* Choose high-quality, flavorful fruit that is slightly underripe. Underripe fruits and berries often have more pectin, the natural jelling substance found in fruit, so they thicken more readily. And the sugar that is added will readily counteract their tartness. Underripe fruit also tends to hold its shape well, which contributes to the eye appeal of most chutneys and marmalades.
* Be sure you have purchased the right type of pectin to assist in the jelling process. Look for boxes of powdered pectin and be sure that the product is suitable for making "lower-sugar" or "no-sugar" preserves. The recipes here were all tested using the Sure-Jell and Ball brand newer pectins specifically advertised to jell with little or no sugar. Also check the expiration date on the box; pectins that are past their prime won't have sufficient jelling power.
* Unless your family is big or consumes an unusually large quantity of jam or chutney, it's best to use 4- to 8-ounce jelly jars. These hold quantities that can be conveniently eaten within several weeks. Although the traditional glass jars with two-piece lids are attractive and convenient, for freezer jams and chutneys, durable, high-quality plastic storage "jars" that tolerate both boiling and freezing are a handy (though less aesthetically pleasing) alternative, especially if they are designed for stacking. Because ingredients expand during freezing, never overfill the jars.
* It's a good practice to boil all jars, lids, and any preserving utensils in a large pot of water for at least 5 minutes before using them. Let them stand upside down on towels until dry rather than hand-drying them. Even though preserves or chutneys that are frozen don't require boiling water-bath processing or vacuum-sealing of the lids to be safe, using sterile jars and utensils will help ensure their expected shelf life once they are moved from the freezer to the refrigerator.
* Don't try to double these recipes. A too-large volume of ingredients hinders the vital process of cooking down and evaporating and can lead to thickening problems.
* Follow the recipes exactly as written, because the ratio of fruit, sugar, pectin, and water is critical to proper jelling.
* Use a 31/2- to 4-quart nonreactive, wide-bottomed, shallow saucepan or a 12-inch or similar skillet with at least 23/4-inch-high sides. Nonreactive finishes -- enameled or stainless steel are excellent choices -- ensure that the metal won't react with the acid in the fruit. Nonstick pans will work, too, but because nonstick finishes often hold flavors and odors, be sure that the pan is impeccably clean. A pan with a wide bottom and relatively low sides is desirable because it provides a large surface area and facilitates rapid evaporation of the excess moisture. If you have only a deep, narrow pot, your preserves will take longer to cook down than the recipes indicate.
* Remember that preserves continue to thicken and jell as they cool. A mixture that may seem too thin while still warm will be the right consistency later on. A jam or chutney that is cooked until firm will actually be too stiff when cooled.
* So long as the recipe instructions are followed, these small-batch preserves and chutneys almost always jell or thicken as they should. On the rare occasion that they remain too thin or runny after 24 hours in the refrigerator, here's what to do. For chutneys, drain off as much excess liquid as possible, then boil it down until slightly thickened and syrupy. Add the remainder of the chutney, bring to a full boil and cook 1 minute longer, then ladle into clean jars. For preserves, the easiest course is to call your product a fruit syrup or sundae sauce, and serve it over pancakes, ice cream or cake. It also makes a splendid addition to trifles and fools.
-- Nancy Baggett