We picked 28 pounds of strawberries last week. Now that I’ve finally gotten around to writing this post after digging myself out from berries, the last thing I want to look at, think about, or hull is definitely a strawberry. I made strawberry preserves, strawberry chamomile syrup, strawberry butter, strawberry popsicles, strawberry buttermilk ice cream, and strawberry riesling granita. We added them to salads with fresh shelled peas, poppyseed dressing and fresh shavings of parmesan. We tossed them in with a fennel seed berry pavlova with whipped cream seasoned with tarragon. The juices literally ran down our elbows and stained every white thing in our house. If I had it to do over again, would I pick that many berries? Call me crazy but probably. Summer is such a short burst of long days just begging you to eat dinner too late and snack on berries while you wait for the grill to heat up.
I still remember the first time I ventured to a u-pick farm a few months after moving out west. It blew my mind. Maybe they have berries in other parts of the country but if that’s the case, I had never met them. Or not like this. Row after row of raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, boysenberries, marionberries, tayberries. Who was making up all these types of berries I’d never even heard of? And why was it possible to pick these berries fresh by the pound all without the sweltering heat and humidity or threat of yellow jackets I was raised with in the south. It still seems magical to me and heading out to u-pick is part of the natural rhythm of our family’s seasons. This year we brought Orion along and he actually helped. He was able to focus enough to pick a few berries that ended up in our pails instead of in his mouth.
Soon after our first trip to a u-pick farm I was faced with the enormity of our bounty. Think of how you feel when you look down at your plate on thanksgiving, overflowing with more food than you can ever hope to put away and yet you want it all and more. Now take that feeling and multiple it and you’ll know how I feel when staring down pounds and pounds of fresh picked fruit. What was I to do but teach myself how to make jam.
Until you take the leap, jam is something you buy in the store or maybe at a farm stand or farmers market. You deliberate about what flavor to pick off the shelf with no real guide since it’s all been sitting there for months and months. But making your own jam can be very intimidating. How do you get jam to set? How do you make sure your jam is sanitary and you won’t give your friends a wicked case of botulism? And isn’t jam making something reserved for your Great Aunt Louise? I’m here to assure you it’s all within your reach. I threw myself in with abandon, reckless abandon really. And after years of practice and many, many failed jars of jam, I hope I can share with you my fool-proof, idiot-tested jam recipe.
I shared soysugarsherry’s first foray into canning with my post about Dilly Beans. Consider this an introduction to technique. The same tips and tricks about how to sanitize jars apply. It goes a long way to have your tools and supplies prepped and clean and your ingredients ready. That’s the majority of leg work in jam making. Then is pays off to be patient and set aside some dedicated time to devote to your jam since there’s never any certainty about how long a certain type of fruit will cook for in a specific pan in god knows what weather, and so on and so forth. As much as I’ve tried to make this fool-proof, jam is a fickle process that can still cause me to doubt myself as a cook. All I can say is don’t shy away. The end results are almost always useable. If your jam doesn’t set, stir in into oatmeal or top ice cream or a stack of pancakes or even drizzle it over an unbaked poundcake and swirl for a meandering line of sweet fruit. If your jam is too stiff, then it’s perfect to hide between dense layers of bread and sticky peanut butter and no one will be ever the wiser. Trust me, there’s no real messing it up and even 28 pounds later, I still think homemade jam is worth it. I haven’t bought a jar from the store in years and delight in exploring new flavor combinations and sharing with friends and family all year long.
Tips and Tricks:
- After much experimentation and lots and lots of wasted pectin, what it really comes down to is being patient enough to wait until your jam reaches 220 degrees. This is the ideal set point after which the structure of the sugar has been altered to allow it to thicken into a delicious jamlike consistency. Don’t just take it from me, check out this great post from Food in Jars. So put a candy thermometer in your jam, keep stirring every few minutes to make sure it’s not sticking to the bottom of the pan, and keep an eye out.
- The trick then is how long it takes your jam to get there and using the right techniques to test the set of your jam. All the recipes I’ve ever read say to let fruit boil for 15 – 20 minutes. That being said, I find that it usually takes me at least 30 – 45 minutes to achieve a good set. So how do you know beyond the thermometer. Sometimes you sit there sweating over a vat of jam and it just won’t top out at 220 degrees or even though your thermometer says it’s 220, something just doesn’t look right. You can always do these two tests. Stir a spoon through the jam and remove it from the pot. Watch the coating drip off the spoon. If it falls off in runny drips then your jam isn’t set yet. But if it is thick and drops runs together and form more of a solid sheet of liquid, then hallelujah your jam is done. You can also stash a small saucer in the freezer before starting your jam, and when you think you’re jam is done, grab a plate and put a small drop on it. Pop it back in the freezer for a minute until it comes to room temperature and then poke it with your finger. If the jam has thickened and formed a skin that wrinkles when you push your finger into it, then you’re in business. If not, well then keep simmering.
- All these tests aside, the more jam you make, the more you’ll be able to sense that cooking times aside, your fruit has darkened in color and thickened into more of a syrup. This is usually right before it starts sticking to the bottom of your pan because the liquid has boiled off. Don’t despair if it starts sticking to the bottom of the pan, it may still be a perfectly good batch. Pull it off heat and let it sit for a minute or two then stir.
