Ida’s Watermelon Preserves

I’ve been told that my grandmother Ida’s “Watermelon Preserves” were the best anywhere around. This summer I decided to see for myself and make a batch. However, I had quite a surprise when I read the recipe — the preserves are made with only the white part of the rind — not the watermelon pulp. Now, do you know of anyone who eats watermelon rind? Apparently my ancesters did. Grandma Ida’s recipe consists of three ingredients — the white part of the rind, sugar and a little lemon juice. When cooked down on the stove, the sugar thickens into a thick syrup and the small chunks of rind flavor the preserves. Hey, this is really candied watermelon rind! No wonder everyone liked “Ida’s Watermelon Preserves.” This novel recipe turned out to be a very, very sweet summer treat.

The watermelon preserves recipe makes a small batch. It is just the right amount to eat up in a couple of weeks since I didn’t process the preserves in a boiling water bath canner to make them shelf stable. (Store these in a refrigerator.) These sweet treats can be used on English muffins, biscuits or bagels, added to oatmeal or yogurt, used to sweeten smoothies or served as an ice cream topping.

Heritage Recipes and Iowa Pioneer Stories

I am lucky to have the recipe. It is one of the treasures which were passed down through several generations of family members. My grandmother’s ancesters all settled on farms in Black Hawk County around Waterloo, Iowa, in the late 1800s. My grandmother and her older brothers did a good job of recording the history of the area as seen in their childhood. Their childhood stories provide a glimpse into a pioneer life on Iowa farms which is long since past — such as sneaking up to watch an Indian encampment and pow wow on nearby land and being frightened by gypsys who snuck into their family barn to steal chickens.

I had the foresight to collect a few recipes from my grandmother’s generation via my mother and her cousins. I can only guess that “Watermelon Preserves” was a “delicacy” which was served when company came to visit on Sunday for dinner after church or to satisfy the appetites of the farm workers — who did everything by manual labor in that era. Or perhaps my grandmother just had that crafty and creative streak that other cousins in my family have. Here is my grandmother’s family in 1912. (Ida is in the center on the back row.)

Preserves vs Jelly and Jam vs Marmalade Recipes

A “fruit preserve” is defined as a preparation of fruit whose main preserving agent is sugar and sometimes acid (such as lemon juice), often stored in glass jars and used as a condiment or spread. Preserves contain chunks of fruit wheras jellies and jams are more likely to contain only crushed fruit and/or juices. On the other hand, a marmalade is a transparent fruit preserve made from citrus fruit like oranges. They are all related terms for preserving fruit — but I just had to know.

Making the recipe

This recipe turned out to be a multi-step process. Make sure you have plenty of time to make the preserves. Cutting up the white part of the watermelon into cubes takes awhile. Then you cook the white rind on the stove until translucent. Last, the rind is cooked in sugar for half an hour to make syrupy, goopy preserves.

Here are the ingredients — a watermelon, sugar and lemon juice. Don’t purchase one of those small “personal-sized” watermelons which has no white rind! We made that mistake and had return to purchase another one which was larger. No problem, we love watermelon!

To make this recipe:

First, eat the watermelon pulp. That’s the fun part.

The recipe uses the white part of the rind — not the green outer rind. Cut off all the green rind using a small knife, leaving part the red pulp on for color. The green rind is tough and bitter; it is not used to make watermelon preserves! The original, small recipe uses 2 cups of cubed rind which yields approximately one 8 oz jar. It is easy to double the recipe, as I did, using 4 cups cubed watermelon rind. This is about 10 slices of half-moon shaped watermelon pieces. (I cut the cubes into pieces which were about 1/2″ in size.)

Boil the white cubes of rind on the stove in a large pot in water for 15 minutes until tender and translucent. Drain off the water and let set for 15 additional minutes.

Return the cubes to the pot and stir in the sugar. Place the pot back on the stove and cook until the mixture thickens. Stir and stir. The sugary mixture will bubble and boil. Adjust down the temperature of the stove to keep it gently boiling.

