Using Brown Sugar and Honey to make Jam

Sugar is a vital part of preserving.  And for me it`s a love-hate type of thing.  I adore it`s sweetness but feel I am cheating the integrity of the dish I am preserving; especially with regards to it`s terroir or locality.

Sugar plays several roles in the preserving process.  It inhibits the growth of bacteria as well as reacts with pectin to set jellies and jams.  There are two guiding principles behind sugar when preserving:

  1. Less sugar = less shelf life (with the tradeoff being a purer fruit flavor jam).
  2. More pectin = more sugar.  Sugar reacts with pectin to set your jam.  Pectin needs it to transform soup into thick, spreadable jam (pectin can also taste bitter because it`s often sourced from skin and seeds of fruit).

Using precise amounts of sugar is important and arbitrarily decreasing (or increasing) the amount is not recommended.

When reading about preserving, keep in mind that the rules drastically changed in the 1970s and what was considered safe before that was radically altered.  Unfortunately a lot of sources quoted on the Internet are previous to that time and a lot of confusion abounds regarding safety when preserving (on the flip side I have met a lovely Italian woman who continues to break every `safe`rule of preserving when she makes tomato sauce the way her family has `forever`in Pulia, Italy and will never change and has not suffered).

I have reputable sources that recommend using a mixture of sugars for a more complex flavor – 75% white sugar and 25% brown.  I`ll openly admit that this mixture often becomes 100% brown sugar and I`ve never had a problem from a storage perspective.  I like the more complex flavor and richness of brown sugar though it can overpower some of your preserves.  It worked really well with my peach butterscotch but turned a later batch of peach jam into another version of the dessert spread.

If you are not using commercial pectin, you can substitute up to half your sugar with honey.  This is a favourite approach of ours and adds a massive layer of local flavor that comes through in our Golden Raspberry jam from last year.  Highly recommended although it can significantly increase your cost.  I find the texture is mildly effected with the final product appearing between jam and honey.

There are other options that I haven`t played with – corn syrup and fruit juices are very common to alter sugar (though there are guidelines around their use as well).

I will admit that I have experimented with maple syrup in place of honey (though I have no research to claim this as legitimately safe so do so on your own accord :)).  The flavor is fabulous though the consistency remains runny.  I suspect the shelf-life is shorter but the flavor is so amazing we`ll never find out.  It also increases the cost of your jar significantly.

Maple Sugar is an ingredient we`d like to play with this year because of it`s locality.  It`s flavor is also strong, it`s tough to come by in quantity and it`s expensive (a local baker buys an entire grocery bag full of it of $100).  I am guessing it would be similar to brown sugar but need to do some more investigating before making really expensive jam that isn`t safe to eat.

As always, would love to hear and share your experiences with us and each other in the comments!

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  1. The more pectin = more sugar thing messes with my head! I can’t quite get to grips with it. Have you had any experience using a refractometer? If you make jam to sell, certainly in the UK, you have to state the sugar content on the label, which means not just the sugar added but that combined with the sugar content of the fruit as well. To do this you need a refractometer to take the reading and it must be 60% or higher. Also jam makers who have this special instrument can test their jam is ready by using it. I am only just starting down this road, so am learning about it, but would love more feedback from someone who knows.

  2. This post is so timely. Do you think that I can use Palm Sugar? Its mostly sucrose, very little fructose.

    • It`s a good question re Palm Sugar…I can`t see why not but that`s a pure hunch as I have no experience with it whatsoever.. has anyone else here tried it…

  3. FYI sugar content does not affect jam safety; only longevity of storage. I’m not quite sure how granulated sugar affects the final pH of a jam, but I assume there is no significant affects as there are plenty of jam recipes out there with weight:weight fruit-to-sugar ratios. I would guess that any granulated sugar is safe (I almost never use white, refined sugar, but mostly raw/turbinado in my jams).

    I know that honey has a pH of about 3.2 – 4.5 (so safely under the magic 4.6 pH for safe canning) so when used in conjunction with acidic fruits it should be perfectly safe for canning.

    FWIW in nearly every preserve in which I use sugar, I cut the amount way, WAY down from published recipes. The affects on yield and texture can be dramatic, but I’ve not had an issue with spoilage at all; some of my jams are going strong after 2 years. I believe that the sugar is more important as a preservative if you do NOT water-bath process your jams, because sugar inhibits the growth of microorganisms that would be killed in a boiling water-bath.

    Gloria – I agree, the more pectin needs more sugar relationship is baffling to me; I would expect the opposite. But I always think of apples; without sugar, it is impossible to make an apple jam – you just make applesauce, followed by apple butter. You need the sugar to make it jammy. However, cook down strawberries for long enough and you have jam – even if you don’t add any other ingredient. Weird, but there it is.

    • Smiles, good points all…

      Local, so true re safety vs longevity and you are absolutely right. I sometimes bumble words :). When I started preserving, like many, I feared killing people with botulism. Now, using cleanliness and knowing what I`m doing, I have few worries on true `safety.` When I think of safety now it`s not in context of physical but rather than `safer than sorry` in trying not to lose a batch. 🙂

      I suspect the saftey guidelines we are all given are overly cautious; your evidence of sugar reduction further supports that as does our experimentation with different things here. As mentioned earlier, I know a Woman in Italy who uses methods considered unsafe in North America – i.e. she does tomato sauce in any bottle she can find (including old beer and pop bottles) and seals them with wax. She has done it this way for her entire life and laughs that one would do it any other way.

      According to Joy of Cooking (not exactly the bible on preserving but had a good section in the revised edition), sugar reacts with pectin to create the set. I think I`ll do (and share) some experiements in coming weeks – I`ll cook some pectin with nothing added and cook another batch with sugar and see what happes `tween the two. 🙂 If you`ve ever eaten pectin as-is (I taste everything that goes into a jar), it becomes obvious that most are jarringly bitter and need more sugar as well.

      Good discussion guys, really excited to learn more about pectin now – even though it`s something i rarely add to a batch. 🙂

  4. Just wondering, what grade of maple syrup did you use? I’ve managed to get my hands on a fair bit of the REALLY dark stuff (which I love), and I was thinking it might be interesting in a jam.

    • I don’t know unfortunately – we buy our maple syrup in the middle of the forest (literally) off the back of an ATV from a friend…it’s undeniably romantic but things like labels, grades and uniform bottles are non-existent (we actually recycle old rye bottles for this purpose). It is very, very dark and very very good. I would definately use your dark stuff in jam. 🙂

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  7. Last summer I made my own pectin from immature apples – bitter enough to demand sweetener, and it took plenty of pectin (liquid) to jell a recipe, but it made an outstanding raspberry jam.

  8. I always use brown sugar in my applesauce!! However I just found we ran completely out of brown sugar. What can I substitute for getting same great rich flavor?

    • Hi Fanceska!

      You could experiment (there are ‘homemade’ brown sugar recipes on the net that mix white sugar and molasses) but it could also ruin a days work if it doesn’t go the way you planned! 🙂 J