Despite a very wet June the strawberry crop at River Berry Farm was coming beautifully, although later than typical. In between the rain storms rolling through our valley I had a fortuitous and dry hour-long window to pick six quarts of ripe and wonderfully sweet strawberries.
Why so many? Well… #1 to eat all on their own, but #2, to make jam. I have attempted jam before, rather precariously, so this year I thought to refer to my dear friend in Geneva, Bettina, who is a fabulous jam maker. She wrote me via Facebook, “I’d say the thing to start with is strawberries and rhubarb, this has always been one of my favorites. I once saw a recipe of apricot and peach jam with some vanilla or lavender, never did it myself but seemed highly interesting! Apparently, basil can also combine with strawberries: I had it with pineapple once and it was delicious!” All those sound so yummy, and in the future I plan to make some combinations but for now, I thought to keep it ultra simple and just perfect a pure and simple strawberry jam recipe.
When I questioned Bettina a little further on the specifics of jam making, she gave this advice, “For the sugar I’d say about half the quantity (weight) of the fruits, or two thirds if they’re not very sweet. About boiling time, it’s never quite the same from what I remember, you constantly have to check (just like with maple syrup) and see when the boiling jam forms a firm little drop if you place one on a plate, and doesn’t spread too much.” I love trustworthy anecdotes like this, far better than a recipe that advises 8-10 minutes boiling time, which leaves me only hoping the mixture is truly jelled.
Another lucky coincidence to my jam making extravaganza was listening to NPR’s Weekend Edition, which featured Kevin West discussing his latest cook book, Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving. “With strawberries, I smell them first,” West said. “They should have that rich nostalgic smell of strawberries. And if passes those two tests, look and smell, then we want to do a taste test.” The taste test might be the most important selection technique:
- Don’t mistake a small berry for a bad one — tiny fruits often have the best flavor.
- Don’t use only sweet berries to make jam. Combine tart with sugary ones to get the right balance. (Preserving the Season’s Fruits with a Canning Evangelist).
West provided more sage advice, which set me on the way to make the best jam possible. Here’s the recipe I concocted from all this inspiration:
Wash and core the strawberries. Use a large bowl to lightly crush the berries until you have 4 cups. (It is recommended to make small batches, and from my day at the stove I concur!) In a heavy saucepan, mix together equal parts mashed strawberries and sugar with two tablespoons lemon juice. Stir well and bring the mixture to a full rolling boil. Boil, stirring often, until the mixture reaches 220 degrees F (105 degrees C). For my first batch, this took over 20 minutes, but here is where a candy thermometer is essential because boiling time can really vary. (If you don’t have a thermometer, you can eyeball the jell point, like my friend Bettina suggested, but as a beginner, I was happy to have the added assurance of a temperature.) Once you reach the desired consistency transfer the hot mixture to jars (first sterilized in boiling water) and seal. Since we will eat the jam rather quickly, I don’t bother with processing the filled jars in boiling water, however this is a good option for a longer shelf life. Instead, I immediately refrigerate and enjoy the jam over a few months. (Strawberry Jam).
With this success I can’t wait to try one of Bettina’s combination ideas, such as apricot or peach with lavender I think summer might last forever with these preserves on my shelf…