Enjoy the taste of summer all winter by learning to can, preserve or 'put up' jam
On a frigid morning in late January, there are few things more satisfying than a just-toasted English muffin, warm butter oozing in the crevices, with a burst of summer's juiciest strawberries smeared across the top.
That first bite transports you back to days at the lake, in the backyard garden, and s'more-filled nights by a campfire.
We all know the hardest part of any plan is implementation and enjoying summer in a jar in late winter is no exception. Somewhere in our memory files, are flashes of our grandmother's musty damp cellars, lined with rows of filled Ball jars; summer "put up" to feed the family when freshly picked was no longer available. Although fun to look at and enjoy, the whole process seemed daunting, hot, time-consuming, and just plain a lot of work.
Some call it canning, others preserving, still others, just making jam. No matter the title, seizing a season requires time and a bit of work, but the result is worth every minute.
Let's eliminate the mystic and break down the tasks; all three words, canning, preserving, and jam making imply a different part of the jam session process.
Making jam is simply combining fruit with sugar, a bit of lemon juice, and if desired, other chosen ingredients. For example, combine strawberries and rhubarb, sugar, the juice of a lemon, and maybe a splash of red wine or balsamic vinegar, and a pinch of black pepper in a large wide, shallow pan. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and cook until the fruit breaks down. Continue the simmering process until the mixture has thickened enough to run your spoon down the center and no liquid runs into the middle. Done. You've made your first batch of jam, congratulations!
Now you can stop right there, transfer the jam into a container, refrigerate and enjoy. But here's where the preserving part comes into play. Preserving implies maintaining something in its natural state. Sugar is a preservative so just cooking the fruit in sugar will allow the fruit to last longer than fruit would alone without the sugar. However, if you make jam without preserving it, it won't last until January.
You can, however, preserve without canning. The main difference is refrigeration. Canning involves big pots, jars, lids, water baths, jar tongs, cooling racks; equipment and time. If you make that same jam implementing a couple of changes, you just might make January, sans the equipment, less steam and time.
Buy a package of canning jars, separate the rings, lids, and jars. Place the jars on a baking sheet and set your oven to 225 degrees. Put the jars in the oven while you make the jam, or at least for 15 minutes. Bring a small saucepan of water to a simmer, drop in the lids (not the rings), and remove from heat and cover. There is a small rim of rubber around the lids. This process is softening that surface, so you get a good seal.
Now, the same process, make the jam. This time, when finished, transfer the hot jam to the hot jars. Wipe the rim, so they are clean with a damp paper towel, immediately add one of the lids from the warm water and close with a ring. Set it on a cooling rack to cool and then transfer to the refrigerator. You have just preserved your jam! It will last in your fridge for at least a few months.
Canning here we come
What's that? Are you ready to go all in? Canning here we come! Repeat the first two steps, make the jam, heat the jars, simmer the lids, fill the jars, wipe the rims, and add the lids. This time, here's what's different. Select a pot that is large enough to hold your jars, fill the pot with water and make sure the jars will be covered at least an inch or two over the top of each jar. Bring the water to a boil (make sure there is a liner at the bottom of the pot, either a towel, pot holder, or better yet, a jar rack), as soon as you add the lid, screw on the ring, not tight, just enough to keep it secure.
Place the jars in the water, (this is a water bath) bubbles should start to come out of the jars; this process is forcing air out of the jars. As the air escapes from the jars, the preserving begins. No air means less chance of bacteria build up and no refrigeration necessary. The amount of time spent in the water bath depends on the size of the jar and the time begins when the water comes back to a boil. When time elapses, remove the jars from the water bath and set on the cooling rack. When the lids "pop" this will be music to your ears. This sound indicates the canning process was successful! The little indentation on the top of the lid was sucked into the jar as the air escaped and it is now securely fastened to the jar, sealing the good in and the bad out.
Before you set the jar on your shelf, wait 24 hours and test your work. Remove the ring from the jar and pick up the jar from the lid. (Warning! Do this over a surface just in case the seal isn't tight to eliminate a potential crash). If the lid stays intact, success! If not, it is preserved but not sealed. No need to throw away, just refrigerate. You can store your successfully canned jars without the ring if you want. They are mostly there for show. If bacteria did build up, the jar without the ring would just blow the top off instead of potentially breaking the jar. Breakage happens more in pickling or "put up" fruits and vegetables where there is no sugar or vinegar to act as a preservative so don't worry. We'll save all of that for another column!
Make jam, preserve, can or do all three but don't get overwhelmed! I'll share a little bit of advice someone gave to me a long time ago, "remember, it's as good as you could do at the time." Don't put a ton of pressure on yourself for the first batch, or even the second batch, just make it. You will adjust your aim and your sixth, or the seventh batch will be better than your first. Next year's jam will be even better, your confidence will grow, you will test new flavor additions, and the next thing you know, you will have amassed a season on a shelf to enjoy throughout the year.
There are million different books and recipes for jam, but this is the way I like to make it. I use less sugar and no pectin. The result is a softer texture, and sometimes less yield but I think it tastes more like the fruit you started with. Make sure to taste your fruit first to gauge the sweetness. Bump the weight of the sugar to 30 or 35 percent if the fruit is less sweet. Yes, you will need a scale, but it's the easiest and best method for measurement.
