Hearth to Hearth: Boiling Up Fruit in Jelly Pans

Hearth to Hearth: Boiling Up Fruit in Jelly Pans – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – August 2000

Summer is the time of jellying. Someone is out there boiling up the luscious fruit in large pans with straight open sides, and the fragrance announces itself even before you enter the kitchen. It’s a hot job performed in hot weather, as the steamy room and steamy brow mingle with the perfumed steam of fruited syrups. It is a feast for the nose and the eyes, the jewel colors in sparkling jars reassuring you that there will be a taste of summer at the winter table.

And that is really what historical jellying was all about—preserving fruit for the time when it would be out of season and to all intents and purposes gone. Part of its treasured place in the cuisine came from the resources the jelly-maker required: very expensive sugar, the right pot, and sufficient time, each limited to the more privileged classes. Presenting a sick friend or dear relative with a jar of this summer perfume was then the sharing of a luxury; a momentary glimpse of easier months, and a rare taste of something not easily savored again for some time.

It is most likely that historical jellies were made in small quantities. This was not because people always cooked tiny quantities. The same 17th-century recipe collections that suggested only handfuls of rose petals for a conserve (jam) also included vast proportions for “great cakes.” Nor was it entirely because of the exorbitantly high price of sugar. Actually, small quantities produced better jams and jellies. Even in this century, when sugar and canning equipment have become common and easily available, the best recipes (such as those in M.F.K. Fisher’s Fine Preserving) often call for amounts yielding only four or five cups.

The earliest pans in which to make jam or jelly appear to have been posnets, or early forms of small saucepans. The pans were made of copper, bronze, bell metal, or porcelain-lined case iron, which did not darken the fruit as iron surfaces do, or impart a metallic taste, and they transmitted heat quickly and evenly. Jellying required small pans because the 17th-century recipes were made in small quantities, possibly because the product was more flavorful with minimal cooking time, and possibly because of the very high price of sugar.

In time, the making of jellies, jams, and various conserves became far more accessible. By the late 19th century the price of sugar had come down, glass jelly jars were being manufactured in quantities, woodstoves replaced hearths, and many women had enough leisure time for the undertaking.

With the growing American sweet tooth, 18th century kitchens expanded to include 19th century summer kitchens, sometimes attached to the house and sometimes separate. The heavy work of summer preserving could now be done at a safe and comfortable distance from the house, keeping the heat and mess apart. By the end of the century kerosene stoves were sometimes set up outdoors for this arduous task, as the use of preserves had become a daily advent at breakfasts, for the new finger sandwiches at tea (peanut butter and jelly was once high fashion), and in innovative layer-cake fillings. And by the 20th century, pressure cookers had entered the scene, marking the growing scientific emphasis.

But in the late 19th century, ambitious preserving, done more efficiently in larger quantities, was all the rage, and the large, heavy brass or copper kettles, in use long before this time, were now pressed into service. These are the pans we now call preserving or jelly pans. Their open shapes—broad flat bottoms and straight sloping sides—were relatively shallow compared with bulging iron kettles. They permitted quick evaporation and thickening, and the shortened cooking time preserved the detectible essence of fresh fruit. [Overcooking was clearly not desirable—it darkened the preserved fruit and boiled away its flavor.] In addition, the simple and open shape made stirring easier, and provided a little more space in which the syrupy mass could boil up without boiling over.

So many of the copper preserving kettles we now see show the braised, dovetailing construction commonly made before the 19th century. However, you may find spun brass pans (after 1850) and earlier versions hammered from single sheets, probably over a form. Many show rims rolled over heavy wire for stability. And they usually bear riveted iron or copper ears in which the forged iron bail handle (or sometimes bronze wire) was se-cured.

