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:
- Less sugar = less shelf life (with the tradeoff being a purer fruit flavor jam).
- 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!