Making marmalade is a very satisfying activity in the winter months during citrus season, but it can take some practice. Here is everything you need to know about making marmalade, as well as a few helpful tips, and answers to frequently asked questions so that you can understand what happens when marmalade-making goes wrong and how to make it right.
Jam versus marmalade
Jam is made from a mixture of chopped fruit, sugar, and lemon juice. You can make jam with summer berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, currants, etc.) or orchard and stone fruit (apples, pears, peaches, apricots, plums, etc.).
Marmalade is a preserve made from citrus fruit and sugar, usually regular granulated sugar. The most popular flavour is orange marmalade, made from oranges, sometimes even Seville oranges, prized for their high pectin and bitter flavour.
Originally marmalade was actually made from quince fruit, boiled to a thick paste. Today marmalade is made almost exclusively from citrus fruit (or sometimes ginger root).
Marmalade is known as a winter preserve because citrus fruit is usually in season in the winter, whereas jam is known as a spring, summer or fall preserve because most jam fruits grow between the spring and fall harvest seasons. There are exceptions to this, of course.
You only need three ingredients when you make marmalade:
- whole citrus fruit—any citrus fruit: oranges are most common, but you can also use grapefruit, lemons, and limes!
- lots of sugar—we use granulated or super fine sugar (also called special fine sugar); don't use jam sugar which contains pectin because your marmalade may end up too thick and the extra pectin is not necessary if you follow a good recipe!
- a little lemon juice to ensuire the pH is low enough for safe canning and also to brighten the flavour and add more depth with sweeter citrus fruit
The ratio of fruit to sugar
To make marmalade, the most common ratio of fruit to sugar is 1 part fruit to 1 part sugar, by weight. You may see a higher amount of sugar in marmalades containing more sour ingredients, like lemon or lime. This lime marmalade is a prime example of using more sugar than fruit.
For citrus that is on the sweeter side, you will likely use slightly less sugar, and for citrus that is more bitter or sour tasting, you may use a little more sugar.
You can't reduce the sugar in marmalade significantly because the set is dependent on the concentration of sugar. So if you reduce the sugar in a marmalade recipe, you will likely have to boil it longer to concentrate the mixture and achieve the right set.
I don't recommend reducing the sugar in marmalade recipes for another reason: marmalade is a balance of sour, sweet, and bitter flavours. You need the sugar to bring out the bitter and sour notes to create a bright, flavourful mixture.
You can make marmalade with any type of citrus. The most prized citrus for marmalade is Seville oranges, which are very bitter and sour. Seville oranges aren't good for eating, but they are great for marmalade because of their flavour and because they are very high in pectin.
Seville oranges have a narrow season of just a few weeks and are generally hard to come by in most places. I rarely see them at the market in winter. Use any type of orange you can find to make marmalade, even clementines. I made this orange marmalade with navel oranges from the grocery store.
Actually, you can make marmalade with most citrus fruit, even lemons and limes. Each type of citrus will bring a unique flavour and colour to the preserve.
For the sugar, you can replace a portion with honey, for example, but this will have a big impact on flavour. When making grapefruit marmalade, the flavour of honey really complements the citrus fruit!
Boiling the pits (pips)
It's a common misconception that you need to boil marmalade with the pits to ensure you get the perfect set. Actually, most of the pectin is in the peel, not the pits. Toss the pits and focus on the rest of the fruit. Not only does this make the process less finicky, but it also simplifies the process.
I have never saved the citrus pits to add to my pot of marmalade, and I never will. It's just not necessary!
Making marmalade without pectin
Another common misconception is that you need to add pectin to set marmalade. Actually, citrus fruits are very high in pectin, and most of the pectin is found in the peel. You don't need to add commercial pectin, but you do need to cook marmalade to the marmalade setting point (104–105 ºC or 220 ºF) to achieve the perfect set.
There's one caveat to using temperature to judge set: the reference point of 220 ºF is only valid at sea level. At higher altitudes, the set point will be lower!
At sea level, gelling takes place at 220 °F (104 °C–105 °C). So at higher altitudes, the setting point may be around 214 ºF or 101 ºC! Any higher, and your marmalade may be dry and pasty because the sugar is more concentrated. It will be darker in colour from caramelization or burning, and the peel may be tough and hard.
There are actually two types of marmalades that you can make and therefore two ways of making them:
- thick-cut or rough-cut marmalade made from whole fruit
- thin-cut or fine marmalade made from sliced fruit
In both cases, cases, you are using the entire citrus fruit, peel, pith, juice, flesh, and all to make the marmalade. The only thing that gets wasted is the pits.
