How we tested
Strawberry is the nation’s most popular flavor of jams, jellies, and preserves, according to data collected by the U.S. Census and Simmons National Consumer Survey. Yet while there is consensus on flavor, there’s confusion about the different types of products. Jams, jellies, and preserves may look similar, but as Dr. Bruno Xavier, processing authority at Cornell Food Venture Center told us, a product has to meet standards of identity as defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in order to be called jam, jelly, or preserves. These standards outline specifications such as the required amounts of fruit solids and sugar and the types and combinations of fruits allowed. He added, “Usually manufacturers want to use less sugar, or use fruits not in the list, or add things like bacon,” which is why you’ll see alternative terms such as “spread” pop up.
Despite the name differences, the production process for all the products is roughly the same. It starts with the fruit itself. Xavier explained that some manufacturers may use frozen fruit and that the berries they use are not the same as those we buy to eat; they’re usually smaller and have more sugar, and appearance isn’t as important. Sugar, pectin (which forms a gel when combined with water), and usually an acidifier such as lemon juice or citric acid is added to the fruit depending on its acidity level. That mixture is cooked until it reaches a defined concentration of both water and sugar (as measured with a refractometer) before being packaged. Usually these spreads are “hot filled,” meaning they’re put in containers while still very hot and then sealed. A vacuum seal is created as the product cools, helping prevent mold growth.
Since our previous winner was discontinued, it was time to find a new favorite strawberry spread. Because some companies had multiple options, we conducted a pretest to determine which of each brand’s offerings we liked best. We ultimately selected six: one jam, two preserves, and three spreads. We tasted each product three ways: plain, in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and in Jam Thumbprint Cookies (from The Complete Baby and Toddler Cookbook). Our takeaway: We liked all the products, but their flavors and textures substantially differed—and only one product got both just right.
We Loved Potent and Authentic Strawberry Flavor
No one particular style stood out as our favorite. We found that even if two products had the same name (e.g., preserves), they might have very different flavors and consistencies.
Strawberry flavors ranged from subtle to vibrant. A few products had muted fruit flavor or a mere “light strawberry” taste, while another spread was at the opposite end of the spectrum with its “strong strawberry flavor” that tasters compared to both candy and popsicles. We noticed that it was the only product that included added flavor (listed as “natural flavor” on the label), a blanket term that denotes a flavoring created in a lab from natural sources. Our science research editor explained that this flavoring likely contributed to its bold yet somewhat artificial-tasting strawberry flavor.
Our favorite product was also “potent,” but with a more natural, “classic” flavor that reminded tasters of a “truly ripe strawberry.” Curious to find out why, we asked Xavier, who said that both the strawberry variety and where the berries were grown can affect flavor. We asked companies about their strawberry varieties and sources, and from those that were willing to share, we learned that the berries came from all over—some from California, others Turkey or China. The berries used in our favorite product were grown in Oxnard, California, but the company wouldn’t share the exact variety.
Another possible reason why our winner’s strawberry flavor stood out: acidity. Xavier said that if a product has more acidity, the strawberry flavor can seem more pronounced. Our science research editor added that this is especially likely if the product has a higher sugar content because the combination of a high sugar level and high acidity level leads to bigger flavor. He also noted that sugar and acid both boost the perception of other flavors.
We sent unopened jars of each product to an independent lab for testing and discovered that our winner and runner-up did indeed have the lowest pH levels in the lineup, making them the most acidic samples and possibly explaining why they had standout strawberry flavor.
We Preferred a Sweet, but Not Cloying, Spread
The amounts of sugar in each product also varied, from 7 to 13 grams per 1-tablespoon serving. Sugar types differed, too, and included cane sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and concentrated grape juice, but the amount of sugar mattered more to our preferences than type. All three products on the lower end of the range, with 7 to 8 grams of sugar per serving, were deemed “not overly sweet” and “subtle.” By contrast, products on the opposite end of the spectrum—one with 10 grams of sugar per serving, the other with 13 grams—were respectively described as “a little too sweet” and as having an “intense sweetness.”
Interestingly, our favorite product had 12 grams of sugar per serving yet hit the ideal mark of being sweet but not cloying despite containing three different sweeteners: high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, and sugar. Xavier said that a high acidity level can mute the perception of sweetness, and our science research editor added that sugar and acidity balance each other. Our favorite product also had one of the highest acidity levels in the lineup, which likely helped temper its sweetness.
Our Favorite Was Easily Spreadable but Not Runny, with Fruit Chunks
The consistency of the products ran the gamut from “syrupy” and “runny” to “stiff” and “thick,” with most landing somewhere in between. We also noticed that some had large fruit chunks, whereas others were smoother, with fewer fruit bits. While tasters appreciated pieces of fruit, their size mattered less than the product’s overall consistency.
The runny sample was especially problematic. It was “messy” and “oozy” in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—definitely “too runny for the lunchbox,” as one taster said. Its thin consistency was also an issue in Jam Thumbprint Cookies, where it boiled over the sides of the cookies during baking and looked messy. Our science research editor said that a runny product might have less pectin, more water, or too little or too much sugar.
The overly thick product was a turnoff when tasted plain but won rave reviews in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Tasters liked that it “didn’t smoosh out of the sandwich.” While it was somewhat “glue-like,” tasters deemed it the “perfect texture for a sandwich.” It also performed well in the thumbprint cookies.
Our favorite product had a great texture both when tasted plain and in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches: spreadable but not too thin, with a moderate amount of chunky fruit pieces. It also looked and tasted good in the cookies.
The Winner: Smucker’s Strawberry Preserves
Our favorite product, Smucker’s Strawberry Preserves, stood out for its robust, natural strawberry flavor—without the aid of any added flavoring—and its pleasing consistency that was neither too runny nor too thick. We liked it plain and in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and it baked up well in cookies, too—making it an exceptionally vibrant, versatile spread.
Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen staffers sampled six nationally available strawberry jams, spreads, and preserves, ranging in price from about $3.00 to about $8.00 a jar (about $0.10 to about $0.70 per ounce). Because some brands had multiple offerings, we conducted a pretest of 14 products from five brands to determine a final lineup of six. (One brand has two products in the final lineup due to a tie in scoring.) The products that didn’t make the cut were Smucker’s Strawberry Jelly, Smucker’s Simply Fruit Seedless Strawberry Spreadable Fruit, Smucker’s Strawberry Jam, Smucker’s Seedless Strawberry Jam, Smucker’s Low Sugar Strawberry Reduced Sugar Preserves, Welch’s Strawberry Spread, Crofter’s Biodynamic Strawberry Premium Spread, and Bonne Maman Intense Strawberry Fruit Spread. We evaluated each product in our final lineup plain, in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and in Jam Thumbprint Cookies. To obtain pH values, we sent three unopened containers of each product to a certified independent lab for testing. The lab reported the individual pH of each container’s contents, which we then averaged. Products were purchased at local supermarkets, and the prices listed are what we paid. Nutritional information (based on a 1-tablespoon serving size) and ingredients were taken from product labels. We averaged the scores from these tastings and listed the products below in order of preference.