The heavy bronze or bell metal preserving kettles were often cast with their ears projecting upwards, all in one piece, with pierced holes for the handle. Swinging bail handles were common. They were easily swung down out of the way for easy stirring, but offered a means of carrying the heavy mass easily. They also allowed the possibility of being suspended from a trammel or crane, but as scorching was a danger (sugar burns very readily), it is more likely that they were set flat at the hearth on a trivet or a brazier of coals, or later on a cookstove top.

Identifying these graceful kettles specifically as preserving pans is a bit uncertain, considering their long and flexible usage. The first references suggest that they were stewing kettles, or just all-purpose kettles, serving multiple purposes.

They appeared regularly in early paintings, notably by 17th and 18th century Dutch and French artists who used their golden color and lovely form to brighten dark still lifes and kitchen scenes. The recent Tunica study has found that they were made in nesting sets, indicating far more general use—again basic stew pans. And there is ample evidence of Native-American interest in them for stewing, particularly the light-and relatively inexpensive ones, ordered repeatedly for Indian trade. It was probably not until the latter 19th-century that they were adapted to the home preserving kitchen.

You may wish to experiment with Elinor Fettiplace’s English 1604 recipe, “To Make Jellie Fettiplace’s English 1604 recipe, “To Make Jellie of Respis” of Respis” [raspberries].

Quite typically, the sugar and juice measurements, by weight, are equal. Her comments about “not squising [squeezing]” have to do with straining the heated juices in a cloth jelly bag [see Fisher’s recipe, following].

Presumably raspberries have enough juice in them so that it is not necessary to add much more liquid, as is suggested with other fruit.

Take Respis & set them on the fire, with some sugar, let them boile till they bee broken, then straine them, but doe not squise them,

Then put a good deal of water to it, & as much sugar as will make it sweet, boyle it till it bee jellie, when you make jellie of any other thing,

Put some water into it, when you set it on the fire.

If you are a modern preserver, you may be comfortable with your own heavy stainless steel pot. In my modern kitchen I still use the Brass kettle English 19th century jelly pan Unusual early, hand hammered preserving pan early cast bronze kettles because of their rapid and even heat-transmission.

The current debate over whether or not to use commercial pectins finds strong adherents either way, each claiming to make the best jellies, jams, or conserves their way. In earlier days people added a little under-ripe fruit, especially green apples which are high in pectin, to achieve the desired gelling (or thickening) without over-cooking. No matter which your own preference, the standard test is to drop some of the cooked jelly onto a chilled dinnerplate (to bring it down to room temperature quickly) and then to push it around with your finger, looking for the formation of a skin or the desired gelled thickness. The general rule of thumb is to use equal weights of fruit juice/pulp with sugar.

A note of clarification: jellies are made from the strained juices of simmered fruit, and have no pulp in them. Jams generally include the pulp of the fruit without skins or pits.

The name “preserves” suggests that large chunks of the fruit are kept intact, and “conserves” today are often mixtures of fruit, nuts, and raisins. They are all done in preserving pans.

Modern Version: adapted from M.F.K. Fisher’s Fine Preserving, 1986.

Rinse berries but do not dry. Place wet berries in a food processor to loosen seeds. Place in a jelly pan over medium heat and bring to a boil.

Immediately place in a damp jelly bag or in a colander lined with a damp flannel cloth, suspended over a bowl.

Allow juices to drip through for several hours without squeezing [which will produce less volume but clearer color]. Discard seeds.

For each 2 cups of juice use 3¾ cups sugar, or just under the equal weight proportion.

Place juice and sugar into your preserving kettle and bring to a boil. Stir in ½ bottle of Certo (commercial pectin) and bring to a boil, then stirring constantly, for 1 minute.

Pour into hot jelly glasses and let cool. When cool and set, cover with 2 coats of melted parafin. This method makes 5-6 jelly glasses.

Note: Fisher uses commercial pectin to reduce the cooking time and preserve flavor. And she also recommends that you place a fresh rose geranium leaf in each glass, as she does, for an interesting enhancement.

Leave a Reply