I am republishing this at the request of a fan of my former blog site. When Apple, in their infinite wisdom, decided to end iWeb and MobileMe websites, out went my blog. Fortunately, I copied all the posting contents into my awesome MacGourmet program, so I still have all the content. It will take me a while, but I will get it all back up here for my adoring fans :-) (and thank you for the adoration, it means a lot to me).
Anyone who lives in a place where grapes like to grow soon discovers that grape vines like to produce lots of grapes. Let me say that again...grape vines like to produce LOTS OF GRAPES. Given the right conditions, grapes are one of the most tenacious vines you will ever encounter. All they need is a little water and some heat and sunlight, and they just grow and grow. My first (and still current) home had a wonderful trellis over the backyard deck, so I decided it was appropriate to plant some grape vines that could then climb and create some wonderful shade, which they have done marvelously. I planted some Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon vines. It was not long before I realized that I would end up with more grapes than I could ever imagine.
These varietals, as you perhaps know, are wine grapes. I am truly a lover of fine wine, and it was for this very reason I decided not to make wine. I am quite certain that it would be fun to do, and I am sure I will give it a try...someday. For now, I think I will trust the making of wine to the many wonderful winemakers scattered within anywhere from 3 to 40 miles away from my house, or even further than that, thanks to the availability at my local wine merchants. I decided instead it was best for me to dabble in the fine art of preserve making. After all, homemade preserves make wonderful Christmas gifts, and my family just loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Yes, preserves it had to be.
The good old fashioned American Concord grape is, by far, the most popular grape jelly grape in the United States. Every child in America is familiar with the deep purple goodness this grape has delivered to many a PB&J or slice of toasted Wonder Bread in the form of Welch’s (and other) Grape Jelly. I have had the pleasure of making some grape jelly from this wonderful varietal, and it was every bit as good as (if not better than) the store bought grape jelly of my youth.
Some may ask “But isn’t homemade always better?” and my answer to that is a resounding “NO”. Homemade is better for most foods, but it is not generally better when you have a food “memory”. McDonald’s does not make what I would consider a good hamburger, but they make the BEST “McDonald’s Food” I have ever tasted. I mean really...take a deliciously prepared hamburger grilled on your outdoor grill and compare it to a Quarter Pounder and you will quickly see the difference (as if you must do this to know the difference). Now, I do not frequent McDonald’s, but when I want that taste borne of the years of childhood food memories, there simply is no substitute. The same goes for cheapo yellow mustard on a hot dog, American Cheese on a grilled cheese sandwich, and grape jelly. I expect it to taste a certain way, and my homemade concord grape jelly tasted like the real thing. What is even more amazing is that my lovely wife, Becky, who is a bonafide PB&J junkie thought so as well, and made short work out of devouring my stash. Oh well ! I made it for her anyway.
This takes me to my wine grapes. While the concord is ideal for grape jelly, wine grapes are ideal for wine. Does this mean that wine grapes cannot make good preserves ? Absolutely not ! Wine grapes make absolutely FANTASTIC preserves, but you have to understand when and how in order to achieve success. Wine grapes generally are intensely flavored (a very good thing), and when fully ripened are ridiculously high in sugar and low in acid. They are indeed pleasant to taste at this point, but you will soon grow tired of the cloying sweetness of ripe wine grapes (yes, they are THAT sweet). The concern with using fully ripened wine grapes for preserves, however, is that in order for proper setting to occur with pectin, you need a correct balance of pectin, sugar, and acid. Fully ripened grapes are too low in acid to guarantee a good set, as well as being too high in sugar. When you purchase pectin at your local grocery store (I use MCP or SureGel) the instructions for grape preserves are generally balanced for concord grapes. It is therefore important to try to strike a balance with wine grapes that closely resembles the concord grape profile.
If Using MCP Pectin:
5 cups Grape Juice or Juice and Pulp (about 6 lb. grapes)
Juice of 1 Fresh Lemon
1 box MCP Pectin
5 1/3 cups Sugar
If Using Sure Jell Pectin:
6 1/2 cups Grape Juice or Juice and Pulp (about 7 lb. grapes)
Juice of 1 Fresh Lemon
1 box Sure Jell Pectin
7 cups Sugar
1. Prepping Canning Materials Clean and sterilize 8 - 8 oz. canning jars and bands. Wash canning lids in soap and hot water. The best way to sterilize the jars is to wash them in a dishwasher and leave them in there until ready to can (the heat from the dishwasher will sterilize them). The best way to sterilize the bands is to boil them in water. Turn off the heat and when the boiling stops you can drop the washed lids in with the bands, but do not boil the lids. You should also wash a pair of kitchen tongs or a magnetic lid lifter as well, and place them in the boiled water with the bands and lids, with enough sticking out of the pot so you can easily remove it. You do not want to touch anything with your hands that will be in contact with the jar contents once they are sterilized.
