I made my first batch of jam 15 years ago, before the big DIY movement, before homesteading was cool. It had nothing to do with going back to the land or anything like that. I was just a bridezilla on a budget, looking for inexpensive, food-related ideas for wedding favors that I could make way in advance. Jam seemed like the perfect solution.
I read every canning book I could get my hands on (my favorite was, and still is, “Preserving the Taste” by L.A. jammer Edon Waycott, published way back in 1993). I bought a big, wide preserving pot, and spent the summer visiting u-pick farms for cheap fruit. Berries, peaches, apricots, plums — tomatoes even — I made jam out of them all, mixing up the fruits, adding different herbs and spices. Peach-Lavender was a favorite.
I still make jam on a regular basis, no matter what time of year. In fact, whenever I have excess fruit about to go bad I throw it in a pot and make jam, even if I end up with just a cup or two to tuck in the fridge.
But most summers we make a concerted effort to stock up on berries and other fruits for jam. We’ll go berry picking on Sauvie Island and bring home multiple flats to either use right away or freeze.
Wendi’s the lucky one, though, because she has access to an almost inexhaustible supply of the freshest, juiciest berries ever. Her mom owns and operates a farm near Yachats, on the Oregon Coast. And although she produces a range of fruits and vegetables (not to mention eggs), berries are the cornerstone of her business. Wendi and her family spend weeks there each summer, picking loganberries and raspberries and turning them into the most delicious preserves.
Often they freeze the berries after picking and make jam later in the fall, when the kitchen isn’t so hot. Wendi will come back from those trips with a case or two of canned jam to give away to friends and neighbors during the holidays. It’s a pretty smart system.
If I’ve learned anything from the hundreds of jars of jam I’ve canned, it’s that a big, wide, shallow pot is key. Wendi’s mom uses a big Mauviel copper jam pot that I covet. Mine is a humdrum stainless steel. Either way, the goal is to have as much surface area as possible, so you can cook the water out of the fruit quickly and preserve its fresh flavor. Many people use commercial pectin because it makes it easy to achieve a jammy consistency super fast, but I usually to skip it. I don’t like having to use a specific amount of sugar to make the pectin work (it’s usually a lot, unless you use Pomona’s Pectin). And I like a looser style of jam anyway.
The other thing I’ve learned? Let your taste guide you. Fruit varies in sweetness and juiciness from week to week, season to season, farm to farm. So trust your instincts when adding sugar, lemon juice, or any other flavorings. As long as your jars are clean and sterilized, you’re not working with low-acid foods like mangos or bananas, and you process the jars according to the usual guidelines, you can mess around a bit with your preserves. Feel free to combine different high-acid fruits, or add flavorings like cinnamon, vanilla bean seeds, or a splash of booze.
- Don’t forget the fresh lemon juice. It aids in getting the jam to jell and brightens the flavor.
- Sugar is more than a sweetener, it helps extract the fruit’s juices and thicken them when the mixture reaches the jelling temperature. Also, it helps preserve the quality of the product, so it lasts longer. I’ve made preserves with honey, but I usually used Pomona’s Universal Pectin to aid in jelling, or was making a small batch destined for the fridge.
- Choose a non-reactive pan (i.e. one that doesn’t react with acidic ingredients) that’s more shallow than it is tall, with a heavy bottom.
- The easiest way to sterilize your washed jars and lids is to put them on a baking sheet and keep them in a 250-degree oven until you’re ready to fill them.
- Be sure to wipe the rims of the jars before adding the lids, so you can ensure a proper seal.
- Always follow the recipe’s processing instructions.
- For more tips, Marisa McClelland’s website (and books) “Food in Jars” is a great resource, as is the Ball canning guide.
Makes about 4 half-pint jars
Classic jam recipes usually call for an equal parts ratio of fruit to sugar, which makes things very easy when you’re jamming on the fly. If you have more or less than a pound of fruit, just increase or decrease your sugar accordingly. The lemon juice helps keep things bright and aids in the jelling process, and the butter reduces foaming.
1 pound berries
1 pound granulated sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Place several teaspoons on a plate in the freezer, so you can test the jam later. Fill a water bath canner with water and start bringing it to a boil.
Place the berries and lemon juice in a large, wide non-reactive pot. Bring to a boil over high heat, mashing berries with a potato masher. Allow to boil for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Stir in the sugar, then allow the mixture to return to a boil. Add the butter to reduce foaming. Continue to cook for about 10 minutes, then reduce heat to low while you test for doneness.
To test the jam, we use the method popularized in the “The Blue Chair Jam” Cookbook: “Transfer a half-spoonful to one of the frozen spoons. Place the spoon in the freezer for 4 minutes, then remove and feel the underside of the spoon. It should be neither warm nor cold; if it’s still warm, return it to the freezer for another minute. Tilt the spoon vertically to see how quickly the jam runs; if it is reluctant to run and has thickened to a spreadable consistency, it is done. If it runs quickly, cook it for another minute or two, stirring, and test again as needed.”
If you don’t like your jam to have too many seeds, strain the seeds out of about half the jam by pressing it through a mesh sieve.
Ladle the jam into hot, sterilized jars. Wipe the rims with a clean, wet paper towel or cloth. Seal the jars with the lids. Set jars on a rack in the water bath canner filled with boiling water. The water should reach at least 1 inch over the tops of the jars. Cover canner, bring to a boil, and process for 10 minutes. Remove jars and allow to cool. After 24 hours, check lids for a seal (they shouldn’t flex when pressed in the center. If they do, they must be refrigerated).