From Scratch: Sorting Out Fruit Spreads

August 9, 2012

spreadable fruit
Clockwise from top left: jelly, preserves, jam, and marmalade (photo by Joseph De Leo; styled by Mariya Yufest)

Fruit spreads have been on our minds a lot lately, and now that we're in the midst of summer’s fruited peak, it’s time to get serious about storing some of that bounty for later (even if that means later this week). Here, we demystify key terms -- namely jams, jellies, preserves, and marmalades -- and then offer a few ideas for enjoying them beyond spreading on toast.

If you haven’t made homemade fruit spreads before, start with a small batch, so you can tweak sweetness and play with flavor combinations, and build from there. If you're a pro in this arena, share your tips and tricks in the comments section, below. Others will benefit!

Fruit Spread Lingo and Basic Tenets

  • Pectin, a water-soluble substance that performs like gelatin when combined with sugar (helping the fruit spread to set and thicken), comes in powder or liquid form, and is usually derived from apples.
  • Many fruits (including apples, cranberries, citrus, and most berries) are naturally high in pectin and those rarely need additional pectin; blueberries and most stone fruits (peaches, cherries, nectarines) are low in pectin and often need a supplemental supply to ensure a fruit spread jells properly.
  • Sugar is used to sweeten and preserve the fruit, and stiffen the spread, so add it only as the fruit reaches its desired consistency.
  • As with wine in the kitchen, it’s best to use fruit that you would happily eat at its peak -- don’t cut corners with over-the-hill, moldy, or browning fruit. Fruit that is merely unpresentable (bruised, perhaps) is fine, especially when cooking it eliminates food waste.
  • Use a much larger pot than you think you’ll need for making fruit spreads. The greater the exposed surface area, the more quickly the spread will cook. The larger vessel will also give you a little buffer zone in case the jam comes to a boil.
  • Fruit spreads should be cooked low and fast because the longer the fruit is over the heat, the more its flavor will degrade. Again, an extra-large and wide pan will help in this regard!


  • Jellies are made of fruit juice, sugar, and, usually, added pectin. Though, if you choose the right fruits you won’t need to add any at all.
  • To make an arrestingly translucent jelly, bring fruit to a boil, and then scoop it into a cloth jelly strainer bag (or line a colander with cheesecloth) and let the juice drain into a stainless steel bowl -- don’t squeeze the bag or the juice will cloud. Then proceed with the jelly recipe, adding sugar and pectin as required.
  • Apples, cranberries, and grapes are excellent jelly candidates.


  • Jam is comprised of stewed and sweetened pieces of whole fruit.
  • If a smoother texture is what you’re after, cook the fruit until the pieces have mostly disintegrated or purée part or all of the mixture before adding the sugar and pectin.
  • Raspberry jam is a great introductory spread that results in a table-worthy preparation in under thirty minutes -- try adding rosewater or fresh lavender to enhance the berry’s floral notes.

cherry jam sterilizing jam jars
A large pot makes quick work of cherry jam; sterilizing jars is an important step of canning fruit spreads (photos by Sarah Shatz)


  • Preserves are jams' heftier counterpart, as the fruit is often left whole or in large pieces.
  • What preserves lose in spreadability, they make up in flavor and presentation. The chunky texture adds dimension to parfaits; preserves also make a great ice cream topping.
  • Try halved strawberries, figs, or apricots, or whole cherries, for this preparation.


  • Marmalades were initially made with quince, but now they are traditionally citrus based.
  • Made like jam but with large strips of citrus rind, marmalade sets up nicely because the citrus pith has naturally high levels of pectin (among other benefits). The spread’s subtly bitter edge is also thanks to the pith’s inclusion in the cooking process.
  • Onion "marmalade" is not a true marmalade, but borrows the moniker because slivers of cooked onions mimic the strips of citrus in the original version.

Uses Beyond Toast

  • Swirl fruit spreads into hot cereal.
  • Add marmalade to marinades for pork, or brush it onto chicken midway through roasting.
  • Blend jam into homemade mayonnaise or whisk a spoonful of jelly or jam into a vinaigrette.
  • Warm strawberry jam or fig preserves for an instant ice cream or cake topping (or better yet, fill a layer cake or ice cream cake with a level of jam).
  • Blend preserves or marmalade into a simple milk and banana smoothie for a quick flavor boost. 
  • Mix a couple spoonfuls of red or white wine into tomato jam for a quick sweet-savory sandwich spread.
  • To give a discernable gloss to fruit-filled pastries, brush warm apricot jelly onto the exposed fruit. The spread will cool and set again, sealing the fruit in a shiny, clear cloak.

Sicilian Blood Orange Marmalade Sweet & Savory Tomato Jam
Photos by James Ransom (left) and Sarah Shatz


Strawberry Riesling Jam
Cherry Skillet Jam
Quick Berry Preserves
Sicilian Blood Orange Marmalade [FOOD52] 
(pictured above, left)
Sweet & Savory Tomato Jam [FOOD52] (pictured above, right)
Preserved Strawberries with Chiles [FOOD52]
Aamer Morobba (Indian Mango Preserve) [FOOD52]

How do you preserve summer fruits in sweet or savory spreads? Share your cooking tips and serving suggestions in the comments section below.

Like this post? Check out last week's From Scratch topic: Grilling Bivalves.

1 Comments Add a Comment
  • 290

    aargersi says: Oh dear, I am a jam making and canning nutbar. As stuff comes into season I go a little mental and preserves and chutneys and sauces madly. Then at Christmas I start filling gift bags for the nine siblings between my husband and I, and lord even knows how many nieces, nephews, friends and neighbors. I have cases of Texas peach varieties. Berries. Plums. Cherries. Butters. I like to use wine and booze, and lots of spices. I currently have 72 jars of butters, chutneys and preserves and I didn't count salsa, marinara and ranchero sauce. It's ridiculous. I did say I was nutbars

    about 1 year ago Reply to this »

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