RECYCLED – What To Do With 8-1/2 Quarts of Strawberries (Part I): Jam

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June 10, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Editor’s Note: Last year, Beet Editor, Wendy Aeschlimann wondered what to do with a huge haul of strawberries.  She followed the advice of many, make jam.  As strawberries fill our markets, you may want to try the delicious recipe used by her last year.

Thanks, everyone, for the comments on “What To Do With My Strawberry Haul.” A lot of you here, and on Facebook and Twitter, mentioned making jam. The first thing I did with my strawberries was to make 3 pounds worth of jam (which netted 3-1/2 pints – plenty of jam for my small household).

I’ve been preserving and pickling for a couple of years now. My first attempt at canning was preceded by a full week’s study of the Ball Blue Book of Canning and the USDA and University of Georgia guidelines. Part of that process included maniacally searching for inconsistencies between the guides that, if left unnoticed, would result in some defect during the canning process that would kill me and everyone else who innocently indulged in my wares. It’s not that I had no idea about canning – I spent a lot of time growing up in my grandmother’s kitchen where canning was a regular seasonal activity. But I felt like canning was foremost a scientific activity, and one that should be approached that way.

Two years into canning and I feel like I’ve long mastered the process, meaning the steps taken to safely preserve: I haven’t died (obviously) or become sickened from my canned food. I learned that if you follow the proper procedures for canning, process the jars for the USDA recommended amount of time at the right temperature, and include the right amount (and type) of acidity, it’s hard to make a mistake.

Now, it’s time to refine the process. In other words, although I’ve been generally happy with the results of my canning endeavors, last year’s strawberry jam did not have an even distribution of fruit to jelly and a tad too much of a cooked taste for me. So, instead of focusing so much on the process, now I’m focused on taste.

To this end, I checked out a few books that I hoped would prove instructive. I love Linda Ziedrich’s The Joy of Jams, Jellies and Other Sweet Preserves, which was recommended to me on Twitter by a preserver and charcutier (and blogger) I respect (@msmre — follow him!). Ziedrich’s book has a relaxed, mildly pedantic tone, but in reality, contains a lot of easy, versatile recipes. Another authoritative voice on canning is Christine Ferber, “the fairy godmother of jams and jellies,” and her book, Mes Confitures. Ferber, who lives in Alsace and whose confitures have been blessed by uber-Chef Alain Ducasse, is a well-known authority on jam. (Of course, because she lives in Alsace, she must be an authority on anything food-related.)

Every book will tell you not to include bruised, damaged or rotten fruit, or that the fruit should be fresh (the notion being that the fruit will not necessarily be improved by the preserving process), but Ferber has strict, even foreboding, edicts about when to pick fruit for jam: “Most of the fruit I use is picked in Alsatian orchards or woods. It is gathered either in the morning, after the dew has evaporated and before the sum becomes too hot, or toward the end of the afternoon. Fruit picked in the hot sun or in the rain never makes good jam.” Modern refrigeration aside, Ferber insists that that fruit be preserved within a few hours after picking — the next day, the absolute latest.

For some reason, Ferber’s admonition about when to pick the fruit rang through my ears like a fire alarm. More intrigued, I guess, than anything else, I intended to strictly adhere to Ferber’s recommendations, if only to see if they resulted in better jam. I knew I was going to be in Michigan last weekend, near a U-pick berry farm (Earl’s Berry Farm, in Fennville, MI), so I planned to execute Ferber’s instructions to the letter (except for the picking fruit in Alsace part). A cloudy, cool, mid-60s morning gave me my opening. The plan was to pick berries in the morning under the clouds, and transport them back with me to Chicago as quickly as possible that evening so that I would be well-within Ferber’s prescribed 24 hour period for processing.

Does picking your own berries and canning them in the same day sound crazy? Perhaps, but it’s not as difficult as it seems. If you can enlist an assistant berry-picker (kids are great at this), you can have more berries than you know what to do with in less than an hour. As for canning, as long as you have some knowledge of the process going in, it is not terribly labor intensive.

First, both Ziedrich and Ferber insist on small batch production, which, according to Ferber is less than 8 pounds of berries per batch, and for Ziedrich, is about 3 pounds or less. The reason is that jam sets faster and more reliably in small batches, as you have more control over the development of the fruit’s natural pectin (in particular, the evaporation of water, which occurs during the boiling process after adding sugar).

