Sunday, June 15, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: June, Week 3

Here it is, mid-June already, and though I've been awash in fresh greens for a couple of weeks, my focus this weekend is on the food that always says June to me: strawberries.

Though I would rather let someone else do the back-straining work of picking them, I still have fond childhood memories of June mornings spent plucking ripe juicy berries from their stems as the Chef Mother did the same a row away, followed by hours in the kitchen spent stemming, slicing, mashing, and cooking the berries into sweet, glittering ruby-tinted jam.

Throughout the summer, I'll make other kinds of jam -- and variations on the basic fruit flavors with added herbs or nuts. But strawberry jam, due to its precedence in the calendar and its ever-pleasing flavor, ranks highest in my heart of culinary hearts.

It seems appropriate, then, to devote this week's "Preserving the Seasons" to jam-making.

First of all, let me state a disclaimer: If you have never made jam before, find a recipe and follow it to the letter. Jams are more forgiving than canned vegetables or sauces, because the sugars in the fruit and added in go a long way to preserving the fruit adequately and preventing spoilage. But they are not foolproof. Read up before you start!

Good places to find basic jam recipes include:

Putting Things By
Stocking Up
Ball Blue Book
(or the online Ball site)
any other books dedicated to home preserves

Once you have a recipe, here are some basic rules of thumb to follow:

1. Read the recipe thoroughly before starting.

2. Set out everything you need ahead of time, including prepped fruit. You may not have time to look for something if you're in the middle of canning!

2A. Check your equipment before starting, especially jars. If there are nicks in the jar edge or any cracks, DO NOT USE THE JAR. It can break when hot jam is added or when the jar goes through the hot water bath.

3. Be safety-conscious: Watch what you're doing with a knife, handle hot sterilized jars with hot pads or canning jar tongs, approach the hot-water bath with caution, move slowly.

That said, here's a rough overview of my jam-making session Friday afternoon. (Don't take this as a recipe, just as a show-and-tell!)

In prepping the berries, I usually wash and stem them, cut them into quarters and put them in the pot, and then mash them with the bottom of a clean bottle or glass. I prefer this to using a blender or food processor because (A) I don't have one that works, (B) I like the low-tech approach, and (C) I like my jam to have chunks of real fruit in it.

I also don't like to add pectin to my jam recipes because I don't like jam that wobbles on my toast and rips the top of the pancake when I try to spread it. I like my jam sloppy and drippy, thank you very much, and if you do, too, you might take a look at Valerie's recipe for no-pectin strawberry jam over at Cincinnati Locavore.

Once the berries are mashed or pureed, simmer them (with sugar) over low to medium-low heat until the jam boils, stirring constantly so that the sugary jam doesn't burn on the bottom. Continue to simmer for the time stated in the recipe.

You'll note a pink foam on top of the jam here, raised from the air worked into the jam by the bubbling. It's supposed to be there -- don't worry!

Once the jam has finished cooking, though, turn off the heat and skim off the foam with a large spoon. I highly recommend dumping this frothy "scum" into a small bowl because it's just as tasty as the jam and makes a fine first treat on toast. (If you left the scum on the jam, it wouldn't affect the flavor of the canned jam, but you'd get lots of extra air in the jar that could accelerate spoilage.)

If you're working efficiently, you've had your hot water bath coming up to the boil, with your clean jars, lids, and rings soaking away and getting sterilized in it. Now is the time to remove all those things, dry them, and fill the jars.

Of all the tools in the canner's toolbox, the canning funnel is by far the most essential. When you have one of these wide-mouthed funnels tucked inside the rim of your jars, you are well set against spilling or dribbling hot jam down the sides of the jar or onto your towel or counter. They're dirt cheap and completely worth it. Just look how neat and clean this process is with a canning funnel!

Once you've filled your jars with jam, leaving the appropriate amount of head space (as always, consult your recipe, but for jams you can usually fill to the bottom of the screw ridges around the top). Run a knife or chopstick along the inside to remove air bubbles. Wipe the rim clean with a damp cloth, add the sterilized lid, and secure with a ring. Settle the jars securely in the rack inside your hot water bath, lower the rack into the water, and set the timer for the processing time listed in your recipe.

When you remove the jars from the canner, be careful. This is best done with jar tongs, which fit securely around the ring rim of the jar and have enough heft to carry the now-full jar to a towel or cooling rack. It's not a bad idea, though, to wear an oven mitt on the other hand and cup the bottom of the jar lightly, just in case you lose your grip on the tongs.

Once all your jars are out of the hot water bath, it shouldn't take long before you hear loud pops and pings as the lids seal, creating a vacuum that will protect your jam for long-term storage. Hearing all these noises may be disconcerting at first, but you'll find yourself counting them with increasing glee as you hear every single one of your jars seal. What satisfaction!

Pat yourself on the back! You've made jam!

And I highly recommend celebrating by toasting some very good bread, slathering sweet unsalted butter on the toast, and then spreading that leftover scum on top and eating it while it's still warm. Taste good? Now you know what you have to look forward to this winter!

Depending on how much fruit you have, making jam can take from about one hour to a few. If you're new to canning, start with small batches so that you don't overwhelm yourself. But once you get the hang of it, you'll find you want to start making jam with all kinds of fruit.

What better way to store summer in a jar?

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At 6/18/2008 3:12 PM, Blogger Ed Bruske said...

Jennifer, you must find yourself a copy of "Mes Confitures," in the English translation. You will get lost it it....

At 6/18/2008 3:26 PM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Ed, I read through it a few years ago and picked up a few ideas, but it might be time to revisit it. (Or maybe this winter...)


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