Wednesday, March 10, 2010

HOME MADE JAM - Heirloom skill, and a great made from scratch treat

NOTE: The first part of this post is recycled from an older post on jam - but the subject matter is new, so if you have read the first few paragraphs before - don't panic, it is worth reading on I promise.

JAM - it is a simple living staple. The easiest thing you can do to replace factory food with something you made with your own hands. Also, it is the best way I know to tell the world - "hold on a minute - I am not done with my toast yet!".

A crisp March morning (yes- they do happen in Florida and we cherish them) The Cardinals are waking the world with that sharp, short note they use. The sun is shining - golden, through the bedroom window and Grimalkin the cat is laying belly up on the bed next to me. Grimalkin especially loves mornings and he is hard to dislodge. Dislodge is the necessary term because Grim ways well over 22 pounds and he lies like a sack of flour.

It is Saturday morning and I have plans for some dawn gardening, a breakfast of bacon and eggs, toast and jam and then a visit to the farmer's market for some fresh veggies. Well, plans and I have a better relationship in theory than in fact. Reality sets in as the sun rises over the maple in the back yard. I have spent way too much time in the backyard garden beds and if I plan on going to the market while it is still busy I'll need to skip breakfast. Fortunately, the great thing about being a homesteader means you always have homemade jam around. So the problem is solved with a piece of toast and a large dollop of last year's blueberry jam.

Of all the things that a self sufficient life affords, jam is one of the best. There is nothing as easy and rewarding as jam. Yet, as simple as jam is, its joys can transcend food and become a time machine. The jars sit on the pantry shelf glistening like jewels, sending you back to the warm summer day they arrived in your kitchen, full of potential. Later, as you open the jars and spread them across fresh toast you are transported back in time to a warm kitchen where someone kind and gentle uses the corner of her apron to open the jar and spreads a thick fragrant layer of strawberry jam. Later, after you have spooned out the last vestige and place the empty jar in the sink, time scans forward and you find yourself thinking of the next harvest, favorite recipes to repeat, new ones to try in their turn.

Quite an accomplishment for a small mason jar to hold. And yet it does, jam is past, future, memory, hope and ambition all condensed into a thick sweet miracle and preserved in shining glass on your kitchen shelf.

Like so many things, Jam is both science and art. The basic scientific elements are fruit, sugar, acidity and pectin. In a perfect world, the fruit contains all of these things. The pulp contains sugar, the juice has acid and the skins contain pectin. So one can take a solution of crushed fruit, cook it long enough to concentrate the sugar to over 60%, make sure the Ph level is acid - around 3.0 to 3.5and provide a pectin concentration of over 0.5%. Poof - you have jam - it's that simple- well, in science at least.

However, Jam is not all science. True, if you put in enough sugar, some lemon and a packet of commercial pectin and boil it long enough, you will most likely produce a jam of some sort. But to get jam that tastes like a summer orchard or a fall berry patch, a jam that transports you back as a child in your grandmother's kitchen -science won't do it. It takes something more - maybe art, luck or just plain magic. That's where I come in; I loved my Nanny and was blessed to spend a great deal of time with her. From Nanny, I learned the magic of jam and that is what I will try to convey to you.

First off, although my nanny did at times spend days in the kitchen processing huge batches of fruit. Everything we will need to know can be learned from making small batches. Small batches are best anyway for many reasons. Small batches - do not require a long cooking time and that improves flavor, do not require a lot of fruit and so if you make a mistake it is a minor one, allow you to make preserves from even just a basket or two of fruit, do not require a lot of special equipment.

1 pint basket of berries = 3 1/4 cups whole berries = 2 1/4 cups sliced berries = 1 2/3 cups pureed berries.

Based on that math, allowing for evaporation and adding sugar, you should yield about 8 ounces of finished preserves from a pint basket. 8 ounces is equal to the ½ pint classic jelly jar and can be found all over.

You never want to use fruit in a preserve that you would not pop in your mouth and eat fresh. My nanny made one exception to this and it was a great secret. She would take a few of the greener fruit and slice them in with the ripe ones. The reason for this is that green fruit contains a lot of pectin and that helps to set the jelly and give it a firmer texture.

The thinner you slice the fruit the more surface area you expose. More surface area means quicker evaporation. This is especially important for strawberries, because they contain a whole lot of water. Blackberries and raspberries can just be lightly crushed.

As long as the fruit is firm and good, you do not need to peel too closely, the fruit near the edge contains the most pectin and this is needed for setting,

Many recipes call for you to add sugar to the fruit as it is already on the stove heating. This is ok if you are making a very small batch to eat right away. But if you plan on storing it for any length you will want to put the fruit in a bowl and pour the sugar on top – cover with a dishtowel and let rest for 30 minutes or more. This will draw more juice out of the fruit and make sure it gets incorporated into the preserves. Otherwise it stays in the fruit, is not properly cooked and seeps out later making your preserves wet and runny.

