June Cook it! 2012 Resolution

It’s time.

The Cook it! 2012 June Resolution is:

MAKE JAM

I’ve been absolutely slammed with work for the last few weeks. Yesterday, in the middle of all this, I found some ollalieberries, fresh from the farm.  Sweet and tart, dark and juicy, they’re the berries I’ve been waiting for all winter long.  What started out as a stressful day with too many things that needed to be done instantly turned into a happy afternoon of jam making.  (Yes, when I see ollalieberries, I buy all of them and drop everything I was doing to make a pie or some jam. I’m a fruit nerd, what can I say).

Whether you’re a complete beginner or you already have years of canning experience, there’s really nothing quite like the joy of making a really simple batch of jam with some really excellent fruit — fresh off the vine, still warm from the sun.

When I waste time on the internet, it seems like everyone has been canning forever now and it’s no big revelation. If I happen to buy jars or pectin at the grocery store, though, without fail someone will stop me and ask about it.  Sweet little old ladies have stopped me in the aisle to say that it’s nice seeing me buying all these jars, that no one knows how to make jam or can food anymore.  (I thank them for the nice words but assure them that it’s become all the rage again.) Then, of course, the people in the checkout line, who will glance at my cart and say:

what are you doing with all those jars?

making jam, i say.

… oh, i’ve always wanted to learn how to do that….

To the cashier who bought a canner and cookbook but it’s been sitting on the shelf for a year now: don’t wait any longer, it’s time! To the lady in line whose grandma used to make pickled watermelon rind, just like my grandma did: dig out that recipe and get yourself a watermelon! To the guy at the farmers market who said he wished he had a women around who knew how to make jam: man, you don’t need to be a girl to can, just grab some of those strawberries, a couple jars and get to it!

Consider this your personal invitation to join the party…

In honor of the june resolution, summer, and all the people who are making jam even though it has nothing to do with the Cook it! 2012 project we’ve been working on, I thought I’d share a couple of the things that I’ve learned along the way.

TIPS FOR TOTAL BEGINNERS:

This isn’t meant to be all-encompassing, more just some information that might help when used hand-in-hand with a good recipe.

  • There are lots of posts out there on the internet that can explain the basics.  Food In Jars has a whole section of Canning 101 posts that explains some important stuff.  My recipe for peach jam with vanilla bean jam has step-by-step instructions to show the whole process from beginning to end if you want to take a look there.
  • When you’re just starting, make sure to find a recipe from a trusted source.  The best canning cookbook I own is the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.  The pectin box also counts as a trusted source.  The internet, especially if it’s just some really random looking website, does not necessarily count as a trusted source (I know, you’re reading this on the internet, right?)
  • There are, essentially, two different styles of jam making.  One uses commercial pectin (Ball, Clearjel, Pomona’s, etc.) to make the jam set.  This method is usually a pretty quick cooking time, and you just follow instructions included in the pectin box.  The other style uses the natural pectin in the fruit, which means that you combine the fruit, sugar and sometimes lemon juice, then cook it for awhile til it gels.  Usually you use a candy thermometer for this, since you really just have to cook it til 220 degrees).
  • Use a really big, thick-bottomed pot.  When jam boils over, it leaves awful burnt black crusty sugar all over your stove, which is virtually impossible to get off.
  • If you’re using commercial pectin: when they say “full rolling boil” they really mean “full rolling boil.”  The jam will boil up furiously and you’ll really know it when you see it.  A low simmer is not a boil.  If you only bring it to a low simmer for a minute, it won’t set right at all.
  • When they say “clean the rims of the jars,” they mean perfectly spotless, immaculate.  Not “basically clean” or “pretty much clean.”  I like to use a paper towel to do this.  If you leave any little bits of anything on those jar rims, the lids won’t seal later on.
  • A boiling water canner is really just a huge pot filled with water that has a rack on the bottom to set the jars on so they don’t clank around and break.  They’re cheap, often under $20.
  • Don’t touch the lids of the jars when they come out of the canner.  The need to sit and cool, which pulls down on the lid and makes it seal.  If you touch the lid, jostle the jar around, poke it and say “wow! I made jam!” you can potentially mess up the seal and ruin the batch.
  • In plain english, (hopefully to convince someone that hasn’t made jam before that it isn’t scary):  Canning jam is just cooking fruit with sugar and then putting it in clean jars.  You screw the lids on and basically just put it in a pot of boiling water for 10 minutes* to sterilize the jar and make the whole thing shelf stable.  Once the lids seal after they’re out of the canner, they’re good for a year.
  • Know your farmer.  Fruit for awesome canned goods comes from right from the farms/farmers markets, not the grocery store. I don’t care how cheap the peaches are at the WalMart superstore, it’s not worth it.  Sure, any old mediocre peach with a bunch of sugar is going to taste kind of good, but it’s not going to be the life-changing kind of experience that fundamentally changes the way you eat food and feed your family.

TIPS FOR EXPERIENCED JAMMERS

  • If you can find a wholesale source for bulk bags of organic sugar, you’ll save a lot of time and money.  A lot of the time, local natural foods stores can add on an extra 50 lb. bag of sugar onto their order for you and you’ll get a better price.  Then you’ll be ready to go when the fruit shows up.
  • Lemon juice always ends up being an issue if you’re trying to stay local.  I try to freeze lots of local lemon juice during the winter, but I almost always run out.  Costco has ridiculously cheap organic lemon juice, and Santa Cruz Organics makes semi-cheap bottled organic lemon juice that you can usually find with the other juices in the store.
  • Remember, if you run into a screaming good deal on super ripe, beautiful fruit, but you don’t have time to make jam, you can always prepare the fruit and then leave it to macerate, tossed with sugar in the fridge.  You can also prepare the fruit and then freeze it to make jam later .
  • Don’t forget to stay in touch with farmer friends (you do have farmer friends, right?)  Tell them at the beginning of the summer that you want to make a lot of peach jam, write down your name and phone number for them, and have them call you when the peaches are in.  Farmers like it when there’s a person that wants to buy a lot of fruit, because they want to make money and you want to buy their products.  Tell them to call you when they’re totally swimming in peaches (or plums, or whatever…), when they have so many that they don’t know what to do and they’re going to start rotting.  That’s your cue to stop in, buy them all for cheap, and stock your pantry for the year.

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If you want to be included in the jam round-up post, send me a link to the url or your post (or, if you don’t have a blog, e-mail me a picture of what you made)by June 15, 2012.  My e-mail is thejamgirl@gmail.com.

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P.S. I didn’t include the ollalieberry jam recipe because I didn’t really use one.  I glanced at the Blue Chair Fruit cookbook to check it first.  Their cookbook is right next to my Ball Cookbook, and I recommend buying it as well.  It’s a more advanced cookbook and doesn’t use commercial pectin, which is nice, and the jams tend to be much lower sugar than the Ball Book.  Plus the Blue Chair Fruit cookbook has super pretty pictures which will make you feel all warm and fuzzy about the whole jam and fruit thing.

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Vanilla Peach Jam

Have you ever been in that awkward social situation where you’ve bragged to some random person that you know how to sew your own dresses, you make a pot of coq au vin that tastes better than Julia’s, you have a whole garden of award winning rose bushes, and that you make the best jar of peach jam in the history of jam?

Then random person says: “ooh I love jam, bring me some and let me try it!”

Well, I can’t help you with most of those things, but the jam…  I got your back on this.

This is the best peach jam. Ever.

Summer Peach Jam With Vanilla Bean

This jam has just a few simple ingredients that magically conjure up all kinds of images of summer barbeques and peach pie, fireflies, swimming in lakes under leafy green trees, laughter and whatever that dish was that your grandma made that was so delicious. Crack this jar open in December and it will work miracles in those dark winter hours.

For any beginning jammers out there, read past the recipe for step-by-step instructions that should work for the most inexperienced home cook.

Makes: 5 half-pint jars, plus a little extra

Cook Time: about an hour

Ingredients:

  • 4 c. of peeled, diced peaches (about 9 large peaches, ripe but not mushy)
  • 1/3 vanilla bean
  • juice from 1 lemon (2 tbs.)
  • 3 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1 packet of sure-jell low sugar pectin

Bring boiling water canner to a boil. Sterilize jars and lids.  In a small bowl, whisk together pectin and 1/2 c. sugar.  In a large, non-reactive pot, combine peaches, lemon juice, vanilla bean and the pectin-sugar mixture. Bring to a full boil and then pour in the remaining 3 c. sugar. Keep the heat on high, stir fairly often to prevent the fruit from sticking to the bottom of the pan, and bring the jam back to a full rolling boil. Cook for exactly one full minute while at a boil, then remove from the heat.  Ladle jam into sterilized jars leaving 1/4″ headspace. Wide rims clean and screw on the lids. Process for 10 minutes. 

Try this jam on poundcake, in turnovers, or just in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Directions For Complete Beginners

If you’ve never made jam before, you’ll need the following items to get started:

  • Jars and lids: I use Kerr 1/2 pint jars  which are available at grocery stores and big box stores like Wal-Mart and Target.
  • Boiling Water Canner: It’s really just a big pot with a rack in the bottom to hold jars.
  • Jar Lifter: basically special tongs that fit perfectly around a jar… I’ve made jam without one and it’s awkward and you end up burning yourself a lot trying to get jars in and out of boiling water.
  • Canning Funnel: use it to avoid messes when  you fill jars with hot jam.

…things you probably own already, part of the canning mise-en-place that you’ll want to get out before you start cooking. Jamming goes very quickly and you don’t want to be running around the kitchen while you have a pot of boiling fruit cooking.

