Is It Jam or Jelly or Preserves? (Or Marmalade?)

“What’s the difference between jam and marmalade?” is the question we receive most frequently at farmers’ markets. We’ve had so much practice explaining the difference that we thought we’d reproduce it here for you — that way you can become an expert at differentiating between different types of preserves! If you find yourself craving more in-depth information after reading this article, you can learn even more in The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook.

Preserves: Preserves constitute a broad category that includes jam, jelly, and marmalade, as well as pickles, chutneys, and any other canned food. Basically, if you (or someone) has put in work to make food last longer than it would on its own, it’s considered a preserve. Everything we make is technically a preserve.

Jam vs Jelly & Marmalade: Jams differ from jellies and marmalades on two fronts: 1) the end product, and 2) the way we achieve that end product. For clarity’s sake, we’ll break it down by each part.

How each preserve is different

Jam has a rustic, homogenous appearance

Jam is perhaps the most well known fruit-based preserve. Jam appears very rustic: a squishy, somewhat homogenous spread where the original fruit is included and remains at least partially intact, even if it does look a bit different from the original fresh fruit. It is frequently possible to identify the original fruit just by looking at a jam. At its best, jam tastes much like the original fresh fruit.

Jelly is a cooked fruit juice that has set, with no actual pieces of fruit in it. At its best, it should be clear and free of any residual fruit particles, appearing almost translucent. The set should be firm but not gummy. It is difficult to tell merely by looking at a jelly what its constitutive fruit is. Unlike a jam, which capitalizes on the fresh flavor of the original fruit, a jelly’s flavor is that of the fruit after several hours of cooking.

Marmalade is a balanced combination of clear jelly with pieces of fruit suspended in it. This fruit may or may not be citrus. Marmalades can be truly exquisite, their balance of translucent jelly and opaque fruit pieces creating a beautiful look reminiscent of a stained glass window. Some marmalades, however, such as those made from Seville oranges, can tend to be much darker and so densely set that they become opaque. Marmalade, like jelly, does not taste of fresh fruit, though the pieces of whole fruit should maintain much of the original brightness of flavor.

Marmalade has clearly defined fruit pieces suspended in a jelly

About making each preserve

Jam, at its base, is made simply by cooking down whole or cut fruit with sugar and lemon juice. The jam maker’s primary goal is to preserve the original fresh flavor of the fruit itself. Many jams can be made in a single day and are relatively simple to prepare.

Jam cooking in our favorite copper preserving pan

Jelly is made by obtaining a cooked juice which has absorbed all the flavor and pectin of the original fruit. This is accomplished by simmering the fruit in water for a long time. Once the fruit’s flavor (or “personality”) and pectin have leeched into the water, the original fruit is strained out and discarded. The resulting juice is then boiled rapidly with sugar to a high enough temperature for it to “set” into a jelly as it cools. While some fruits possess enough natural pectin to set on their own after sufficient boiling, many require the addition of commercial pectin to ensure a set.

Marmalade takes the jelly-making process one step further by adding suspended pieces of fruit to the jelly. While there are different methods of making marmalade, it is generally a three-day process involving soaking and cooking the raw fruit in water, then adding sugar and lemon juice and cooking the marmalade until done. Although marmalade is frequently citrus-based, it is possible to incorporate almost any fruit into a marmalade.

The take-home message

The take-home message, which we fully encourage you to use to impress people at cocktail parties, is this: Jam is a simple, rustic preserve which results from cooking whole fruit with sugar until the mixture becomes cohesive. Marmalade has clearly defined fruit pieces suspended in a jelly, and is achieved through a longer process; this process is very different from jam-making, most importantly because the fruit involved is boiled in water. Of course, there are many permutations within these seemingly limited boundaries!

We hope these tips will help improve your preserve-identifying skills! Jams, jellies, and marmalades are a big world full of many delicious variations, and we’re happy to help provide some insight.

*All photos in this post are by Sara Remington, from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook