Strawberries are at their peak -- time to make jam!
For every kind of fruit, there's a moment of perfection. At a certain time an apple, for instance, will be bright and crisp, perfectly balanced between sweet and sour. A week or two later, those apples are still delicious -- but there's a shade less crunch and the flesh has become a touch too sweet. Of course, all this varies with the variety of apple -- not to mention how swiftly it was brought to market.
At this precise moment, as I discovered Saturday at the Boulder Farmers' Market, the strawberries at Aspen Moon Farm have hit the zenith: brilliantly red, beautifully sweet and not yet mushy or hyper-sweet.
- With Plowshares Community Farm, Eva Teague is in hog heaven
I'm sure other varieties -- at both Aspen Moon and other farms -- are ripening even as I write, and there'll also be more berries in September once the June crop is done. But preserving the exquisite taste of these fruits felt urgent to me, and since frozen strawberries aren't good for much except smoothies, that meant making jam.
I know there are a zillion wonderful fruit combinations you can use in jams. I know you can add herbs, flavorings or liqueurs, or make healthy jams flavored with apple juice instead of sugar. But I wanted nothing but that pure, sweet strawberry taste as I marched to the car Saturday carrying ten pint boxes of Aspen Moon strawberries.
Jam is easy, except that it's time-consuming having to prep the fruit. Basically, you're just boiling mooshed fruit with sugar -- though some tips I found a few years ago in a Guardian article by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Pam Corbin improved my jams a lot. Still, I was a little wary as I got ready to start. Last year, for no reason I can figure out, my strawberry jam came out a nasty pale pink. It tasted fine, but you wanted to eat it with your eyes closed.
I don't use as much sugar as many recipes call for and sugar is a great preservative, so I usually store the jam in half-pint jars so that once they're opened (and refrigerated), the jam will get used up within two or three weeks. (Left sealed, the jam lasts indefinitely.)
Here's my recipe:
Equipment: You'll need a large pot to boil your jam jars (a canner with a rack is great, especially if you're canning a lot of jam, but it's not essential); a small saucepan to heat the lids (the rings don't need heating); a ladle and wide-mouthed funnel; a jar lifter; canning jars with lids and rings (my ten pint boxes made a little over eight half-pint jars of jam). A big saucepan to boil up your jam.
Five or six pounds of strawberries (best to make this jam in smaller batches).
Two and a half to three cups of sugar
A couple teaspoons lemon juice
About half a tablespoon butter
A package of pectin if you're using it
Instructions: Prep the fruit. Get the lemon and sieve ready. Wash the jam jars with soap and water and rinse well. Get the canner or large pot of water bubbling on the stove and heat your jam jars in it. Leave them to simmer quietly while you make the jam. Or you can wash the jars in the dishwasher and leave them on sanitize.
Put the fruit in the saucepan. Mash it down a little (a potato masher is good for this) and warm it up gently at first.
Warm the sugar in the microwave or in the oven at around 225 degrees. Keep an eye on it because you don't want the sugar to caramelize or start melting.
Cook the fruit until it's as smooth or lumpy as you want your jam, then add the sugar, tasting as you go. Once you've put the sugar in, the fruit will tend to hold its shape. Strawberries are low in pectin, and a rather strange recent article in the New York Times suggested tossing in a cut-up kiwi fruit to help the jam gel. I've never done this or used pectin, and the jam has always set, but if you want thicker jam, add the pectin now.
Put a saucer into the freezer. You'll use this to test for set.
Taste again. Add the lemon juice; it brings out the flavor of the fruit.
Stir while bringing the mixture to a boil. Once you've got a strong boil going, stop stirring. (Okay, you can still stir once or twice to make sure nothing's sticking at the bottom, but when you do this you're cooling the jam and it'll take longer to set.) You'll see scum on the surface. Don't worry about it. Then you'll see gaps appear in the bubbles through which the mixture looks glossy and heavy. Now you're on your way.
Place a blob of jam on your cooled saucer and test if it stiffens to your liking. Just about every recipe I've ever read says you should push the edge of the jam with your finger and see if it wrinkles -- which means it's done -- but I swear I've never seen anything resembling a wrinkle. I just spoon up a bit of cooling jam and gauge the consistency. Keep the jam boiling till you're happy with it -- you want a nice jammy consistency without an over-stewed taste.
You can skim off the foam, but it doesn't hurt to just stir it in. Adding the butter will get rid of most of what persists.
Take the jam off the stove. Pull the jars out of their pot. I like to place them on a cloth or hand towel on the counter. Ladle the boiling jam into the hot jars, leaving a little space at the top of each jar. Heat the lids in your small pot of simmering water for a few minutes. Don't boil them. Wipe the jar rims carefully. If they're not squeaky clean, the lids won't seal. Put on the lids, secure with the rings. When all the jars are tightly closed, stand them on their heads for a few minutes to seal.
There's some debate about whether you need to boil the jars of jam as you do, say, canned tomato sauce. I always do (right side up at this point!) but only for five or six minutes since I don't want overcooked, colorless fruit.
Once you have the jam out of the canner and back on the counter, you should start hearing little popping sounds as lid after lid flattens. Some pop almost immediately; others take hours. If any of your jars haven't flattened by the next morning, boil the contents again, put them in a clean hot jar and seal as before. Or just put the jam in the fridge and eat it within a week or two.
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