strawberry jammin’

Last week, my daughters and I spent a morning knee-deep in strawberry plants, the air thick with heat and sweetness. The night before we realized Ruby’s vision and slept in the tent on the trampoline. MAMA, she said, so stunned by her own brilliance she was barely able to speak the words. I have THE BEST idea.

I had my usual foraging tunnel vision: my body bent over, my arms sweeping green leaves from side to side, my eyes earnestly in search of the shiny red prize. Despite the fields being somewhat picked over, we managed to gather up 16 pounds.

Margot and Ruby ran the rows and sat in the shade with friends. In between bites of peanut butter sandwiches and games of tag, they joined the mamas in picking.

I remembered last year in this field. I held Ruby much of the time. Margot tired of the experience after about an hour. This year we walked the field for more than two hours and never once was I asked to leave. I took note, appreciating this increasingly autonomous season of parenting. And just a little bit missing the last.

Like this year, last year I stayed up into the dark, quiet hours past midnight making strawberry jam. Listening to music, my hair stuck to my humid neck as I stirred the sticky, jammy mess. Unlike this year, last year I fell into bed before the jam was canned. I planned to can the following morning and I made a big, fat, disappointing mistake: I left the jam in my cast iron pot overnight. The jam darkened and absorbed a metallic taste.

I canned it anyway, certain the sweetness would override the iron aroma. It didn’t. I couldn’t bare to throw away all that food, all that work so I instead left the jars on the shelf all year. Every once in a while I’d open a jar thinking it wasn’t as bad as I remembered. It was.

This year’s berries gave me permission to pitch pints and pints (and pints!) of jam into the chicken run. At least that jam would yield eggs, I encouraged myself as I shook the contents free.

^ last year’s berries on the July calendar page in my kitchen ^

And, this year’s berries were jammed and canned within 12 hours of picking. I used my new pot – a Christmas gift from my mama. I stayed up until 2am, alone in the steamy kitchen while my family slept just around the corner.

I was tempted to use a tried and true sugary recipe — one of those in the canning books that call for 6 cups of sugar to 8 cups of berries. Because I didn’t want yet another botched batch. But in a fit of confidence and bravery, I made up my own recipe! And it is the best strawberry jam I’ve ever made. True.

A few years ago I would have been afraid to make up my own recipe. I was afraid I’d make something unsafe. I now know when I can deviate from a recipe and when I cannot. A few things about fruit preservation:

* The trick to successfully creating jam is getting it to gel or thicken. Otherwise we have a syrup. Acid, sugar and pectin contribute to gelling.
> Fruits high in pectin gel more easily than fruits low in pectin.
> Fruits high in acid gel more easily than fruits low in acid.
> Jam with more sugar added gel more easily than jam with less sugar added.

* Sugar is a powerful preservative and gelling agent. If we use less sugar, the jam is not less safe. It simply goes bad faster once opened.

* With fruit, as long as we process long enough in a boiling water bath, we can wing the sugar to fruit ratios. Recipes can be tweaked. When I alter a jam recipe, I process as if it is puréed fruit. Ball Blue Book of Preserving recommends processing fruit purées for 15 minutes (click here for altitude adjustments in processing time). 

* Honey can be used instead of sugar but it doesn’t gel as well as sugar. Recipes that call for honey, usually also call for pectin and/or acid.

* Acid can be easily increased with the addition of bottled lemon juice.

So all resources say not to make big batches of jam because it can result in a poor gel. But, this recipe works for me and it is a big batch. To play it safe (what fun is that?!), one could be make this in small batches as well.

The result is a bright berry explosion. We have already gone through two jars.

DIG THIS STRAWBERRY JAM :: yields 14 pints

16 pounds strawberries
1.5 cups honey
3.5 cups sugar
1 cup lemon juice
8 tablespoons pectin

Wash strawberries. Remove stems. Chop berries and toss in big saucepot, a few handfuls at a time. Use a pastry cutter to smoosh berries. Add honey, sugar and lemon juice. Bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add pectin. Place a small plate in the freezer. Reduce heat and cook for 45 minutes or so (to evaporate some water – my jam reduced by more than an inch in the pot), stirring often. Optional: partially purée with an immersion blender (I did).

To test for the jam doneness, place a dollop onto the cold plate and chill it in the freezer for a minute. If the jam is the texture you want for your batch of jam, voila. Remove from heat. Skim foam. Ladle hot jam into hot jars, leaving 1/4″ headspace. Process 15 minutes in a boiling-water bath. (click here for altitude adjustments in processing time).

^ hull and chop ^

^ mash up ^

^ mash more ^

^ add honey and sugar ^

^ cook ^

^ eat ^


* my favorite ladle for canning by Earlywood: the Medium Classic Ladle
* my new favorite canning book: Preserving by the Pint
Substituting Honey for Sugar in Home Canning, Cooking, Making Jams, Jellies and Baking
Making Jams and Jellies, National Center for Home Food Preservation

:: :: ::

ps I wrote a bit for eHow: 6 Tips for Hiking with Kids (Get Them to Love the Great Outdoors!)

12 Responses to strawberry jammin’

  1. Julia says:

    Yum! Strawberry season in underway here too and I need to get jammin’. Ironically, I’ve never made just a plain strawberry jam – last year a did batches of strawberry rhubarb with vanilla, strawberry with thai herbs, and strawberry with meyer lemon. I love the idea of simple low sugar version though!

  2. Lillian says:

    YESSSSS, I have the same pot (also a Christmas gift) and I’ve never used a pot as much as this one! That green is beautiful!

  3. Minnesotagal says:

    I learned jamming from my grandma and she never added pectin and always winged it. So my recipe usually goes like: as many strawberries as I can pick and hull + sugar to whim (usually 4 cups fruit to 1/2 cup sugar + splash of lemon juice. Cook down until thick and desired jam consistency. I’ve never pressure canned my jams and have never had an issue. They seal and keep great! The biggest bummer is I can never repeat a great recipe because I don’t know how I made it.

    • dig dig says:

      Yes! A big reason I’ve started writing down how I make stuff is so when it turns out great, I know what the hell I did. xo

  4. Gina says:

    Just moved to a house with LOADS of raspberry bushes and freezer canned for the first time ever with my husband. He has the opposite of a sweet tooth and when I told him the recipe called for 5 cups we argued about it’s necessity. Being my first time ever, I was adamant about following recipes to the “T” but he wanted to lower it. Well, we agreed on doing like 4 cups and he secretly stopped at 3 and you know what, the jam is delicious and awesome. This post was SO helpful in getting me to understand fruit preserving MUCH better. THANK YOU!

    • dig dig says:

      Oh good! It’s SO fun and empowering to know when and where you can safely tweak recipes. Letting the fruit shine through is so much better than the sugary stuff! Although that’s good too…:)

  5. Sheila says:

    Yum! Hoping next year my new berry patch will provide us with some jam to can! I have been using ‘cheater jam’ recipe again this year.

  6. trbholt says:

    I’ll be sampling that name VERY soon and getting in on those hugs too! Less than a month now!


  7. Marisa says:

    Your jam looks gorgeous! And I’m so happy to hear that you like my new book! :)

  8. Diana says:

    A lot of jammin’ in my neck of the woods (FoCo CO) too. Fourteen pounds of apricots, 8 cups of sugar and 1/2 cup lemon juice gave us about 20 jars of delicious sweet tart sunshine in a jar. I made a few small batches of black raspberry, red raspberry and strawberry rhubarb jams and today I’ll make red currant jam which is our favorite. Also pitting and freezing sour cherries, freezing rhubarb and raspberries. This wet spring/summer is providing a lot of fruit and we’ve been lucky to dodge the hailstorms. Soon it’ll be time to make peachbutter using your recipe :)

  9. James Taylor says:

    Thanks for the sharing your experience. Most of the fruit pickers is done by migrant workers. Migrant workers are frequently used as they can be paid relatively low wages and usually do the job quite well. In California, Mexican migrants are most frequently doing the work.