As for the process, I wash my jars in the “light” wash cycle of the dishwasher, then sterilize them in the canning pot for 10 minutes. While the jars are washing, I take my clean lids and bands and put them in a small pot and let them simmer while I prepare the jam. The best-kept secret about making jam is that there’s very little to actually do to prep the fruit (as opposing to canning tomatoes, which requires asbestos hands to peel the tomatoes after they’ve been plunged into boiling water). With strawberries, you need only wash and hull them with a paring knife, put them in a “preserving” pan, mash them and add lemon juice. (Ziedrich has you add lemon juice, then reserve the pulp and seeds only, put them in a spice bag and add them to the pot.) Let the berries come up to a simmer to soften them, add sugar off-the-heat, then bring the berries up to a boil. Ziedrich instructs that you boil the fruit until a small amount mounds on a chilled plate, no more than 15 minutes. (When you put the canning jars in the dishwasher, this would be a good time to put a plate in the fridge.) While the fruit is boiling, skim off the foam and stir the fruit so it cooks evenly and doesn’t stick. This is the part that makes me nervous. Because gelling is achieved by heating sugar, water, acid and pectin (in the fruit), if you don’t cook the fruit enough, it won’t gel, but if you cook the fruit too long, you’ll get a caramelized, scorched taste. It’s a testy balance. I erred on the side of not cooking enough because I don’t mind a looser jam. (Also, strawberry is a fruit that is low in pectin so it doesn’t gel as readily.) Once the jam mounded slightly on the plate, and I started to detect a cooked taste (after about 10-12 minutes), I took the pot off the heat, and began to fill my cleaned and sterilized canning jars.

Ziedrich claims that the liquid will gel as it cools, up to one to two weeks later. Days later, I notice that each day, the jam thickens up a bit more. It’s still probably a little looser than it would be for some people’s tastes (and certainly looser than if I had added commercial powdered pectin), but as it stands, it is getting closer to my perfect texture. Now I’m confident that when I eat this, it will taste closer to my liking. I’m glad I paid attention to the taste and not just the science behind canning. Taste is the reward, isn’t it?

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4 Comments

  1. Jen Mayer says:

    I’ve tried a few different strawberry jam and preserve recipes this year and I (initially) followed them to the letter – for fear of reducing the sugar and inadvertently killing someone with botulism. But they are so, so sweet! Almost every recipe that I follow ended up way, way too sweet for my taste. Can you safely reduce the amount of sugar in a recipe (say, by half)? Does that reduce the shelf life? Does it make it unsafe? I can’t seem to find a clear answer…

    • Waeschlimann says:

      Jen –

      My understanding is that sugar — enough of it — is integral to the process of getting the jam to gel. Therefore, you should not reduce the sugar called for in a recipe (or the acid, for that matter, for similar reasons). Acid is the component that helps stave off botulism, along with processing the jars for the right amount of time and at the right temperature.

      Sugar, on the other hand, helps the jam gel and acts as a natural preservative. That sugar is required for gelling is why reduced-sugar jams require a commercial pectin. I ran your question by master canner and LTHForum’s all-round canning guru, Cathy Lambrecht, and she reminded me of the wealth of information on the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s website (which I alluded to in my article — they are operated through the University of Georgia). Sure enough, there was the answer to your question. According to them, “Sugar is an important ingredient in jellied fruit products. It must be present in the proper proportion with pectin and acid to make a good gel. Sugar is the preservative for the product, preventing the growth of microorganisms. It also contributes to the taste of the product. Never cut down on the amount of sugar a recipe calls for unless syrup is the desired end result.”

      Having posted that, even safe canning recipes vary in the amount of sugar they require. For example, for about 3 lbs. of strawberries, Linda Ziedrich’s recipe calls for 4-1/2 c. of sugar, but in Linda J. Amendt’s Blue Ribbon Preserves, she calls for 7 c. for about the same amount.

      If you’re determined to drastically reduce the sugar in the jam, Cathy recommends that you make a small amount and preserve it in the freezer (essentially, a “freezer jam”), as it will not hold long in the refrigerator and not at all at room temperature.

      Hope that helps!

  2. A lot of people make no-sugar-added jams using low-methoxyl pectin, which binds with calcium rather than sugar to cause gelling. An old-fashioned alternative is to simply cook the fruit down until it’s thick. I do this with Italian plums, which are naturally high in sugar. Provided your no-sugar-added jam is sufficiently acidic (if in doubt, add lemon juice), the jars can be stored in the pantry following a 10-minute boiling-water bath. After opening a jar, store it in the refrigerator to keep the jam from getting moldy or fermented.

    • Waeschlimann says:

      Linda -

      Thanks for the information on low sugar jams — your input is much appreciated around here.

      Wendy

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