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Homemade Marmalade Is Worth the Trouble

  • Edited caption.  (Valley News - Libby March)
  • Marmalade is a fruit preserve made from the juice and peel of citrus fruits boiled with sugar and water. (Valley News - Libby March)

The Seville orange is a small, lumpy, not-very-pretty fruit with a tough, bitter skin and pith. Cut it open and it’s mostly seeds and pulp, with little flesh. Its juice is also sour. It’s a far cry from the behemoth navel orange, which is good for eating, or the Valencia juice orange. The Seville is used to make marmalade, and it’s precisely the astringent-tasting skin that makes it valuable.

The word marmalade, according to the Oxford Companion to Food, is a variation on the Portuguese word marmelada, which was originally used to define a sweet quince paste. Over time, the Portuguese word became associated in English with other thick, pasty conserves. With the importation of citrus fruits to the British Isles in the 16th century, marmalade became a term used specifically to describe conserves made from citrus.

I’ve long wanted to try my hand at making marmalade, so when I caught sight of Seville oranges for sale at the market, I bought some. I make jams and jellies from time to time, but thought marmalade required some special expertise and never considered making it at home.

Turns out, it isn’t hard at all. The end result is worth it because of the dense complexity of its flavor. If you’ve tried those sickly-sweet national brand marmalades, you haven’t really eaten marmalade. A true marmalade is thick, with an edge of sourness. My preference is for marmalades coming out of the U.K. for that reason. It should stick to your morning toast and look, feel and taste substantial.

There’s no question marmalade is more laborious to make than your average fruit jam, because of the time it takes to remove the peel, cut out the flesh and remove the membrane. The process is time-consuming but on a recent gloomy afternoon, with an unappealing wet snow dripping from the sky, the kind that has a knack for settling right at the nape of your neck, making marmalade seemed the antidote to the dispiriting monochrome landscape outside.

In addition to buying the Seville oranges, I bought grapefruit, so I could make grapefruit marmalade, and threw in a few tangelos, blood oranges and one cara cara orange, so I could mix in some different juice and peel. The reddish-orange peel of the blood orange looked particularly pretty in the marmalade.

If Seville oranges are unavailable, any orange will probably do, but then you may want to reduce the sugar to compensate for the sweeter juice. The experiments were so successful that I might expand the repertoire to lemons, limes and ginger.

You need no special equipment. But you do need time.

Basic orange marmalade

The number and variety of oranges you use to make the marmalade are at your discretion. Because the Seville oranges are small, I used about 10, with the other fruits thrown in just because I wanted a mix of juices.

10 Seville oranges, or four to six large oranges

2 blood oranges

1 Cara cara orange

1 tangelo

4 cups sugar, or to taste

2 cups water

The first step is to remove the peel, or zest, from four to six of the Seville oranges and the two blood oranges. You can do this by using a zester, or by using a vegetable peeler to remove the peel in long strips. If you’re using the last method, then cut the strips into smaller pieces. Reserve the zest in a bowl.

Now peel about half the oranges and tangelo, removing as much of the pith (the thick, white sour part) as you can. Here comes the frustrating part. Try to pull the skin or membrane away from the actual fruit. It’s not easy, even with a sharp paring knife. If somebody has a foolproof method for doing this, I’d like to hear about it.

What I ended up doing was cutting unpeeled oranges in half and removing the sections by using a knife to cut around them, as if you were eating a grapefruit for breakfast and using a grapefruit knife to remove the small pieces. Reserve the fruit.

Now take the remaining oranges, cut them in half and juice them.

You should have at this point a bowl into which you put the orange sections, the zest and the juice. Transfer them to a good-sized sauce pan and turn the heat on medium. Add sugar a cup at a time until you’ve reached the level of sweetness you want. I didn’t want it to be too cloying, so I added about four cups of sugar, give or take. I also added two cups water.

Let the mixture start to cook down. This took between 30 minutes and 60 minutes. You cannot walk away and leave the mixture; it bears watching every 10 minutes or so. If you have a jelly thermometer, the idea is to get the temperature to about 220 degrees and hold it there for five minutes. I do not have a jelly thermometer, so I rely on observation. When you start to get a rolling, foamy boil, it means the sugar is crystallizing and the marmalade is probably close to being at the jell point. But I’ve learned the hard way that even though a jelly may look as if it’s too thin and liquid, and your impulse is to keep reducing it, take it off the heat. Because when it cools, it firms up much more than you anticipate. And, unfortunately, I’ve let jellies cook down so far that when they cooled they were roughly the same consistency as cement. I made a grape jelly once that was so hard that I couldn’t even get a knife through it.

One good way to tell whether your marmalade is ready is to apply the freezer test. Put a saucer in the freezer and let it cool. Take a teaspoon of your (very hot) marmalade and put it on the saucer. Put in freezer for a minute. If it’s jelled when you remove it, then it’s done. I got about three pints of marmalade out of this recipe and I was pleased with the taste. It wasn’t too sugary and had a nice deep flavor.

I didn’t submit these jars of marmalade to the canning hot water bath method, although you should if you want to store them at room temperature. Jellies should steep for about 10 minutes in a hot water bath. If you omit that step, store them in the refrigerator.

Grapefruit marmalade

6 grapefruit

2-3 cups of sugar

2 cups water

Grapefruits are simpler to work with because it’s easier to peel the membrane away from the fruit. I used the peel from three grapefruits for the zest, used those three peeled grapefruits for juice, and used the other three grapefruit for the actual flesh. Grapefruit, once the pith and membrane are removed, are quite sweet, as is the juice. So I cut back on the sugar.

I followed the same cooking method as above. It has a slightly more delicate taste than marmalade.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.