And though the thickness of the peel differs between the two methods, the steps are the same:
- boil the fruit in plain water (whether whole or sliced) to soften the peel in a big pot
- mix the softened sliced fruit with sugar and lemon juice
- boil the marmalade to the setting point
- transfer it to clean, warm jars, and close them with lids to seal them
The steps are easy!
Special equipment for making preserves
To make marmalade, you don't need much! All you need is
- a kitchen scale
- a stove
- a big pot
- a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula
- jars to store your preserves in
If you choose to process the jars to seal them, you will need a large canning pot with a rack for boiling the jars, as well as a jar lifter. A canning kit is helpful if you choose to boil your preserves to seal the jars. In most cases, you actually can skip this step, instead inverting the closed jars of hot marmalade and letting them stand upside down for 2 minutes before flipping right side up. This will create a vacuum and seal the jars too.
If you choose to follow the temperature of the marmalade as it boils, I highly recommend a digital fast-reading thermometer, like the Thermapen One or the ChefAlarm. These are reliable tools that are worth the investment and basically never fail.
Determining marmalade set
As your marmalade mixture is boiling on the stove, you will begin to wonder just how long it has to boil to achieve the perfect set. There are a few ways to determine at this point if it will set or not:
- observe the bubbles forming on the surface of the marmalade: marmalade that is close to or at the setting point will have stable bubbles that will form and pop after a short delay, while marmalade that has not boiled enough will have volatile bubbles that form and collapse very quickly.
- use a plate test (also called a wrinkle plate test or frozen plate test): dollop a small amount of marmalade on a frozen saucer or plate, then place the plate back in the freezer for about 1 minute. Nudge the dollop with your finger: if it wrinkles when you nudge it, the marmalade will set. If it still seems very fluid and lacking in body, you need to boil it more.
- check the temperature: use a thermometer to gauge how close you are to the setting point. The setting point is about 104 °C (219–220 °F). Use a Thermapen or a ChefAlarm (hands-free) digital thermometer to make sure you can catch the marmalade before you overcook it! Read more about the marmalade setting point if you are unsure.
There are two ways to seal the jars that I recommend:
- boiling closed jars to seal them (recommended but takes longer)
- inverting jars to seal them (the "quick and dirty" method that may yield mixed results but works most of the time)
Boiling jars to seal them
The boiling water method to seal jars takes more time, but it works well and it is the top safest method for sealing jars of high-acid preserves. To do this, you will need a home canning kit or a large pot that is taller than your jars. Remember the jars must be fully submerged in the boiling water bath for this method to work.
- Divide the mixture between sterilized jars (I prefer wide-mouth mason jars like these jars), leaving a headspace of ¼ inch. If the last jar filled has a larger headspace, you cannot safely can it and you should store it in the fridge.
- Wipe the rims of all the jars with a lightly moistened paper towel. Top each of the jars with a sterilized lid, and tighten the band until it is finger-tight. The Ball canning kit on Amazon is key for this step and the next!
- Line a rimmed baking sheet with a large kitchen towel (these Nordic Ware rimmed sheet pans are great). This will be the “cooling station” for the processed jars.
- To seal the jars, place them in a large pot, fitted with a rack or towel at the bottom to prevent them from rattling and cracking. Fill the pot with hot water so that the jars are completely immersed.
- Bring the pot of water to a boil with the lid on and once the boiling point has been reached, boil the jars for 5 minutes.
- Take the pan off the heat, and let the jars stand in the pan for another 5 minutes. Finally, carefully remove the jars from the water bath and place them on the towel-lined baking sheet. You will hear a popping sound soon after, a good sign that the vacuum seal is proper. Let the jars cool, untouched, for 24 hours before putting them away.
After 24 hours, the middle of the lid should show a slight indent, meaning the jars are sealed. You may hear a pop sound during this time when the lid seals shut, but not necessarily!
Inverting jars to seal them
After filling and closing the jars of hot marmalade, immediately invert the closed jars, letting them sit upside down for 2 minutes. Flip the jars back upright, and let them stand for 24 hours undisturbed.
After 24 hours, the middle of the lid should show a slight indent, meaning the jars are sealed. You may hear a pop sound during this time when the lid seals shut.
If the jars are properly sealed, you can store marmalade in a cool, dry place, away from the light for 1 year. After that, the marmalade will still be good, but you will notice the vibrant colour will change and the marmalade will become darker.
Store open jars of marmalade (or jars you have not sealed) in the refrigerator.
Frequently asked questions
If you choose to use the whole fruit method, where whole citrus fruit are boiled for almost two hours until very soft, there's no specific water amount to use: you use as much water as you need to keep the citrus immersed and simmering. You will dump off that water and when it comes time to make marmalade with the boiled fruit, you won't add any water and only add the juices from the fruit.
