The Cook it! 2012 June Resolution is:
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.