Monday, June 30, 2014

Strawberry Jam - Theme and Variations

This spring, I got it in my head that I wanted to start making my own jam. An interesting idea, given that 1)I am not an expert canner and have not, in fact, made jam without my mother doing the lion's share of the work, and 2)I only eat jam sporadically.

Nevertheless, I was determined that this, if nothing else, would be my quest for the summer. After all, what says summer more than fresh berries and homemade jam? One of my co-workers suggested a pick-your own farm about 30 miles away (since, in all of my jam-making wisdom, I had decided that only freshly picked-by-my-own-two-hands fruit would do. No store bought berries in my jam!). I eagerly checked the farm's website, waiting for strawberries to ripen, and then for the berry-picking schedule to match up with my all-too-rare free Saturdays.

Finally, the day arrived, and my three friends and I met to pick what strawberries we could still find. Since it was close to the end of the season, I was hoping, praying even, for about 5lbs - enough for a single batch of jam, and maybe a few extra to snack on.

I ended up with exactly 15lbs of fresh, beautiful strawberries.

It was also the first day that blueberries were available to pick, so I thought, eh, why not.

Three pounds of blueberries later, with no plan and tired knees (strawberry plants are close to the ground), we decided we had enough produce to keep us busy. I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening washing and hulling (cutting the tops off) strawberries.

The next day, I was raring to go, even though I only had a few precious hours between singing at church and meeting friends at a dinner theater in which to embark on my quest for jam. I decided to go start with the tried and true recipe that Mom and I had always used - the recipe in the Sure-Jell box.

Sure-Jell is my pectin of choice, in part, because this is what my mom always used, and in part, because I know it works and helps the jam get to the thicker consistency that I like. I am a creature of habit, it would seem. I gathered all of my supplies so that I wouldn't be racing all around my kitchen, tripping over the cat and scorching my jam. This included:

  • Two dozen half-pint jars with lids and sealing rings, freshly washed in hot water
  • A colander
  • A 4-cup measuring cup
  • A large non-stick pot
  • A funnel
  • Jar tongs
  • A ladle
  • A potato masher
  • A deep stainless steel stockpot with pasta strainer insert (I used this in lieu of investing in an actual canning pot, which I simply don't have room for)
  • 7 cups Sugar
  • Sure-Jell
  • Strawberries
I washed the berries a second time, because yes, I am a bit obsessive and wanted to make sure that any bits of leaves did not pollute my jam. Then I gleefully mashed 5 cups of strawberries with my potato masher - this was always my job when Mom and I made jam. 

Next, I added the pectin, then heated the entire mix on medium-high heat until I got a nice rolling boil (when the bubbling doesn't disappear when you stir). Then I added the seven (yes, 7!!!) cups of sugar all at once, and stirred until my rolling boil returned.

Then, it was on to the hot and sticky part - skimming the foam off of the cooked jam. I just used a regular spoon to remove the foam from the surface of the jam, and put it in a teacup for later consumption. After all, it is edible, and contains all of the sugary goodness of the jam, but the foam could make the jam cloudy (i.e., less gorgeous) in the jars. I also understand that it can have an effect on how well the jars seal, probably because of the air bubbles in the foam. I just stick it in the fridge and eat it first.

Once the foam was exiled to its container, it was time to start the actual canning. I had purchased the Ball Utensil Set, mostly for the tongs, but I think every piece in this kit made it a wise investment for a beginner like me. The funnel fit the mouth of the jars so perfectly that drippings were few and far between, and the headspace tool was perfect for making sure I had not overfilled my jars (something I'm really bad at just eyeballing). Each jar got a thorough wipe around the rim to make sure that nothing would interfere with the seal. Earlier, I had poured hot water over just the lids in a small saucepan, both to sterilize them and to help soften the seal in preparation for the processing (plus, the instructions told me to).

Now came the part that I was nervous about. And by nervous, I mean paranoid that I would ruin everything. You see, my mom has always used the paraffin wax method of sealing her jars of jam, which involves pouring melted cooking wax in several layers over the top of jam to seal. For the most part, this had always worked for us. Sure, we'd lose the odd jar to mold or when a mouse would chew through the wax, but that was rare, and our rate of success was greatly in our favor. However, I had been doing all kinds of research prior to my jamming weekend, and I had read that the wax method was increasingly being abandoned in favor of the water-bath, or traditional canning method. 

But I hadn't ever done this before! What if I messed up? What if none of the jars sealed? I can't eat 8 jars of jam all by myself in the next few weeks!

Then I reminded myself that I am a competent, independent, and determined woman. And that, if nothing else, I'm fully capable of following a written set of thoroughly tested instructions. So into the pasta strainer they went, and then the whole shebang went into the simmering water.

And came out 10 minutes later looking like jam!

I couldn't help but pat myself on the back. After all, look what I did! Never mind that millions of people over the years have done the same, or more complicated versions. I did it!

I waited just a few minutes, until I thought I could test the seals without burning my fingerprints off. Five lids stayed down, meaning a seal had been achieved. Three did not.

Okay, I thought, three out of eight isn't horrible. Not ideal, but not horrible. I can eat three jars of jam. Maybe I'll take it to work.

So I trotted off to get ready for the theater. Because I like poking at my own wounds, I tested the seals again just before I headed out. The three that had not sealed earlier were now sealed! How marvelous - I was not a partial failure at canning after all! But, whoops! Three jars that had previously sealed now popped back when pressed. Shoot! Still have three uncooperative jars - just a different three than before.

When I got home from the show around midnight, guess what I couldn't resist doing again ... only this time, all eight lids had sealed. Strange, but a relief!

The rest of the week was a marathon of processing jam and baking, in an attempt to use up all of the berries. I tried finding other jam recipes that might offer some variety, but ended up just making minor modifications to the Sure-Jell recipe I had used in the beginning (again, that terror of the unknown at work). Over the next few days, I made:
  • Strawberry Basil Jam (adding 6 Tablespoons of freshly chopped basil to the puree) - this is probably my favorite jam I've ever made!
  • Strawberry Vanilla Jam (adding 3 teaspoons of vanilla extract to the puree)
  • 2 Strawberry Pies
Oh, and let's not forget the blueberries! Breakfast has been homemade blueberry muffins for the last week!

The remainder of the fruit has now taken up residence in the freezer, awaiting future use. I've already told Mom that I'll probably bring Strawberry Pretzel Salad for our Independence Day picnic later this week. And I've learned a lot from this experience.
  1. Jam is ridiculously easy to make, and becomes quite addictive. It is also a very sticky endeavor.
  2. I am absolutely a farm girl at heart, even though I haven't lived on a farm since I was 3 years old. I think a big part of the reason I ended up with so many berries is that I was just enjoying the picking!
  3. My jam recipe calls for more berries than I expected.
  4. But 15 lbs of strawberries is still a lot of berries!
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