The Marmalady Chronicles

Prior to making my first batch of marmalade, I had actually never tasted the stuff. But thankfully, my grandma requested orange marmalade after learning of my new canning habit. I’m glad she did, because now I see what I’ve been missing my whole life!

The common textural definition of marmalade is a jelly with bits of citrus rind suspended in the gel. Though this is still a sweet preserve, it does not match the profile of other jams or jellies. Citrus rinds add a balancing bitter note to this fruit preserve and give marmalade so many culinary opportunities to shine. From an English tea party staple to a marinade for a pork chop, a good marmalade is a versatile way to add flavor and pizzazz to dishes without the limited notes of a standard sweet spread.

This admittedly time-consuming project only involves a couple of kitchen feats that anyone with some patience and a sharp knife can manage. The first act of “marmalading” involves cutting up whole citrus fruits, rind and all, into tiny bits that people will not mind encountering on toast. The second feat is facilitating magic via ordinary fruit pectin—where a chemical reaction urges what was once liquid to gel, bringing the citrus rinds into suspension thanks to heat and two essential ingredients.

Pectin is a molecule that is found in fruits (and other produce) in highest concentration in the skin, peel and seeds. Pectin is the network that helps keep fruit cell walls together. When we cut up this network, these molecular bonds are severed and cast about, where they free-float in the mixture. The mixture needs help at this stage in order for the pectin bonds to find each other again and form that perfect wiggly, spreadable gel.

When attempting to get a mixture of citrus pulp and peel, water and sugar to gel, those pectin bonds rely on three things happening. First, sugar, used in proportion so that it is no less than 65 percent volume ratio with the entire mixture, binds up water molecules and allows the pectin bonds to get closer together. Second, heat helps some of the water molecules evaporate so that the pectin bonds are able to get even closer together. Third, added acidity, usually lemon juice, helps neutralize the negative electrical charge of the pectin bonds to help them rebond to each other. 

I’m including a recipe for my wife’s favorite marmalade—grapefruit and chile—the one I make every year and wrap up for her as a Christmas present like it’s a surprise. She doesn’t care for any of the sweet preserves I make except for this one. This preserve got its name thanks to a blog-reader who submitted the winning suggestion: “Maude Ellen Marmalade.” “Bitter, smoky, slightly spicy…I had a great-aunt Maude Ellen who was exactly that!” she wrote. I sent her a jar in thanks because that’s exactly what this marmalade is.

Other marmalades I love to make during winter months include Meyer lemon marmalade and tangerine cranberry marmalade—both are slightly simpler than the following recipe because the peels of tangerines and Meyer lemons are not as bitter as those of a grapefruit, but they still require an overnight in the fridge so that the pectin severed from slicing up rinds can find its way into the added water mixture.

Try not to agitate the jars after canning them; it can take up to five or six days for this delicate set to really firm up. If a syrup remains after the wait, make cocktails, marinades and see what’s been missing from the weekend pancake game all these years.

By Kate Payne • Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo