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Jam vs. Jelly vs. Preserves: The Battle of the Bread Toppers
In Dr. Seuss’s The Butter Battle Book, the Yooks and Zooks nearly go to war over which side of their toast to butter.
But with all due respect, we here at FruitStand think they’re missing the bigger bread-based point: Which type of spread should you top off your toast with?
Jam, jelly and preserves may seem like harmless synonyms to the casual observer, but the fruit-based condiments actually all bring their own unique ammunition to the great breakfast battle.
PB & What?
Before we begin explaining their differences, it’s helpful to understand what jam, jelly and preserves have in common. (That is, after all, the road to peace in these fraught times of food fighting.)
The three fruit spreads all include a handful of the same key ingredients: Sugar, pectin and fruit.
Sugar is the preserving agent in the condiments, with the sweet stuff used to draw out the fruits’ natural moisture – making the final product more or less chunky and shelf-stable.
Pectin is a naturally occurring starch in many fruits and vegetables, which comes in handy as a useful gelling agent. Technically called heteropolysaccharide, the starchy stuff breaks down when heated to 220F, and, when mixed with some acid – such as that found in any number of citrus fruits – it reforms into a gluey substance, giving jam, jelly and preserves their gummy, chewy texture.
And the choice of which fruit to use depends on anything from personal taste to precise engineering. (Some fruits don’t play as well with sugar, while others need a natural pectin assist.)
All told, the trifecta of elements all play off each other, delicately balanced in different ratios to make the final spreadable products gel together in their own unique way.
That’s My Jam!
Let’s start with the sweetest licks: The ever-spreadable condiment so good it stands in as a term for a tasty track.
Jam is technically the sweetest of the three fruit spreads, with the highest sugar ratio by far. In fact, the FDA declares that a product must contain at least 55 percent sugar to be considered jam.
And unlike the peanut butter if often accompanies, jam tends to have just one texture option: chunky. That’s because, in order to make jam, real pieces of fruit or fruit pulp are used.
The produce is crushed, cooked down and mixed with the acid (citrus fruit) and sugar aspects while still hot. Once it cools it creates a translucent goop that gloriously still has pieces of fruit floating throughout its jammy mixture.
Outside of its jar, jam is easily spreadable, a bit chunky and loose, like any good song that takes on its name.
Unlike its chunkier cousins, jelly is much more rigid and streamlined. But maybe that’s because it’s on an all-liquid diet.
Rather than opting for whole fruit pieces or fruit pulp, jellies rely on cooked, clarified fruit juice for their flavor. But this isn’t just an aesthetic choice: It’s typically the option taken when the fruit involved either has too many hard-to-remove seeds (like grapes) or not enough natural pectin.
The juice is cooked down and mixed with sugar and pectin powder. It’s then strained, while still hot, through a strainer or special jelly bag, to further smooth out the final product.
What’s left in the jar after cooling is a firm, dense and transparent fruit spread, which cuts a pretty color with a fruit piece-free clarity.
Preserves have no chill. Literally.
The product is less a fruit spread than a portrait of a fruit in suspended animation, a trick that’s achieved by capturing the fruit-sugar-pectin mixture in a can before it’s had time to cool down.
Preserves are also the thickest and chunkiest fruit spread of all, using either whole fruits or uniformly-cut fruit pieces involved, instead of crushed chunks, pulp or juice. As such, the term can refer to anything from jammier marmalade to cans of preserved whole cherries or apple slices.
But either way, you should rarely be able to see through this mixture. It’s fruit all the way through.
Jam, jelly and preserves aren’t the only seemingly interchangeable fruit spreads out there. Here’s a quick look at a few other confusable concoctions caught up in the breakfast battle:
- Conserves: All conserves are jams, but not all jams are conserves. The term specifically refers to a jam made with several different types of fruits.
- Compote: This gooey spread relies on good old time, rather than pectin, to achieve its glorious texture. Compotes are made using the slow cooking method, gelling fruit and sugar together over low heat.
- Fruit Butter: When a compote is put through a food processor, then cooked down even more, it becomes a fruit butter – an infinitely smooth and spreadable mixture that’s creamy, thick and delicious. Though, the FDA has once again had a hand in defining things, saying true fruit butter can only come from apples, apricots, grapes, peaches, pears, plums, prunes or quince.
Still, as far as we’re concerned, in this breakfast battle, whichever fruit spread you choose, you’ll come out a winner.