Saturday, July 6, 2013

Strawberry Jam

Around here, you always know summer's on the way when the first of the local strawberries start showing up at the Farmer's Market and at the local farm stands. I'm a big fan of strawberries - they've been my favorite berry since I was a little girl. And I love turning them into delicious strawberry jam!

When people find out I can, they always ask if it's hard. The answer, in a nutshell, is no. But it is time consuming, and you have to have the right equipment. I personally stand by the Ball Canning guides and equipment, mostly because the directions are straightforward and the equipment is easy to use.

My husband bought me my canning equipment for Christmas a couple years ago. Seriously one of the best gifts he's ever given me. You can find canning equipment, Ball or otherwise, in many stores, including Walmart. I recommend the Ball Enamel Waterbath Canner Kit, because it has everything you need to get started, and the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving, because the directions and recipes are very easy to follow.

A note about preserving - it's a great way to store fresh produce for a taste of summer all year round. But if you plan to preserve vegetables and meat you really need to have a pressure canner. Waterbath canners just can't meet the correct processing heats necessary to prevent botulism. And nobody wants that.

There are several recipes out there for strawberry jam, but the one I prefer is the Ball Blue Book recipe for strawberry jam with no added pectin. It's so basic. Two quarts of strawberries and six cups of sugar. That's it. It's a little trickier to ensure the proper gelling, as berries that produce a lot of juice may result in a softer, runnier jam. And that did happen with a few batches we made last year. We didn't care. We ate it anyway.

Start by washing and hulling two quarts of strawberries.

Dump them into the largest stock pot you have. My 6-quart soup pot is usually just about right. Crush them with a potato masher, then add six cups of flour. You can also dash in a tablespoon or two of lemon juice, which helps preserve the color. But it's not necessary.

Set the pot over medium heat (don't go any hotter!) and slowly bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Continue to cook, stirring frequently to prevent sticking, and skim off the foam periodically, until it reaches the gelling point.

Now how do you know if it's reached the gelling point? Well, there are a couple ways to tell. There's this thing called the sheeting test when you're not using added pectin, which involves sticking a clean spoon into the jam, lifting it and seeing if the jam or jelly is light and syrupy as it drips off the spoon, if the drops are thicker and clumpy, or if the jelly breaks from the spoon in a sheet or flake.

This has never worked for me, so I use the plate test. Stick a plate in the freezer for about a half hour before you start the jam, and after cooking the jam for a while, spoon a bit of the hot jam onto the chilled plate, set it back into the freezer for a few minutes, until the jam is cooled to room temperature. Then run your fingertip through the jam. If it separates, then oozes back together, it's ready. If it's still really runny, it's not ready to process. The way I see it, if it "acts' like jam, it's jam.

You can also use a candy/jelly thermometer to testing the gelling point, but you have to determine the correct gelling temperature for your elevation, and I'm just not interested in looking that up. Nor do I own a candy thermometer.

Anyway, once the jam has reached the gelling point, remove it from the heat and skim off any remaining foam.

Carefully ladle the jam into hot, sterilized jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Wipe off the rim and threads with a clean, wet cloth, adjust the two piece caps, including sterilized lids, and process in the waterbath canner for 15 minutes.

Use extreme caution through these steps, as nobody wants to fall victim to boiling hot jam, jars, or water.

After the jars have processed, carefully remove them from the canner and let them cool completely at room temperature. I like to let mine sit out for 24 hours. You'll probably hear "pops" as the jars finish sealing. If any of the lids do not seal (you test this by pushing down on the middle of the lids, and if they give, they didn't seal), remove the jam from the jar, reheat to boiling, and reprocess with a new, clean, sterilized jar and lid.

Now, suppose you want seedless jam? I have not perfected this step, as you'll see in a minute. But basically, you need to run the jam through a food mill to remove the seeds, return the jam to the stove and bring back to the gelling point (I don't think I let mine cook long enough after I removed the seeds) before processing.

My seedless jam was extremely runny, but it's still very good on ice cream, yogurt, a spoon...

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