We tasted six preserves, jams, jellies, and spreads and found that only one product offered an authentic, bold berry flavor.
Published July 9, 2019. Appears in Cook's Country TV Season 13: Chicken and Biscuits
Strawberry is the nation’s most popular flavor of jams, jellies, and preserves, according to data collected by the U.S. Census and Simmons National Consumer Survey. Yet while there is consensus on flavor, there’s confusion about the different types of products. Jams, jellies, and preserves may look similar, but as Dr. Bruno Xavier, processing authority at Cornell Food Venture Center told us, a product has to meet standards of identity as defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in order to be called jam, jelly, or preserves. These standards outline specifications such as the required amounts of fruit solids and sugar and the types and combinations of fruits allowed. He added, “Usually manufacturers want to use less sugar, or use fruits not in the list, or add things like bacon,” which is why you’ll see alternative terms such as “spread” pop up.
Despite the name differences, the production process for all the products is roughly the same. It starts with the fruit itself. Xavier explained that some manufacturers may use frozen fruit and that the berries they use are not the same as those we buy to eat; they’re usually smaller and have more sugar, and appearance isn’t as important. Sugar, pectin (which forms a gel when combined with water), and usually an acidifier such as lemon juice or citric acid is added to the fruit depending on its acidity level. That mixture is cooked until it reaches a defined concentration of both water and sugar (as measured with a refractometer) before being packaged. Usually these spreads are “hot filled,” meaning they’re put in containers while still very hot and then sealed. A vacuum seal is created as the product cools, helping prevent mold growth.
Since our previous winner was discontinued, it was time to find a new favorite strawberry spread. Because some companies had multiple options, we conducted a pretest to determine which of each brand’s offerings we liked best. We ultimately selected six: one jam, two preserves, and three spreads. We tasted each product three ways: plain, in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and in Jam Thumbprint Cookies (from The Complete Baby and Toddler Cookbook). Our takeaway: We liked all the products, but their flavors and textures substantially differed—and only one product got both just right.
No one particular style stood out as our favorite. We found that even if two products had the same name (e.g., preserves), they might have very different flavors and consistencies.
Strawberry flavors ranged from subtle to vibrant. A few products had muted fruit flavor or a mere “light strawberry” taste, while an...
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