Friday, November 06, 2009


When my friend P left the country for a month and gave me temporary custody of all her canning supplies, it seemed like a good time for me to get back into jam-making. I’ve done most of my canning with P and other friends, so I was a little nervous about undertaking it on my own—it can be so laborious (when, say, you’re peeling seven pounds of pears), as well as a little scary (as you obsessively sterilize everything to make sure you don’t give any of your loved ones botulism), so it’s nice to have company. But it’s also nice to be able to can whatever you want whenever you want it, and I was excited about my solo adventure.

Still, I wanted to proceed with caution. I don’t normally spend a lot of time worrying about food safety, beyond washing all my fruits and vegetables and making sure I don’t touch everything in the kitchen with raw-chicken-covered fingers. But canning is one area where I feel strongly about following the proper procedures: using recipes only from reputable sources, following them precisely (because the pH of canned goods is carefully calibrated to prevent bacterial growth, you shouldn’t mess with the proportions of fruit, sugar, and acid), and processing the jars correctly; I’m no expert, but I’ve read enough to shudder when food blogs mention improvising jam recipes, canning things that shouldn’t be canned (for instance, pumpkin butter, which is sadly one of the few things that can’t be safely preserved), or “sealing” jars by flipping them upside-down instead of boiling them. It’s not hard to can things the right way, so why take a risk?

For my inaugural attempt, I went right to the highest authority: The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. And right at the front was a recipe for strawberry jam, presented as a simple master recipe to walk you through every single step of the canning process before you move on to more complex endeavors. Strawberries were still available at my farmers’ market for relatively cheap, and strawberry is my favorite kind of jam. Perfect!

I had never made jam with pectin before—I’d just done it the old-fashioned way, slow-cooking pure fruit and sugar until thickened. Even though I know that pectin is a naturally occurring substance that’s found in fruit anyway, it felt a little funny to be emptying that box of powder into my pot, but it sure as hell turned out to be liberating not to have to stand over a pot of simmering, spattering jam for hours on end. With pectin, you only have to cook the jam for a few minutes, making this a doable Saturday-afternoon project that doesn’t make you feel enslaved to the kitchen.

The recipe offered several variations, all of which sounded good (vanilla strawberry, lemon strawberry, and black pepper strawberry may all be in my future), but I was intrigued by the balsamic option, remembering how good balsamic vinegar tasted with the strawberries in this salad. The finished jam doesn’t taste identifiably like balsamic vinegar, but I do think it adds a nice depth of flavor and helps balance out the sweetness. I prefer a less-sweet jam and think this one is right on the verge of being too sugary, though I’m certainly capable of downing several pieces of toast slathered with it, as well as sneaking straight spoonfuls out of the jar on the fridge on occasion.

I was grateful for how incredibly methodical and detailed the Ball recipe is. Heating up the jars in the canner while you prep the ingredients is a stroke of genius that keeps things moving right along—the jars are nicely sterilized by the time the jam is done cooking, and it doesn’t take too much longer to bring the water to a boil after you put the filled jars back into it. Mine took a bit longer because I used 16 4-ounce jars instead of 8 8-ounce ones, meaning that I had too many to fit in the canner at the same time and had to do two rounds of sterilizing and processing—but it was worth it, because those little jars are so dang cute. I want to give them as gifts, and they’re a much more manageable size to transport, as well as to consume before they end up sitting half-eaten in the back of the fridge for months, as big jars of jam tend to do around my house.

You guys, canning is so fun! I love the nifty tools (a funnel, magnetic lid lifter, and jar lifter are invaluable and cheap—I’ll be acquiring my own when I return the borrowed ones to P), the tasty fruits, the scientific precision, and the sense of accomplishment I feel when I’ve amassed a stash of pretty little glass jars full of deliciousness. If you’ve never canned before, this recipe is a great place to start, and even if you’re an old hand, the balsamic twist is worth trying.

7 cups granulated sugar
8 cups whole strawberries
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons good-quality balsamic vinegar
1 package (1.75 ounce/49 to 57 grams) regular powdered fruit pectin

1. Place 8 clean 8-ounce mason jars on a rack in a large, deep pot that is at least 3 inches deeper than the height of the jars. Fill the jars and pot with cool water that covers the top of the jars. Cover and bring water to a simmer over medium heat; do not boil.

2. Prepare 8 two-piece closures. Set screw bands aside. Place lids in a small saucepan and cover with water. Heat just to a simmer over medium heat, but do not boil. Keep lids warm until ready to use. Do not heat screw bands.

3. Measure sugar into a bowl and set aside. (Sugar is added to the boiling jam all at once, so measuring it ahead of time prevents errors in quantities and eliminates cooking delays.)

4. In a colander placed over a sink, wash strawberries in cool running water. Drain thoroughly and, using a strawberry huller, remove hulls.

5. In a glass pie plate or flat-bottomed bowl, place a single layer of strawberries. Using a potato masher, crush berries and transfer to a 1-cup liquid measure. As you accumulate each cup, transfer crushed berries to a large, deep, stainless-steel saucepan. Repeat until you have 5 cups of crushed strawberries.

6. Add lemon juice and vinegar to crushed strawberries in saucepan. Whisk in pectin until dissolved. (To reduce foaming, you may also add ½ teaspoon butter, if desired.) Bring to a full rolling boil over high heat, stirring frequently. Add sugar all at once and, stirring constantly, return to a full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down. Boil hard, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Remove from heat and, using a large slotted spoon, skim off foam.

7. Fill one jar at a time. Using a jar lifter, remove jar from canner and empty hot water back into canner (do not dry jar). Place jar on a tray or towel-covered counter and place a canning funnel in it. Ladle hot jam into hot jar, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Slide a nonmetallic utensil, such as a rubber spatula, down between the jam and the inside of the jar two or three times to release air bubbles. With a clean damp cloth or paper towel, wipe jar rim and threads to remove any food residue. Using a magnetic lid lifter, lift hot lid from water and center it on jar. Place screw band on jar and, with your fingers, screw band evenly and firmly, just until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip-tight. Do not overtighten. Return jar to canner rack and repeat until all jam is used.

8. When all jars are filled and placed in canner, ensure that jars are covered by at least 1 inch of hot water. Cover canner and bring water to a full rolling boil over high heat. Continue boiling rapidly for 10 minutes, starting timer only when water reaches a full rolling boil. At the end of the processing time, turn heat off and remove canner lid. Wait 5 minutes, then remove jars, without tilting. Place jars upright on a towel in a draft-free place and let cool, undisturbed, for 24 hours.

9. After 24 hours, check lids for seal. Remove screw bands and press down on the center of each lid with your finger. Sealed lids will curve downward and will show no movement when pressed. Jars that haven’t sealed properly must be refrigerated immediately or reprocessed. Rinse and dry screw bands. Wipe jars with a damp cloth or paper towel and loosely reapply screw bands. Label jars and store in a cool, dry, dark place.

Yield: 8 8-ounce jars
Time: 3 hours
Leftover potential: Duh.

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