For the sliced fruit method where sliced citrus fruit are boiled for one to two hours to soften, generally for around 600 grams of citrus, use 6 cups (1.5 L) and for 800 grams of citrus, use 8 cups (2 L) of water. The more citrus fruit you have, the more water you will need. Just remember that once the citrus peel is sufficiently soft, you will likely be left with ⅓–½ of the volume of water.
It's not useful to give a timeframe for how long to boil marmalade, especially as the setting on your stove will have a huge impact on the time it takes. You have to boil it long enough so that it reaches the setting point. It's better to monitor progress using visual cues (watch the bubbles!), the frozen plate test, and the temperature. Remember the setting point is 220 ºF at sea level. It takes as long as it takes to get there!
Pectin is responsible for trapping water, along with sugar, to ensure that your marmalade sets nicely. Without it, marmalade would be more fluid. You don't need to add pectin when you make marmalade because the peel of the citrus fruit have sufficient pectin.
Adding lemon juice not only balances the flavour. It also ensures the pH is low enough for pectin to do its job. At lower pH, the pectin can assemble into a network that traps water, thereby thickening.
Citrus are very high in pectin, which is mostly located in the peel of the fruit. You do not need to add commercial pectin to thicken it. You do need to add quite a bit of sugar, and the amount of sugar will impact the time it takes to thicken the marmalade and achieve the perfect set.
It's better to use a few methods to monitor progress and to determine when marmalade has boiled sufficiently: use visual cues (watch the bubbles, which will be stable and appear on the surface like blinking eyes!), as well as the frozen plate test, and the temperature. Remember the setting point is 220 ºF at sea level. It takes as long as it takes to get there!
If you feel like you've been boiling your marmalade and it's still too thin, pause and take a step back. Take the pot off the heat and go over what you've done: have you added the correct ratio of fruit to sugar? Is the mixture acidic enough? Are you sure your thermometer is installed and working properly? Does the mixture appear like a thick syrup that has some body to it? You don't want to boil the mixture until it's so thick and caramelized that you can't spread it.
If you don't stir your marmalade enough while it's boiling, the pectin may not disperse evenly. Citrus is very high in pectin and when you extract that pectin out of the peel and into the pot of marmalade, you have to stir well and continue to disperse it throughout the mixture. Otherwise, you may end up with clumps or lumps of pectin, which will appear as clear, gelled lumps separated by syrupy fluid.
If you don't boil the citrus peel in plain water to soften it, the peel will be chewy and hard when you make marmalade with it. You must boil the citrus fruit (especially the peel) for over an hour to ensure that it is very tender. Otherwise, when you add the sugar and cook it, the peel will harden and, worst case scenario, become inedible. Once this happens, you cannot fix it. You will have to warm the marmalade to pass it through a strainer and remove the peel.
After sitting for 24 hours, when you open up your first jar of marmalade, if it's too thick and dry, like a fruit paste, it means you overcooked the marmalade. Marmalade is a spread that is thick, but soft and fluid.
If you made fewer jars of marmalade than the recipe said, it means you may have overcooked it, or you cooked it longer than the recipe writer, evaporating more water than the author. Some jam makers like a more loose set, while others like a thicker set.
If you end up with more jars of marmalade than you anticipated, it may mean that you under-boiled the marmalade and your set may be looser or more watery. Some jam-makers prefer a looser set, but too loose can mean you have too much water and a lower concentration of sugar, which may make the product less stable.
Cookbooks on Preserves
If you are interested in simple recipes and techniques for making preserves, like this marmalade, check out Camilla Wynne's books on preserving:
- Preservation Society Home Preserves, dedicated to jams and marmalades, as well as other preserves (like pickles and chutneys)
- Jam Bakes, which is dedicated to making preserves and baking with them too!
I used both these books to research this recipe and follow Camilla Wynne's methods closely as she taught me how to make Seville orange marmalade years ago. Highly recommend!
Marmalade recipes to try
Now that you know everything there is to know about marmalade, try these recipes:
With a small batch of marmalade, you'll have plenty to enjoy with warm homemade croissants or brioche bread, and to use as a filling for jam-filled shortbread cookies, or as a beautiful topping for this orange pie.
Marmalade isn't hard to make, but it can be tricky to get it perfectly right the first time. If you are a beginner, start with the whole fruit method, which is easier and less finicky than the sliced fruit method. Yes, you can start with classic orange marmalade, but I highly recommend you jump off from there to make grapefruit marmalade or even fine-cut lime marmalade. Once you've practiced, the process will become easier and easier.