Its wild grape season here in southern Michigan and the vines are finally covered in little purplish-black berries. Technically, it’s actually been wild grape season since late August, but I’m only just getting around to picking and processing them lol. Good for me that they have a pretty long ripe season around here (about late August through October). That means that it’s also jelly making season!
Wild grapes, Vitis labrusca (Vitaceae), also known as Fox Grapes or Riverbank Grapes, are native to eastern North America. They can be found in many habitats, from the edges of forested woods to along roadsides and farmed areas. They can even become a bit of a weed, climbing all over large trees, potentially smothering them if left unattended. Last year I had to pull a bunch off of one of our spruce trees in the backyard to keep it from killing the tree. Worked out in my favor though, because the vines that went about 20 feet up our tree were covered in grape that I could now easily reach :)
Unlike the large juicy grapes we find at the supermarket, wild grapes are relatively small, maybe dime sized at the largest, composed mostly of seeds, and the skin is very tanniny. The juice is nice though – a tartly sweet grapey flavor, although I’ve heard the tart versus sweetness level varies depending on where you collect your grapes. You can eat the grapes as is, fresh off the vines, if you don’t mind spitting out a lot of seeds and skin, but I find the best way to consume them is to turn them into juice and jellies. Yum.
Last year was the first year I made wild grape jelly – and the first time I’ve lived close to so many vines that actually produce grapes. Normally, I actually hate cooking (even though I love eating lol). It just takes so much time and effort for something that is gone in less than half the time it took to make it. For some reason though, I don’t really mind the time so much when I’ve foraged the produce myself. I’ll even make extra work for myself by turning the foraged goods into jelly… So. If you too want to make juice or jelly from the wild grapes near you, here is how I go about it:
- First, gather your collecting supplies. You will need:
- A pair of scissors, snips, or knife of some kind to help remove the grape bunches from the vines.
- A bucket, basket, or other receptacle to put the grapes in (maybe several). Make sure you use something you don’t mind getting stained purple.
- An identification book or guide of some kind if you’re not familiar with the local plants. It’s VERY IMPORTANT that you CORRECTLY IDENTIFY the wild grapes and don’t pick something that looks similar and may poison you. I’ve included some pictures in this post for similar things at my place, but different areas have different plants that may look like grapes. Check multiple sources and find out what look-a-likes may be in your specific area first.
Locate wild grape patches near you, or that you’re allowed/have permission to access. This could be a friend or neighbor’s property or even a park if you don’t have wild grapes on your property. Most people don’t realize or care that they have wild grapes on their property and are happy to let you pick them in exchange for a homemade jar or two of jelly… Make sure you lift up the vines if you don’t see any right away. The grapes often have a tendency to hide.
Take your trusty pup with you to help find the berries and guard your cache while you pick more. Sunday is always more than happy to help me. Important note: grapes are actually really, really, bad for dogs, according to both the ASPCA and the AKC, so don’t let your furry helper have any (see here for a long list of things dogs shouldn’t eat).
- Pick as many grapes as you think you can handle. Make sure you are picking grapes and not something that looks similar!
- Set aside at least several hours for processing grapes into tasty yumminess. In other words, don’t start processing grapes right before someone wants to use the kitchen for making dinner… This can lead to hungry annoyed partners and/or children since you don’t yet have jelly to feed them lol.
- Colander for cleaning grapes
- Large pot
- Large bowl
- Potato masher or something similar like a slotted spoon or long fork that can mash the grapes
- Strainer for separating juice from mash
- Cheesecloth, pillowcase, or other finely knit material for filtering out fine particles from juice. Something you don’t mind permanently colored bluish-purple.
- Large measuring cup and/or lidded container
Rinse any dirt or bugs off of your grapes. This is especially important if picking from somewhere other than your property in case they got sprayed with anything you may not know about.
Separate the ripe grapes (firm purplish-black) from any unripe or rotting/moldy grapes and remove stems. Unlike store bought grapes, wild grapes often have grapes on the same bunch at different ripeness levels. You can easily have unripe green grapes in the same bunch as both perfectly ripe and overly ripe moldy berries.
Place clean ripe grapes in a pot large enough to hold all grapes and come to boil without overflowing.
Cover grapes in pot with just enough water to barely submerge them. They need to be covered, but the less water you use the stronger and better the resulting juice will be. Remove any grapes that float – these are rotten.
Bring pot with grapes covered in water to a simmer or low boil for a couple minutes. Reduce heat to low, and start mashing. The short period of simmering/boiling should have loosened all the skins from the grapes making them easily mashable.
Continue mashing until all grapes have been separate from their skins and seeds.
Turn off heat and remove from burner.
Wait for pot contents to cool enough to handle.
Place a large strainer above a big bowl and drape cheesecloth over the strainer. You could probably break this into two steps (strainer then the cheesecloth), but I prefer to do it all at once when possible…
Twist the top of the cheesecloth to close it and start squeezing out the juice. You can use the potato masher, or whatever you used earlier for mashing, to help squeeze the juices out faster. Alternatively, you could cover this whole contraption and stick it in the fridge overnight – let gravity do its thing. I’m not usually that patient though and it takes up a lot of space.
Once you get all the juice squeezed out, you can dispose of the remaining mash of seeds and skins, and try to wash out your cheesecloth.
- Transfer all the juice to a large measuring cup to see how much juice you have. Or to a lidded container to stick in the fridge. This is a good break point if you don’t have time to make the jelly right now or if you’re just tired of being in the kitchen lol. You also don’t have to make jelly with the juice. Once chilled, you can drink it as is, or dilute it with a bit of water depending on how concentrated you like to drink things. If drinking it, you’ll probably want to add some sugar to sweeten it a bit, but it depends on how sweet you like your drinks. I generally use most of the juice to make jelly though. If you do plan on making jelly with some or all of the juice, don’t add any sugar to that portion.You will need 5 ½ cups of grape juice for the jelly recipe I use. Don’t worry, it will get plenty sweet later. I usually transfer the juice into a container, stick it in the fridge, and make the jelly the next day. Or sometimes a couple days later if something else comes up…
Speaking of taking a break – This is probably a good point to pause writing for the day as the story is getting long. Stay tuned for the jelly-making portion of my wild grape story this weekend. Unless you’re an experienced forager and jelly maker, you’ll probably need the weekend to complete this whole project anyway lol. I know I certainly did.
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