Sunday, May 31, 2009

It's a Recession: Homemade Strawberry Jam, Part 1

Like pretty maids all in a row.

Apologies for the lack of posts. There was not much cooking in Kitchen Stadium last week. To make up for it, though, I bring you a three-parter.

I know it's a little old-school, but I like to make my own jam. Usually my mom and I take a weekend and make a ton of jam -- generally either strawberry or peach. We can it, and then it lasts the whole year. Except last year, we never got around to making any and for the first time in probably my life I actually had to buy jam at the store. I felt like a failure. As soon as the strawberries showed up at the market this year, I made an appointment with the mother to make some jam. We had these grandiose plans to go to the farm and pick the berries ourselves -- in spite of my severe allergy to bees mind you -- but then we could never find a decently priced place. So my mom bought a bunch of berries at Costco. She went a little overboard and bought 20 pounds, which is how I ended up making three different flavors of strawberry jam (You've got to keep it interesting if you're going to stand over a hot pot all day, you know?).

A couple notes on homemade jam before I give you the first recipe.

1) To can or not to can? When you make homemade jam, you could either make it and refrigerate or you could can it. Canning is more intense, but it keeps for up to a year. If you just refrigerate, the jam will only last about 2-3 weeks. For my part, I always can. But if you don't want to go out and get jars, you can skip that part. I'll put some instructions here on this first recipe about how to can for those who are interested. If you do want to can, you need glass jars. They sell these at Target, Walmart and places like Michael's Crafts. Each jar has three parts: the glass container, the metal lid and the metal band. If you are reusing old jars, you can use the glass part and the band, but make sure to buy new lids. You can either use pint size or half-pint size depending on your preference.

2) Pectin or no pectin. This is actually the first year I have ever cooked with pectin and it was at CCO's behest. Pectin is a natural enzyme found in fruits like apples and lemons. When added to jams and jellies, it acts as a natural thickening agent to help the fruit gell. Back in the day when you made jam, you would cook it until the fruit broke down and counteracted with the sugar to form a gell. Now you can just use pectin and it will thicken much more quickly. You can find at the store in packets of dried powder or as a gel (called Certo), usually on the same aisle as gelatin. There's also some strange way you can make your own pectin at home if you're really crunchy, but I decided that was way beyond me. There are two advantages to pectin. First, because the pectin is causing the thickening, you don't have to cook the fruit as long. When I was a kid, it seemed like we would stand over the stove for hours (it's really more like 20-30 minutes). With pectin, it's faster, more like 10. The second advantage is that pectin is a soluable dietary fiber. This was CCO's appeal. For whatever chemical reason, your stomach doesn't break down the pectin and it goes through your system pretty much in tact. Somewhat gross to visualize, but this helps reduce the amount of cholesterol in your blood. So even though he was essentially asking me to relearn how to cook jam, I decided to be a sport and make some with pectin. The first recipe, plain strawberry jam, is made without pectin. The second, strawberry with port wine, has powdered pectin, and the third, strawberry-balsamic, is no pectin.

Eat Rating: Awesome. Seriously, you may reconsider buying your jam at the store...
Difficulty: Medium to hard. You need several pots and canning jars. It also helps if you have one of these jar lifters.

Strawberry Jam

From the Ball Blue Book of Preserving

2 quarts of strawberries
6 cups of sugar
5 1-pint canning jars

Place the strawberries in a colander and wash thoroughly, making sure to remove any strawberries with visible dirt or mold. With a knife, remove the tops of the berries and coursely chop. Once you have chopped all the berries, you should have 8 cups.

Add the berries to a large saucepan and crush with a potato masher. Add the sugar, stir until thoroughly coated and then set aside for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, remove the lids from the canning jars and thoroughly wash each jar, either by hand using soap and hot water or by running through the dish washer.

Take a big pot, the largest one you've got and fill about halfway with water. This is your jar pot. After the jars are washed, place each jar in the water. Heat up the water to boiling to further sterilize the jars, then reduce heat to low. In a separate smaller saucepan, heat water and place all the jar rims inside. It doesn't need to be boiling, just hot.

At this point, take your berry/sugar mixture and heat it over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil. The sugar should be dissolved and you'll start to get a foam on top. That's ok, just be careful that the foam doesn't overflow the pan or you'll get to experience what burning sugar smells like. Stir frequently as the mixture cooks until it reaches the gelling, or sheeting point. This will take awhile, as much as 40 minutes. To test whether it's ready, take a metal spoon and lift it above the pan about a foot. Allow to cool for a second, then turn the spoon so the jelly falls back into the pan. If the mixture falls off in drops, it needs more time. But if the jelly falls off the spoon more like a mass, as though the drops have coalesced together, it's finished. (Here's a good example of what sheeting looks like).

Remove from heat. At this point you want to remove the foam from the jam. With a small spoon, skim any foam off the top of the jam. You can either discard the skim or keep it to eat later. Once the foam is removed, you'll want to fill the jars.

Carefully remove one jar from the jar pot. Fill the jar with jam, leaving about 1/4 of an inch at the top. Using a paper towel or cloth, clean the rim of the jar. You want to make sure there is no jam on the jar's rim or the lid may not seal properly. Using tongs, briefly place the lid in the hot water to heat up, then place on top of the jar. Remove a ring from the ring bath, and use a towel to twist the lid until it is completely secured. Place the filled jar back in the water bath. Fill all the remaining jars until you run out of jam.

Return the jar pot to the heat and boil for about 5-10 minutes. Carefully remove the hot jars from the pot, and set aside. The reason you reboil the jam is to pressurize the jars. As they cool to room temperature, you should hear a small metallic popping sound as the lid of each jar pops inward. That's how you know the canning was successful and will keep for a long period. After about 30 minutes, inspect the jars to insure they have all popped inward. If any did not pop, check the band to make sure it is twisted on firmly, then reboil.

Sealed jars of jam will keep for at least a year. Once you open a jar, use within 3 weeks.

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