This one I taught to nanny and not the other way around. The idea is to get sugar to that magic 60 percent concentration. Many recipes cheat by adding lots of sugar in the start, but then they require long cooking to convert the raw sugar into a syrup. That omits one big problem – the longer your cook fruit the more flavor fades. Also the longer you cook sugars the more they caramelize and overpower what fruit flavor that is left. Long hot boiling times equal thick tarry preserves that taste more like molasses than fruit. One trick to avoid this is the small batch. Less fruit means more evaporation and less cooking time to get to 60percent. But, it is even better if you cook the fruit in as wide a pan as possible. The wide pan surface allows easy evaporation and is much faster than a narrow tall pot. For small batches you can (I do) use a large stainless steel skillet. The French approve of this idea so much that they have their own jam pans that look just like an old fashioned wash pan.

Timing is very tricky with preserves and the other factors like sugar, acid and pectin have much more influence than heat. So, it is always better to err on the side of undercooking. It is true you may end up with a batch of syrup instead of jam. But you can always use the syrup. You can put it on pancakes, use it in pies, substitute it for liquid in cakes, or even add it to iced water and make a fruit cooler in the summer. The point is – undercooked jam still has uses. If you have ever seen an overcooked batch of dark tarry preserves you will understand they have far fewer uses. None come to mind really. No, when in doubt it is best to stop and hope for the best,

A huge water bath boiler or pressure cooker is great to have, but you don’t have too. You can easily and safely accomplish all you fruit preserving with a simple stock pot. As long as the water covers the tops with at least two inches and you boil for 10 minutes, all is fine,  Of course, you will need jars and a funnel and jar tongs are super nice to have. Everything else should be in your kitchen already. Bowls, dish clothes, spoons, etc.

Nothing can burn as badly as boiling syrup. If you leave the fruit unstirred for a while – be careful when you start to stir again. Sometimes a great deal of heat has accumulated and the pot may spit. The boiling water you use to sterilize the jars and lids is the reason why you will really need to buy a can lifter and a lid magnet. They are not essential – you can improvise with good tongues. But you can get both these things along with a wide funnel all in a kit at Wal-Mart or Target. Also the finished jars will be very hot – it is best to place them on a flat towel when you take them out of the pot, it prevents mess and keeps the jars from cracking from contact with the cold counter top.

This was nanny’s greatest gift. Don’t think you should use that much sugar? Try using less – with a small batch it will only take a little more cooking to set the jam. Don’t think your jelly has a rich enough color. Soak some of your fruit skins in a little warm sugar water and add the liquid back for a richer color. Your jam is a little too bland? – add a touch of apple cider vinegar. Truth be told, nanny and I once put a tiny sprinkle of red Kool Aid powder in a batch of really pale and thin Peach preserves. The color was awesome and everyone raved about how beautiful our preserves where. We just smiled. Its jam – no reason to panic.


• Jelly is a mixture of fruit juice and sugar that is clear and firm enough to hold its shape.

• Jam is made from crushed or chopped fruit. Jam holds its shape, but is less firm than jelly.

• Conserves are jam made from a mixture of fruits sometimes they contain nuts, raisins or coconut.

• Preserves are made of small, whole fruits or pieces of fruits in clear, thick, slightly gelled syrup.

• Marmalades are soft, transparent fruit jellies that contain small pieces of fruit or citrus peel.

• Butters are made from fruit pulp cooked until rich and very thick.

For those of you ready to make the leap I will include this super easy small batch recipe for strawberry jam.

6 cups strawberries – around 2 pint baskets – there will be a few left to eat

2 cups sugar

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1) Slice the berries thinly and do not remove all the white part on top

2) Place the berries in a large 10 or 12 inch skillet

3) Sprinkle the sugar on top of the berries

4) Wait 30 minutes or so until the berries have sweated

5) Turn the heat on to medium high and bring to a boil– stirring occasionally

6) Reduce heat to medium – stir constantly

7) Simmer for about 8 or 10 minutes – skim foam as needed

8) When mixture looks syrupy, test by dropping a spoon full on a ice cold saucer

9) When the jam appears thick and runs slowly it is ready – no more than 10 mins

10) Take jam off heat and ladle it into sterilized jars using the funnel

11) Wipe the rims

12) Pick up lids from boiling water using the magnet or tongs

13) Place lid on jar, place ring on and secure firmly – do not over tighten

14) Use jar lifter to place filled jars back in water pot – be sure there is 2 inches over the top

15) Bring water back to a full boil

16) Boil for 10 minutes

17) Remove from jar using the jar lifter – or use tongs - or turn off heat after 8 minutes and allow water to cool if you have no lifter.

This recipe should yield at least two 8 ounce mason jars of delicious jam. That is it. You have made jam. Enjoy the fruits of your labor and start to think of the next batch because you will go through this like no bodies business.

1 comment:

  1. I am a recipient of many of Lyle's jams (maybe because I am his Mother), I love all the fruit jams and jellies, but my favorite is the peach. Lyle is a fantastic cook, cooked his first meal at the age of six; roasted cornish hen, with buttered peas and buttered mushrooms which the family thoroughly enjoyed.


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