- How quickly and how well jam sets has a lot to do with the amount of natural pectin in the fruit and the ratio of sugar to fruit in the recipe. I used store-bought pectin for years but finally got too frustrated with inconsistent results and feeling like a mad scientist. When I’m picking fruit, I try to find some that are a little underripe to add in as these fruits will have higher levels of pectin. If you get jam to 220 degrees and still have a hard time getting it to set, you can also always use green apples for a source of natural pectin. I’ll try and post a recipe with that as an alternative at some point this summer. Also you can always start out with small batches and increase the ratio of sugar to fruit to improve the set of the jam.
- You always want to make sure to add fresh lemon juice to jam as the acid will help extract pectin from the fruit, prevent crystallization, not to mention improving the flavor and color of the jam.
- I’ve also found that the technique of cooking the fruit and juices briefly then separating them and cooking down the juices into a syrup before re-incorporating the fruit improves the chances of a set. From research I’ve done, this is because it allows you to cook the liquids down for longer without having to also heat the fruit, which will cause the fruit to start breaking down more and losing their flavor.
- It’s helpful to have the right tools on hand, although you can always make jam with just a few basics most kitchens will have. At the minimum, have lots of kitchen towels at hand, a deep, thick-bottomed sauce pan, a candy thermometer, a large metal spoon, and some tongs. Canning tongs aka a jar lifter helps you take the jars in and out of hot water are great. Regular tongs will help you take the hot lids out of their water bath. A canning funnel that has a wider mouth is another really useful tool that helps minimize the splashing from dropping jam into your jars.
A simple and simply delightful beginning jam recipe with whole soft strawberries suspended in a sweet syrup. Perfect spread over toast with a little butter. This jam will make any breakfast feel like an event and make all the effort of picking your own berries, nursing a sunburn, and standing over a hot stove sweating seem worth it. Trust me. It’s based on the recipe from Liana Krissoff’s great book “Canning for a New Generation.”
Quantity: roughly 6 half-pint jars or 4 weck jars
Time to Prepare: 1 hour and 15 minutes
4 lbs rinsed and hulled strawberries
2 cups sugar
3 1/2 tablespoons fresh squeezed lemon juice
Prep the strawberries. Wash and inspect for any rotten strawberries. Hull berries to remove the stem. You can do this simply by taking a sharp paring knife, inserting it at the base of the stem, and turning the strawberry in a clockwise motion until the stem pops out with the thick white core. If some are large, half or quarter to get roughly the same size.
Gently put whole strawberries in large, thick-bottomed pot with high sides so juices make less of a mess in your kitchen as they bubble and boil. Add sugar and gently stir to incorporate. Bring to a simmer over medium high heat. Then cook for roughly 5 minutes until mixture is bubbling and sugar has melted.
Place pint jars in a large sauce pot and cover with an inch of water. Bring to a boil to sterilize. You want to boil the jars for roughly 5 – 10 minutes to clean. Then turn off the heat and leave covered with a lid. You can also sterilize the jars by washing them in hot, soapy water and then letting heat in a 225 degree oven for 10 – 20 minutes. Or if you have a dishwasher with a sterilizing cycle, you can use that. Regardless of which method you use, leave the jars in their heated state until you’re ready to use them so you don’t introduce any bacteria.
Pour into a large colander set in or over a large bowl in the sink. Let the mixture sit for a few minutes to drain. Set aside the berries and transfer juice back to the pot. You should have roughly 2 1/2 cups of liquid. Bring the fruit juices back to a boil over med-high heat. Boil stirring occasionally until syrup is reduced to about half or 1 1/2 cups (15 – 20 minutes). Add the strawberries you set aside back to the pot and any accumulated juice. Then add the lemon juice and bring the mixture to a simmer. Stir every once in a while. You don’t want to break apart the strawberries or reduce the temperature of the mixture but you also don’t want the mixture to start sticking to the bottom of the pot. Continue to simmer your fruit mixture until it reaches 220 degrees and passes either the spoon or plate test (see above in tips and tricks). This time can vary widely but is generally between 20 and 40 minutes.
Once you achieve the right temperature and the jam appears to set, take it off heat and let it sit for a minute while you prep the jars. Throw the jar lids in the hot water and turn the heat back on to high so that the water starts to heat again. You don’t want to boil the lids though, as that may compromise their seal. Meanwhile lay out several kitchen towels and remove the sanitized jars from the pot with canning tongs or regular kitchen tongs. I’ve found that when I take the jars out of the water, if I dump out the water that’s collected in about half to a third of the jars, then I’ll have the right quantity of water to still cover the jars once I return them to the pot for the water bath as the jars once filled with jam will have a greater volume and therefore displace more water once they’re submerged. Let the jars sit upside down on the towels until they’re cool enough to touch. You want to keep the jars upside down until you’re ready to use them and just before you fill them, pull the tops out of the boiling water. This will help minimize the amount of time the jars are left unsealed and vulnerable to bacteria.
Using a large spoon, skim as much foam as possible off the top of the jam. Then stir the jam so that the fruit is evenly distributed through the syrup. Using a canning funnel with a wider mouth and a large spoon or ladle, spoon jam into each jar. Fill each jar to a quarter of an inch from the top and then immediately screw on the sterilized lid. Using tongs, place the jars back in the water bath and make sure they’re still covered with an inch of hot water. Bring to a boil and process for 5 minutes. Then remove and leave to rest over night on a kitchen towel. Check on the seal of the lids by pressing the top of each jar. If you can push down the center of the lid, then you haven’t properly sealed the jar. The jam can be kept in the freezer or refrigerator but should be used in a few weeks time.