Now let's make some jam!
Use a scale for accurate measuring when canning or making jam.
- Courtesy of Kelly Sears
• Cleaned fruit by weight -- combinations are tasty here, strawberry rhubarb, raspberry mango, plum cherry, cleaned means washed, pitted, hulled, etc.
• 25 percent weight of fruit in sugar
• The juice of one lemon
• Add in's -- cinnamon stick, a smashed piece of ginger, muslin bag of spices -- anything to enhance the flavor of the fruit. These add-ins are optional and maybe for the first batch, not necessary
• 2 ounces Marsala or other liqueur or liquor -- again optional, skip this until you've made a batch or two
• Combine plums, fruit, sugar, and add in's and or other liqueur or liquor if using*
• Stir gently to combine and let the fruit macerate in the refrigerate overnight or up to five days*
• Remove spices and drain off all liquid and reserve. Begin to cook the fruit over a medium-high flame until it starts to give off more liquid. Slowly add the reserved liquid back in stages, as the pan begins to dry, add more liquid until all the liquid is incorporated back into the fruit. Cook the fruit over medium heat until the fruit breaks down and the liquid becomes thick and syrupy.*
• Take your spoon down the center of the pan. If you can part the fruit and no juice runs back into the center, it is ready. Another test is if you lift the spoon, the jam shouldn't run off; it should "plop" off. *
• Spoon into sterilized jars leaving ½-inch head space (space from the top of the jar to the start of the jam, usually right under the rim of the jar *
• Process 10 minutes for 4-ounce jars, 15 minutes for half-pint jars*
Jam making staples
Good fruit yields good jam. Don't use fruit right before it goes bad. Fruits should be:
• Healthy looking
• Pesticide free
• Taste first, adjust sugar accordingly
• Ripe but not overripe
• Ideal would be just picked fruit
• In season but not the first fruit of the season
• Average in size, not large -- this fruit is usually starchy and watery
Once the jam is ready, there should not be any scum and fruit should stay submerged in the juice
Store jam in a dark, cool, well-ventilated place. Label to ensure first in first out.
Types of Fruit
• Fruits with pits (peaches, apricots). Spring to fall, very juicy, contain about 90 percent water, make great jams, jellies, or compotes. Prepare right away as they lose character in the refrigerator.
• Fruits with seeds (figs, apple, melon, pear, quince). These contain a lot of water to work well for jam, jellies or compotes, those high in pectin (apples and quince) mix well with other fruit weak in pectin.
• Exotic fruit (kiwi, passion, pineapple, banana, papaya). Available year round when other fruits are not in season. Be careful with pineapple and papaya as their enzyme composition is resistant to setting.
• Citrus Fruit (lemon, mandarin, lime, grapefruit). Must be washed and scrubbed before use with their skin. The white skin and seeds contain a lot of pectin. Pair well with other fruits weak in pectin.
• Berries (cassis, blueberry, raspberry, red currant). Many made into jelly because of the abundance of seeds
• Dried Fruit (apricot, dates, figs, prunes). Add a third of dried fruit to a jam preparation. Must be soaked for at least 2-3 hours in water, wine or fruit juice; dice into small pieces and add to jam.
• Hard shell fruit (hazelnut, walnut, pistachio). These contain little water; add at the end of cooking process
• Vegetables (onion, carrot, celery, rhubarb). Naturally sweet can be mixed with other fruit.
Ingredients added to jams
Vinegar, wine and alcohol. Vinegar can replace lemon juice. Brings acidity to trigger pectin, keeps fruit its vibrant color.
Wine can bring out bursts of flavor, pair white with white or yellow fruit and red wine with berries (in general). Substitute some water used in a jam recipe and add the wine at the beginning of the boiling process
Ginger, crushed pepper flakes, crushed black pepper, fresh herbs, lemon grass
All of these optional ingredients, flavor pairings can help take your jam to the next level. Experiment!
White granulated or crystallized cane sugar is commonly used to make jam. Neither brown sugar, sugar in the raw, nor confectionery sugars are used due to molasses addition and high content of impurities, and cornstarch.
Some fruits do not contain enough pectin (cherries, strawberries, peaches, or pears) -- complement these with other fruits high in pectin or pectin powder may be added to the mix. As a general rule, 3 grams of pectin for 1,000 grams of fruit and sugar; if you reduce the amount of sugar, you will have to increase the amount of pectin
Crush a piece of fruit with a fork and cook it slowly in a pan. Mix a teaspoon of this fruit juice with a tablespoon of 90 percent alcohol. If the fruit juice makes a thick paste, it contains a lot of pectin if the fruit juice splits into 2 or 3 small balls, it contains some pectin and if the fruit juice separates in many small balls, it contains little pectin.
• Kelly Sears is the executive chef and instructor at Marcel's Culinary Experience in Glen Ellyn. She caught the cooking bug early, first learning to bake with an Easy Bake Oven. She kept on learning and graduated from the College of DuPage culinary program. She hasn't stopped learning or teaching since. Contact her by sending email addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Some information courtesy 1994.2013 S.R. Canonne & J.A. Pfeiffer -- The French Pastry School, LLC