The sugar will begin to thicken and you will feel a very slight resistance against the spoon. This took 30 minutes. Add in the lemon juice. Time to take the preserves off the stove. The preserves will thicken further as they cool.

(I cooked the first perserve batch for 45 minutes. Once cooled, the syrupy mixture became hard as a rock.– too long cooking on the stove — remove after 30 minutes.)

Transfer to sterilized 4 oz or 8 oz canning jars. Add the lids (seals and rings). Store in refrigerator. Even though I didn’t process the preserves in a water bath canner, I still took precautions to keep everything hot (the jars, lids and preserves) — for two reasons. First, this helps everything remain sterile. Secondly, adding hot prerserves to cold jars can cause the jars to crack and break. (I’ve had that happen.) Let’s be safe.

If desired, process in a water bath of a home canner for 10 minutes to make them shelf stable at room temperature.

These sweet candied watermelon rind preserves are very tasty. Quite a novel summer treat.

These poineer Iowa farm families were self-sufficient and resilient. They were dairy farmers, grew chickens and hogs, corn and all the grain crops along with it. Some of the foods and recipes of this era are very interesting! Such as boiled dandelion greens. And Ida’s watermelon preserves. Enjoy.

Ida's Watermelon Preserves

  • Servings: 3 (4 oz) canning jars
  • Difficulty: easy
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  • 2 cup diced watermelon rind (white part of rind only with some red pulp). This takes about 5 slices of watermelon.*
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice

Method and Steps:

  1. Slice about 5 half-moon pieces of watermelon in 1/2″ thickness. Using a small knife, cut off most of the red pulp (leave some attached) from the white rind and all of the green rind. Slice into 1/2″ cube-sized pieces. This should yield 2 cups packed white rind. Use more watermelon slices, as needed.
  2. Add the white rind cubes to a large pot with water filled to about 1″ depth. Bring to a boil on the stove. Lower the heat on the stove and gently boil for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Watermelon rind should be just fork tender and translucent.
  3. Drain the watermelon rind cubes in a colander. Let set for 15 minutes.
  4. Return watermelon rind cubes to the large pot and place back on stove. Add the sugar. Heat over medium-high heat. Stir and stir until the sugar dissolves.
  5. Adjust heat of stove so that watermelon and sugar syrup just boils and bubbles. Continue to cook for 25 minutes, stirring frequently.
  6. Add lemon juice and cook an additional 5 minutes (for 30 minutes total cooking time). Sugar syrup should thicken and you should feel a slight resistance against spoon.
  7. Remove from stove. Ladle into hot, sterile canning jars. Wipe top of rims of jars clean with a damp paper towel. Add the lids (seals and rings).
  8. Let cool on kitchen counter. The preserves will thicken further as they cool and chill. Then store in refrigerator.
  9. If desired, process in boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes to render shelf stable.

*NOTE: It is easy to double recipe using 4 cups diced white part of watermelon rind, 2 cups sugar and 2 Tbsp lemon juice.

3 thoughts on “Ida’s Watermelon Preserves

  1. My husband’s mother made watermelon rind pickles, which look similar to your recipe, but used white vinegar (and more of it) instead of lemon juice. They ate it like regular pickles, as a side or on top of sandwiches. I always thought it was a Pennsylvania Dutch recipe. They have lots of sweet and sour recipes. Thanks for your version!

    • Hello, yes, there are lots of variations to these recipes. I’d love to see your recipe sometime. My preserves really turn our more like “candied” watermelon that anything else; tasty but very different. My ancesters were Pennsylvania Dutch, too. I’m not surprised at the use of vinegar rather than lemon juice. I remember a story of my great-great grandmother on a trip from Pennsylvania to Iowa as a young lady — someone pulled out an orange which was the first time she’d ever seen one! I doubt that citrus fruit was used much in those old Pennsylvania Dutch recipes. Thanks for visiting my blog.

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