what to do when the jelly doesn't set

It seems that although jam making is on the rise, jelly making is making a slower comeback.
Perhaps it is the sweetness that puts people off? The slight jello-ness that undermines its sophistication? Or for some, perhaps, it is the fear that the jelly won’t set.

I have always used pectin in my jams, and I never feel the need to experiment outside of my beloved Pomona’s Pectin. This gives the jam a good set with minimal sugar, and I don’t have to think too hard about it. But when I get my hands on a basket of really high pectin fruit, I can’t help but envision a delicate and clear jelly, and these are the few times in my canning career that I mess with gel points and thermometers.  Last year, I made quince jelly, and the fruit was so high in pectin that it hardened as if thickened with gelatine. It was pink and smelled like flowers, and I hoarded my few little jars of it all winter. This year I made red currant jelly, and the little bit of precious juice overflowed onto the stove when I boiled it with sugar. I ended up with one prized burgundy jar, and it was perfect.

I thought that we’d go through the jelly making process here, in case it is a new one to you. Except this time- with this recipe, I didn’t end up making jelly at all. I had to confront the moment and figure out what to do when my jelly didn’t set. The day comes for us all, and all we can do is be prepared.

The process of making jelly starts with the process of making juice.  The fruit must be clean, because you will use every bit of it. Pectin, that magical stuff that makes the jelly gel, is more densely in the skin, core, and seeds of the fruit. So cut the fruit roughly, and throw it all into the pot. Then we add water, and cook it all until it it is soft.

 You might have a special tool called a jelly strainer- this is basically a mesh bag suspended over a plate. You can rig up your own with a piece of cheese cloth. I tie it to opposite ends of a colander, and then put the colander over a bowl to catch the juice. The key is to suspend the cloth- this will get you clearer and more wonderful juice.

 Pour all of the softened fruit (along with the liquid) through the cheesecloth. Let the whole thing drain for at least 3 hours, but up to a day.  Let it drain on its own without squeezing or poking it. I’m serious about that- one good squeeze will give you cloudy jelly.

When the fruit has finished draining, you now have juice. Combine the juice with the sugar in a pot, and boil until the mixture reaches 220 degrees F. You can also keep a plate in the freezer, and when a drop of the mixture solidifies on the frozen plate, you know that you have reached the gel point.  Then the jelly goes into jars, and sometime in the next day, it gels, and it doesn’t slosh around in the jar when you nervously pick it up to see if it has turned firm and lovely.

Except when it does slosh around. And when and if this ever happens to you, you have 2 options. Crying and dumping out the contents of your jars is not one of these options. You don’t have to. You can make this better!

The first option is to unseal your jars and re-cook the jelly.  Add more sugar, add some pectin, and you’ll get your gel. Resterilize your jars, top with new lids, and process again.

I know. It sounds a little exhausting, right? If so, this is your path. When the jelly doesn’t set, it’s time to make cocktails.

In my case, I know exactly why it didn’t set. I was living dangerously and laughing in the face of well-established science. One thing you might notice about jelly recipes is that they have so so much sugar. Enough sugar to make your teeth hurt when you eat it. And so every time I make jelly, I mess with the sugar. This time, I went too far. But sometimes the mistakes taste better than the goal. And so, I present you:

Apple Mint Syrup

Mixed with gin or vodka in a shaker with a little ice, this is pretty fantastic. And, (need I say it), paired with a ribbon and a little bottle of booze? It’s a DIY apple-tini holiday gift bag.

makes ten 8-ounce jars

7 pounds apples
1 large bunch mint (stems and leaves)- I used a variety called apple mint that seemed quite fitting
6 cups sugar

Coarsely chop the apples without peeling or coring them. Put them into a large pot with the mint, and just barely cover with water. Cover, bring to a boil, and lower the heat to medium low. Continue to cook until the apples are very soft and breaking down, about 45 minutes.

Set up a large piece of cheese cloth over a colander and a large bowl. Pour the mixture through the cheese cloth and let it drain without poking or squeezing it. Let it drain for at least 3 hours, but up to a day.

You should have between 12 and 14 cups of juice. Combine the apple mint juice with the sugar in a large pot. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Let the mixture cook at a rapid boil for ten minutes. (If you want to make jelly instead of syrup, increase the sugar to 10 cups, and make sure that the mixture reaches 220 degrees F.)

Pour into sterilized jars, top with lids, and process in a water bath for 10 minutes.


