelf and out of the refrigerator, process the jam in a water bath canner for 10 minutes for pints or smaller and for 15 minutes for quart jars. Even if you plan to store the jam in the refrigerator, I recommend sterilizing the jars.

6.  This amount of cherries makes about 3 to 4 pints.

Raspberry Cherry Jam

5 c fruit (I used about 3 c raspberries, 2 c cherries)
3 c sugar
2 T lemon juice

Follow the same steps as in the Cherry Jam recipe above. If desired to emphasize the cherry flavor, a teaspoon or so of almond extract can be added when the jam is removed from the heat.

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