2. Sourcing Grapes So what does this all mean ? How do I know when the grapes are right for preserving ? I simply taste them. As the grapes ripen they will go from tannic and sour to sweet and tasty. The sweetness continues to build as time goes on. I pick them for preserving when they resemble table grapes in sweetness. No rocket science is needed for this, just taste the grapes. There should be a bit of acidity in the flavor profile, and tannins should be a bit tame. At this point you generally have a few weeks where the grapes are good for preserving, so if you want to spread the chore over a few weekends (as I did), rest assured that you will be okay.
If you have several varietals of grapes (as I do) you can either combine them into a “Meritage Blend” of sorts, or make a preserve for each individual flavor. They are your grapes, so the choice is yours. The resulting preserves will be delicious either way. I chose to make a clear grape jelly from the Sauvignon Blanc grapes, which resulted in a gorgeous jelly with the color of fine champagne. I chose to turn the Zinfandel and Cabernet into individual grape jams, and then I took all three and made a “Meritage” grape jam. All turned out fantastic!
3. Prepping Grapes After picking my grapes I put them in a sink of cold water and washed they very well. You may wish to rinse them off with a hose while outside before this step, as there are going to be lots of little insects and spiders to contend with. After a thorough washing I removed the grapes from the stems and put them in a large bowl and crushed them all by hand. You can also use a potato masher for this, but do not use a blender or food processor. You do not really want to mince up seeds for your preserves, as the seeds tend to be tannic and can throw off your flavors. Just crush them. After they are crushed put them in a pot and bring them to a gentle boil, skimming off any foam that collects at the top. I like to add a pinch of sea salt at this point. Boil the grapes for no more than 10 minutes. You want to extract some of the tannins from the skins and seeds, as well as the color from the skins. After the 10 minutes are up, turn off the heat and let the grapes cool to room temperature. During this time the color will extract from the skins and deepen the color of the juice and pulp. Once the grapes are at room temperature, you will want to strain out the seeds and skins.
If making jelly you will also want to strain out the pulp. Let’s talk about the differences.
The difference between jam and jelly is the presence of or absence of pulp. Jam contains the juice and pulp and jelly contains only juice. For a light colored (white) grape I like to make jelly, as I like the clarity. To accomplish this I strain the grapes through a fine sieve and then let the juice sit in the refrigerator overnight to allow the solids from the grape juice to settle. I carefully pour the clear juice off the top of the vessel, reserving it for my jelly, and discard the cloudy sediment. For a dark colored grape, I do not bother with this step, and opt instead to get as much pulp as I can by passing the grapes through my hand cranked food mill, discarding the seeds and skins to the compost heap. At this point, you are ready to make your preserves. You will need some pectin, sugar, and lemons, as well as some canning jars. Please refer to my posting on preserving tomatoes for guidance about canning jars.
Generally, you will need approximately 1 or 2 lemons, 4-5 cups of sugar, and a quart of grape juice or juice and pulp per box of either MCP or SureGel pectin. You can use any pectin you like, just make sure you follow the directions for amounts that come with the pectin. Nearly all the recipes I have used call for the addition of water to my grape juice and pulp, but I opt to use more grape juice instead, and have never had a problem. The lemons will be used for lemon juice, which is required for acidity in the recipe. Follow the recipe on the package (with my substitutions if you wish) and you will get a good set. DO NOT cut back on what will appear to you as an enormous amount of sugar.
4. Stir the Pectin into the Juice (or Juice and Pulp) with the Lemon Juice until completely dissolved.
5. Bring this to a rolling boil while stirring.
6. Add all the Sugar at once and stir in until completely dissolved.
7. Bring back to a full rolling boil and cook exactly 2 minutes.
8. Canning Fill sterilized jars to within an inch from the top and then top with a lid and band. I use a magnetic lid lifter to lift the bands and lids out of the sterilized water bath, and a canning funnel to get the contents in the jar without spillage.
9. Sterilizing Filled Jars Boil the jars in a pot of water that has some paper towels in the bottom (or a cloth towel) to prevent the jars from cracking. Make sure you have enough water to completely cover the jars. Boil for 10 minutes, and then let the jars cool in the water a bit to make them easier to remove. You can remove the jars with a jar lifter, but I use kitchen thongs.
10. The jars should form a vacuum and seal. Do not re-tighten the bands, as this may break the seal. The center of the band should snap down when the seal is complete. If you have a jar or two that does not snap down, simply refrigerate those jars and use them first. They will keep for months in the refrigerator.
11. Sealed jars can be stored in a cool and dark place for years (although they do not last for years at my house). Make sure you label the jars with the contents and date.
Cutting back on sugar is a sure guarantee that your preserves will not set. Once your preserves are cooked, it is time to can them, and this needs to be done while the cooked mixture is still liquid. Ladle the cooked preserves into the jars and seal them using the method outlined in my preserving tomatoes blog entry. Properly canned preserves will keep for years. Make sure to label the jars with the contents and canning date. You will probably have a lot of preserves, so give some away as Christmas gifts. Your friends and family will love you for it.
As for the rest of the grapes, thank God the birds love them.
Enjoy in good health !