Jam. Jelly. These are not two different words for the same thing, they’re actually entirely different foods. And there’s more: marmalade, preserves, conserve, compote, curd, butter, mostarda, relish, and chutney. All of these have different textures, flavors, uses, and histories. The one thing they all have in common? They all taste good on toast. Let’s break down the difference between jam, jelly, and the rest of these spreads one by one.
Jams and other preserves were invented in the time before refrigerators, when someone looked at a bounty of strawberries (or raspberries, or apricots, or, I don’t know, mangos) and thought to herself, "Crap, all of these strawberries are going to go bad in two days." The thing to do? Preserve fruits in sugar, extending the shelf life of the harvest and making everyone’s lives just a little bit sweeter.
The difference between jam, jelly, and and other fruit spreads is the texture. The fruit in jam is either crushed or cut into small pieces, then cooked in sugar long enough that the pieces are spreadable. It also has a gel-like consistency thanks to the presence of pectin, a natural thickening agent that’s naturally occurs many fruits, like apples. Does your jam have more than one type of fruit in it, or maybe even nuts? What you’ve got is a conserve, my friend.
Where would peanut butter be without its jelly? This gemlike substance is made in a very similar way to jam, except at the end the solids are strained out—or it’s made from juiced fruit. That means it’s a good format for fruits with skins, like grapes, that wouldn’t necessarily make the best jams.
In the UK, jelly actually refers to molded gelatin, just like grandma used to make, so don’t get confused when on the other side of the Atlantic. Over there, this strained fruit preserve is generally referred to simply as jam.
Marmalade is a jam that includes the peel of the fruit. Because of this, it can only be made with citrus, and traditionally is made with Seville oranges. It’s got a bit of a bitter edge thanks to that peel, making for a slightly more sophisticated flavor. (Although that never stopped Paddington Bear from craving his marmalade sandwiches.) Citrus peel also has a lot of pectin in it, so marmalades tend to set much more firmly than other fruit preserves.
Preserves and Compotes
"Preserves" is often used as an umbrella term to refer to, well, everything in this list and then some; basically any produce that’s been preserved. But a jar of grocery store preserves—like, say, strawberry preserves—means that the fruit is left in whole or nearly whole pieces. In other words, it’s chunky.
Compotes are perhaps the proper term for these, as a compote is whole fruit (or big pieces of fruit) cooked with sugar just long enough that the fruit still holds its shape. Sometimes a looser version of compote—one made with less sugar—is eaten on its own or with whipped cream as a dessert. Think of it as sort of a sweet fruit soup.
Curds are perhaps the fanciest category of fruit condiment on this list, associated with pastries and high-end desserts as often as they are with breakfast. Curds also play a role in a traditional British tea service, where they are eaten on scones alongside their partner in deliciousness, clotted cream.
A curd is made by slowly cooking fruit juice and zest, egg yolks, and sugar together until thickened and then letting the mixture cool. Citrus curds are most common, but you can make a curd out of pretty much any fruit juice: berries, passionfruit, mango, and cranberries are all excellent curd candidates.
Fruit butters are made by pureeing a fruit, mixing it with sugar, and cooking it. This is most commonly done with apples, but you’ll see pear butter, peach butter, and plum butter, too. Since it has less sugar than many of the above fruit condiments, it doesn’t gel, making it much looser than, say, jam. (It’s also less sweet because of this, naturally.) Think of an apple butter as halfway point between applesauce and jam.
Perhaps the most famous apple butter is Belgium’s beloved Sirop de Liège, a thick, refined, almost syrup-like substance made by reducing apples, pears, and dates. It is often eaten with cheese, on toast, in a meatball dish called boulets à la liégeoise, and, of course, on waffles.
Mostarda, a Northern Italian fruit sauce tarted up with mustard, traditionally accompanies meat. Mostardas are made by heavily reducing the liquid released from fruit—apples, pears, and figs are all popular choices. The fruit is then cooked in this liquid and mixed with mustard powder, and sometimes white wine. This flavorful condiment is a great addition to the breakfast table, fantastic with cheese, or as the glue that holds a ham and biscuit sandwich together. Dropping a dollop in yogurt wouldn’t hurt, either.
By definition, a relish is a condiment made out of pickles. And, of course, you can fashion a relish out of pickled fruit if you’d like. But many, many fruit sauces are called relishes without actually being made from pickled fruit. Cranberry relish at Thanksgiving, anyone? For our purposes, let’s consider a fruit relish to be a chopped fruit condiment that’s not particularly wet or sauce-like.
Here’s a fun relish fact: Every year on the Friday before Thanksgiving, NPR’s Susan Stamberg manages to sneak her family’s recipe for cranberry relish into a story. It’s an odd dish, partially frozen and laced with horseradish and sour cream. This past Thanksgiving the recipe made its appearance in a story on Americans spending Thanksgiving in Afghanistan.
In India, chutneys are made out of all kinds of things, including herbs and vegetables. The fruit chutneys we’re familiar with in the US, though, stem from a British-Indian tradition of vinegar-laced chutneys. Perhaps you’ve had Major Grey’s? This type of sweet-sour mango chutney is about as close as chutneys get to the other fruit spreads on this list.
Fruit chutneys are made by reducing fruit, sugar, and vinegar into a thick paste, at which point other flavorings are often added—garlic, onions, raisins, and tamarind are all common. As for which fruits to use, the sky’s the limit. Mango is obviously popular, as are apple, pear, peach, cranberries, all kinds of dried fruit, and citrus.
Paula Forbes is a freelance food writer whose work has appeared in Eater, Epicurious, the Cut, Food 52, and more. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she is currently working on a cookbook and searching for her perfect Seelbach brunch.