  1. Victoria says

    And now I can see why every household in 1790 had two quince trees, and also why so few do now – the need to set jellies by mixing in quince derived pectin is not a household priority. It all sounds so delicious, your floral and fruit syrups!

  2. Folly says

    I have this on the stove right now! But I’m wondering if there is any flavor left in the pulp after cooking. If I run it thru a juicer will I have anything usable?

    • alana says

      Hi Folly! There’s not too much left in there- but I have found a few uses for the pulp. You can run it through your juicer (or extract the seeds in any other way) and then add that to apple sauce for an extra flavor and nutrition. You can also use that liquid (again, pumped up with some applesauce) to make fruit leather!

  3. Helen says

    Can someone please help? I have 8 jars of wuince, apple and pear jelly, which will not set! I don’t want to have to throw them away. Is there anything I can do to thicken them up?

    • deanna giattino says

      my hot strawberry jelly did not set.I have made it before
      I want to redo it rather than throw it out.
      can you suggest anything?

      • alana says

        Definitely don’t throw it out! You have all the options here in this post, and to take it out of the jars and redo it is totally an option. But I’d recommend using it as a syrup for cocktails, pancakes, anything. Strawberry syrup is really delicious. And if you have a lot of it, you could always put it aside for a great holiday gift. You could include it with pancake mix, or cocktail instructions, and it would be really lovely.

    • alana says

      Don’t throw them away! Follow one of the plan B’s above! Either reboil, or use them as syrup. That sounds like a syrup that will make pretty fantastic cocktails.

  4. Lisa Havelka says

    I have bottled the quince jelly, and it looks magnificent. But, what if the jelly doesn’t set (heaven forbid), how much pectin to a litre of runny jelly?

    • alana says

      Hi Lisa,
      It definitely depends on what kind of pectin you’re using. And with quince, there’s so much natural pectin that you usually shouldn’t have a problem. How’d it turn out?

  5. Jessica says

    I made a black currant and spruce tip jelly. I thought I would have enough natural pectin from the black currants but it did not. Although it is delicious as a syrup I would like to redo some as a jelly. How do I reboil it using pamona pectin since the sugar is already in it? Thank you.

    • alana says

      First of all- black currant and spruce tip! That sounds amazing, and like the most phenomenal cocktail base.
      In my experience, it’s hard to introduce pomona’s once the sugar is already there. I think you might have more luck with a different pectin that’s already in liquid form. Or (and I haven’t tried this, but I think it might work), what about reboiling it with the addition of a few chopped up (including core and peels) unripe apples or quinces? The pectin in the fruit just might do it.

  6. Hilmar Adriaans says

    Followed all the directions for making Quince Jelly. Added some dried apple slices to the cut up Quince chunks…..but did the mistake of adding the jam sugar and lemon slices together whilst boiling the fruit!!!!Then after boiling for 1 hour, the jelly was still runny so I added Ramazzotti Gelatina. This discoulered the clear jelly to a mushy mess.Did the muslin strain in a colander over a pot for 15 hours overnight. Result: Runny, mushy Quince Jelly. WHAT DO I DO NOW???

    • alana says

      Oh dear! I’m not familiar with the gelatina, so I’m going to have to shoot in the dark here, but if it’s BOTH runny and mushy, I think the best use for it (if this is your kind of thing) is cocktails. The gel will relax when mixed with alcohol, and quince jelly makes a great mixer with vodka or gin. It’s a quince-tini. How much did you make?

  7. says

    Hello Alana, I just came across your blog post about jelly not setting. I thought you might be interested to know that we have recently posted a page on our website called My Jam or Jelly Didn’t Jell — Can I Fix It? Here is the link: http://www.pomonapectin.com/jell

    It help to identify problems when jam or jelly doesn’t set and also gives what we call “Fixes.”

    It was nice to read about how much you like Pomona’s Pectin. Thanks for being a Pomona’s user.

    Mary Lou

    • alana says

      Thank you, Mary Lou! I’m really happy to have this link in the comments- it’s great. And thank you for Pomona’s too- it’s wonderful product.

  8. sandy says

    I made autumn olive jelly that didn’t set. I didn’t add pectin because it usually doesn’t need it. So recook it until it sets up on its own, without adding more sugar? or add pectin and hope it doesn’t set too firmly.

    • alana says

      Hi Sandy- I”m not familiar with this- olive jelly? Is it with olives? If you could send me a bit more information, we can troubleshoot a bit.


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