Q: Why does one batch of jam set and the next batch of jelly not set? I made some grape and some guava. I used my mother's old directions — no boxed pectin, just fruit and sugar. They both taste fine, but one batch of grape preserves set nicely and the other, of jelly, did not.
A: Probably the fruit for the jelly was too ripe. Either it didn't have enough pectin or enough acid. When you don't add purified pectin, you are depending on the natural pectin in the fruit to make it gel.
Pectin is a fiber, and it's what helps hold the shape of the fruits. As fruit ripens, the pectin is naturally broken down. That's part of the reason why fruits soften as they ripen. So, very ripe fruit has much less pectin than green fruit.
It also needed acid as well as sugar to set. As fruit ripens, it also tends to lose some of its acid. Our grandmothers knew that to make good jelly or jam, they had to use at least some green or barely ripe fruit. That provided the pectin and the acid for it to set.
We can add powdered or liquid pectin, which has been extracted from fruit and purified, to ripe fruit, get the full flavor of ripeness and still have a firm jelly.
Depending on the fruit, the instructions in the pectin packets often call for adding lemon juice. That's the acid. There are directions to "rework" jam and jelly by adding pectin. If you're interested, call or email me for a copy. But just leave the jelly sit for a month. Sometimes, it will eventually set on its own.
Q: Is there really a good way to freeze shrimp at home and still get something that tastes and feels like commercial shrimp? I've tried freezing shrimp raw, cooked, in water, out of water. Sometimes they're mush; sometimes the flavor is so strong, they're not pleasant. What's the trick?
A: Freezing fish and shellfish, including shrimp and crab, can be tricky, but it can be done. Although you might not be able to duplicate commercial quality without a blast freezer that can freeze them very quickly, you should be able to get good quality. First, be sure you have enough room in your freezer for fast freezing. The longer shrimp take to get solid, the bigger the ice crystals and the mushier and drippier they will be.
Leaving the shell on shrimp will help protect the flesh from air. Air (oxidation) is the cause of the strong or off flavors you've experienced. But you also can protect the flesh with ice. That's the idea behind freezing shrimp, shellfish, and even fish in water. Some things, such as oysters, can be dropped into the sections of an ice cube tray, covered with water and frozen very successfully. But most seafood is best frozen first, dry, then dipped or covered with water. For fish fillets or whole fish, you freeze them, dip them, refreeze, dip again and repeat until a good cover of ice has built up.
Individually dipping shrimp is not necessary! Remove the heads of the raw shrimp and either lay them out on a tray or pack them loosely in freezer containers or freezer-weight plastic bags. Freeze them until they're solid. Pack loose shrimp into containers or bags, then fill the containers or bags with water and freeze again. Or just add a little bit of water, slosh it around so all the shrimp get covered, freeze and repeat once or twice more to get a nice coat of ice on all the shrimp.
Finally, remember to thaw all seafood in the refrigerator and use within one or two days, or cook it directly from frozen. And don't keep frozen seafood for more than two or three months for best quality.