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updated: 6/21/2011 10:57 AM

Strawberry jam that preserves flavor

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A trip to the California Strawberry Festival in Oxnard in May got me thinking about preserving the fresh taste of this succulent fruit. Walking around this hugely popular event, talking with local growers and tasting more than a few extraordinary strawberry desserts, inspired my culinary creativity.

It's quite the experience to visit the strawberry stands just feet away from the growing fields. These freshly picked, perfectly ripened fruit burst with sweet aromas. Best of all, because the fruit has never been refrigerated it's texture feels soft, yet gently firm and luscious on the tongue.

While strawberry seasons hits California in May, here in the Midwest those bright red, ripe strawberries start rolling into farmers markets right about now.

Fresh strawberry desserts always please my palate, but my taste buds long for a better berry jam or preserve. I'm not a fan of overly sweet toast toppings and most commercial products are jam packed with sugar. Those boasting only real fruit often add grape or pear and miss the strawberry flavor mark.

Preserves cooked with artificial sweeteners do cut calories, however these products scream sweetness as most are many times sweeter than table sugar. I wanted a low-sugar strawberry preserve that actually preserves the flavor of the fruit.

The strawberry experts in Oxnard agreed on this point: excessive heat takes its toll on this fruit. Used fresh and ripe in desserts, the strawberries exudes flavor, but add heat and fragile flavor falls apart.

Of course almost all strawberry jams or preserves recipes call for the fruit to be boiled or water processed, degrading the fruit's structure and taste. Freezer-style options remain an exception, but this method starts with crushed berries. I wanted to preserve the shape of this bright crimson fruit.

I came back from California convinced the secret to great strawberry preserves lies in skipping the stovetop cooking. I recalled an article I read about 15 years ago in Sunset magazine about baking fruit preserves. That recipe and a similar one from chef Jacques Pepin intrigued me as much for the technique as for the low amount of sugar.

Back in Grandma's canning days using equal amounts of strawberries and sugar created a sweet spread that jelled well and held up over the winter. The baking technique, unlike cooking and/or hot water canning, gently applies low heat that softens the fruit without compromising the berry's shape or its brilliant flavor.

The fresh strawberry flavor felt almost there, yet I the texture still needed some work. Remembering the smoothness of a fresh strawberry sauce I made in California, I pulled out my strawberry coulis recipe and decided to incorporate it with the preserves. I pureed some of the strawberries with sugar and a splash of orange juice to enhance the flavor and tossed the remaining fruit into the puree. Baking at the low temperature of 225 degrees allowed the strawberries to slowly cook, actually dehydrate slightly, without destroying the fruit's integrity. Lower heat means more time and this process takes a few hours, but your oven does the most of the work leaving you to reap the delicious benefits.

• Annie Overboe, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, lives in Villa Park. Write her at food@dailyherald.com.

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