Homemade Jam Making: A Flavor Blast from the Past

jam

While the steps between whole fruit and a quaint and colorful jar of delicious, spreadable blackberries may seem challenging and mysterious, the formula couldn’t be simpler: Fruit plus sugar equals jam. That’s the simplicity of a process that dates back at least as far as Roman times. (If you’re looking for a time-tested recipe, try Marcus Gavius Apicius’s offerings in Of Culinary Matters—assuming you read Latin.)

Making jam may tap into childhood nostalgia or conjure up bucolic visions of lush fields and farmhouses. It may be just the right gift for a special event or the ideal way to enjoy your favorite fruits at the peak of their season, in any season. Mastering the basic concepts of jam making and storage will free you to explore just about any flavor combination.

Mastering the Technique

If you’ve already considered the finer points of jam versus jelly versus preserves (or even marmalade), congratulations. If not, a quick overview: Jam is made by cooking crushed fruit or fruit pulp with sugar; jelly combines fruit juice and sugar; preserves mix crushed fruit and fruit juice with sugar. The difference is noticed mostly in texture. Jams and preserves spread easily and have a heartier texture that includes chunks of fruit. Jellies are a firmer, glossier spread with a smooth texture throughout.

The magic-maker in all of these processes is pectin, a naturally occurring substance found in the cell walls of plants. Pectin is nature’s gelatin, and most fruits have enough pectin to turn a boiling mass of sugar-coated strawberries into a thick, delicious spread.

A basic recipe for jam includes two cups of fruit, four cups of sugar, and one-quarter cup of lemon juice. (The lemon juice enhances the effect of pectin.) Mash the fruit into a chunky paste, then mix it with sugar and lemon juice. Place all ingredients in a saucepan and stir over low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Then, increase the heat until the mixture reaches a rolling boil. Continue to boil until the temperature of the jam-to-be reaches 220 degrees Fahrenheit (105 degrees Celsius). Remove the completed jam from the heat.

If your jam has trouble holding together, you may need to cook it a bit longer (to evaporate more liquid and concentrate pectin), add more sugar, add more lemon juice, or, if absolutely necessary, add commercially produced pectin. If your jam is too firm, reduce the cooking time or quantities of sugar and acid.

If you plan to eat your work right away, jam can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator. For long-term storage (or sharing), canning is by far the best option.

Preserving Your Work

Canning will keep your hard (and delicious) work fresh for months and also allow you to share your efforts with sure-to-be-grateful friends and family. To can jam, use glass jars with two-piece metal lids. