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