  • Large, non-reactive pot: read here for a great explanation of what that means from Food In Jars
  • clean kitchen towels or paper towels
  • a sharp knife and clean cutting board
  • a ladle and a wooden spoon
  • medium sized glass or ceramic mixing bowl
  • measuring cup
  • whisk and a small mixing bowl

Now that you’ve gathered everything together, let’s get started. 

Sterilize Your Jars and Lids

Some recipes may say that if you’re processing (putting the jars in the boiling water bath) the jam that you don’t need to sterilize the jars. I think it’s much easier always to sterilize them, just to be safe. This step is also beneficial because you want the jars to be hot while you’re working with them. If you put boiling hot jam into a cold jar and then put it into a boiling hot water bath, the jar will crack and break, and jam will go everywhere, and you’ll be really sad cleaning it all up.

That said, there are several ways to sterilize jars, but I use the oven. Wash them in soapy water and then put them on a cookie sheet in the oven set at 225 degrees. Make sure they’re in for atleast 20 minutes.

At this same time, I put on a kettle of water to boil and fill my boiling water canner with clean water and turn it on to boil.Wash your lids and rings in soapy water. (Note: Never re-use old ones because the sealing compound won’t necessarily work right twice.) Put the lids in a bowl and cover with boiling water from the kettle. Set them aside until you’re ready to use them.                                                                                                              Preparing The Peaches                                                                                    Bring a big pot of water to boil to blanch the peaches.  Rinse the peaches in cold water, and then slice a small “x” in the bottom of each piece of fruit. (FYI, this same process works with tomatoes). Once the water comes to a boil, blanch the peaches for just about 30 seconds- too long will start to cook them, and that’s not what we want. The goal is to see the little pieces of skin around the cuts start to loosen. Drain the peaches, and then if you hold the peach under running water the skin should slip right off. Try to be as efficient as possible, since you don’t want to rinse all of the flavor and peach juice off, just the skin.  Dice ’em up and the hard part is done!

Jam that Jam                                                                                                  

Put the diced peaches into your non-reactive pot along with 2 tbs. lemon juice.  Then you’re going to want to whisk together the powdered pectin with a half-cup of sugar to avoid having the pectin clump together in the fruit mixture.  Put the pectin-sugar mixture into the pot with the peaches. And now, the secret ingredient: Whole vanilla bean tends to do some really amazing things to a batch of jam. They’re quite expensive, so I’ve only used 1/3 in this recipe, but feel free to go heavy on it if you want. To prepare the vanilla bean, slice off the section you’re using, then gently run a knife down it to slice into the middle of the bean. Scrape the bean with your knife and you’ll see tiny black seeds building up on the knife-edge. Scrape the seeds into the pot of fruit. After I do this, I put in the scraped bean too, just in case I’ve missed any. Everything should be in your jam pot now. Measure out the remaining three cups of sugar and set it aside so you have it ready for when you need it.  

Give the peaches few stirs to combine everything together, and then turn on the heat to high (or medium-high, if your stove has a big flame). Bring it all to a full, rolling boil, stirring occasionally to prevent it from sticking.  Quickly stir in the remaining three cups of sugar that you set aside earlier.  Bring the jam back to a full, rolling boil. Keep stirring fairly often to prevent sticking. This is one of the moments in the jam-making process that a lot of beginning jammers can make mistakes. I don’t mean a gentle simmer.  The jam should be boiling furiously, and when you stir everything it will just keep boiling away. Cook it at this full boil for exactly one minute: too short, and the jam won’t set, too long and it will be like a gummy bear. 

Remove the pot from the heat now. It will be frothy on top but wait a few moments and a lot of the bubbles with dissipate. Use a spoon to skim any remaining foam off into a separate jar if there’s a lot left still. Remove the vanilla bean and set it aside.  Then ladle the hot jam into your hot, sterilized jars, filling them to 1/4″ of the very top. (This is called “headspace” and varies depending on what type of canned good you’re making.)Wipe the rims of the jars clean with a clean kitchen towel or paper towel. This is another possible moment for mistakes.  They rims must be absolutely clean and free of bits of peaches or sugar, otherwise the lids won’t seal and you’ll be sad that you spent so much time chopping peaches to get un-sealed jars. Attach the lids, then use your handy jar lifter to place the jars into your boiling water canner. The term “process” refers to putting the jars in the canner, waiting while they boil for a given amount of time, and then removing them again. Process your jars for 10 minutes.

Remove the jars from the canner and set them on the counter to rest. The lids haven’t sealed yet, so NO TOUCHING. Leave them alone for 12 hours to cool and let the lids seal. You’ll hear a lovely little “ping” when they seal. I have to emphasize: do not press down on the lids when they haven’t sealed yet. For some reason, so many people want to touch them right away. Don’t do it. Go work on a different project. And you’re done!                                                                                                                                    

As one last little note, I’ll mention that every person will have their own subtle variations on how they set up and cook a batch of jam. The fundamentals should be the same, but everyone eventually devises a system that works for them.  If you want to learn more about making jam and all kinds of preserved things, go get your hands on the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving and you should stay busy for awhile.  Happy jamming!