Monday, July 07, 2008

Trepidation: Strawberry Jam

Approximately four thousand years ago, I bought a home canning kit. It consisted of a proper round rack for holding the jars in a large stock pot, a set of scientifically engineered tongs for raising and lowering the jars safely into (or out of) the boiling water, a little plastic wand with a magnet in the end of it, for grabbing the metal lids and rings out of the water when sterilizing them, and I forget what else (probably at least a thermometer). With the exception of the rack, they were all a cheerful shade of aqua blue plastic that made me think of the color of a swimming pool under the summer skies. All of these items sat in pristine condition in my various kitchens, totally unused because I have a terror of explosions, botulism, and other shadowy horrors that I’m convinced surround the canning process.

Time passed, and I read over and over that canning wasn’t scary. Really, it wasn’t. Fannie Farmer reassured me. Magazine articles did their best to convince me. Cookbooks whispered comforting words of encouragement. Finally, when the strawberries in my local grocery store were being delivered on a daily basis by farms less than two hours away, I decided I was a big ol’ wimp and better give it a try. I brought home two flats of strawberries, and dove head first into strawberry jam. I read two magazine articles, two cookbooks, and recipe pamphlet circa 1959 from a box of commercial pectin. It’s also worth noting that the strawberries I had were approximately a quadruple batch of jam. Never let it be said that I do things by halves, even on the first go ‘round.

I am not going to pretend that canning isn’t a colossal pain in the ass. It is. People who write the instructions for jam making toss off a breezy, “sterilize x number of jars, lids, and rings.” All very well, but unless you have a really big stock pot, all of those jars are not going to fit in the pot at one time, and you will have to do the sterilizing, dishing up, and processing in batches. Also, they casually mention that you must put the jars on a rack in the boiling water; they can’t just sit on the bottom of the pot. Since that perfect rack I bought with my canning kit so many thousands of years ago has long since disappeared, I don’t have a rack that fits in any of my pots. All my racks are oval or rectangular roasting racks, or rectangular or square cooling racks. Hm.

So I turned to my assortment of kitchen tools and found some egg rings that make a reasonable platform for the jars. You could also use cookie cutters of various shapes jigsawed together (secured with paper clips) to form a circle-like shape. Or use the rings that go on the jars.

I’ve also read that when jam is ready it looks like jam. It forms a mass and just looks, well, jammy. I have also read that strawberry jam thickens as it cools. I certainly hope so, I thought, because otherwise I have the largest batch of strawberry syrup in the history of the world. I’d better break out the ice cream maker, just in case.

And jam making is apparently not for the clumsy. Remove the full jars from the processing bath without tipping them, I was cautioned. Without tipping them? Pardon my French, but shit, I was lucky to get them out without dropping them. And I didn’t always manage that. I dropped four of them and they wound up on their heads in the boiling water.

The easy part is the jam itself, it would seem (assuming it gels). Hull the strawberries, toss them in a big pot with some sugar and lemon juice, mash with a potato masher, bring to 224 degrees on a candy thermometer (or, if you’re me, on a candle making thermometer; don’t ask) and hey, presto. Jam. Well, in theory.

If the flavor of the syrupy starter is any indication, this is truly in the realm of the Best Jam Ever. Many years ago (and probably the event that propelled me into the Home Canning Kit Ownership age) I had some raspberry jam that a friend’s mother made from raspberries picked in their back field. It was incredible. It was bright and clear and true. You often read those words in descriptions of homemade jam, but there’s a reason. Homemade jam does taste more than store bought. It’s more immediate, more real. I can’t really describe it without sounding clich├ęd and verging on corny (and using an annoyingly excessive number of italicized words), but you really can’t fathom it until you have it (whether it’s yours or someone else’s).

But I’m actually writing this as the process moves along (four batches of jar sterilizing, plus processing, has taken the better part of three hours), and I have to say, I’m a little worried. Even the stuff in the pot isn’t thickening up, and it’s pretty close to cool. I may be left with 16 jars of strawberry syrup, a sticky stock pot, and a kitchen floor right out of a Smucker’s factory.

[14 hours later]

Well, some of it still looks a bit thin, and some of it looks fine. It’s not as thick as commercial jam, but I was warned that unless I used commercial pectin it wasn’t going to be that thick. As for how it tastes, I was right about it being amazingly good. As to whether or not I’m going to contract botulism and keel over, well, I can’t say for 24 to 36 hours, as I understand that’s the incubation period for botulism once ingested (don’t ask why I know this). So I have a ton of strawberry jam that I’m a little leery of eating. I’d call this experiment a success, although I won’t be able to declare it a complete success until I find out if I live to Wednesday. However, I didn’t blow anything up, or set my kitchen on fire during the canning process, so that’s on the plus side of the ledger.

Strawberry Jam
makes about 3 pints of slightly scary (to me) jam
adapted from a whole bunch of sources

6 cups hulled strawberries
3 -4 cups sugar (depending on sweetness of berries)
1 to 4 tablespoons lemon juice (again, depends on how sweet the berries are)

Combine sugar, berries, and lemon juice in a pot over medium-high heat. Crush berries with a fork or potato masher. Cook, stirring almost constantly, until sugar dissolves and strawberries liquefy somewhat.

Turn heat to low and cook 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the fruit has broken down and the mixture is thick. Test for gelling by putting a small spoonful of jam on a plate that has been in the freezer for a few minutes. Place plate in the refrigerator for two minutes. Check the jam; if it’s gelled, you can proceed to the canning. If not, cook for a few more minutes and test again.

Wash and sterilize canning jars (see, there I go, tossing that one off; you can use really big ones, or smaller ones, it’s up to you). Ladle jam into jars, screw lids onto jars, and place in a boiling water bath for 10-15 minutes. Remove and allow to cool.

Jam keeps for up to a year.

N.B. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I was forced to leave the strawberries and sugar on a low simmer for three and a half hours, plus the “regular” recommended cooking time. My stove is gas and has a “simmer” setting that keeps whatever it is just barely, well, simmering, for as long as you leave it. Did this have any effect on my jam? I can't say.

UPDATE: I stand corrected on botulism in strawberry jam. Botulism is possible in low-acid foods--carrots, green beans--that are home canned. But higher acid foods like strawberries or tomatoes wouldn't be suceptible. In retrospect, I recall having read this some years ago, but in my gripping fear, I forgot it. Phew, that's a relief!

1 comment:

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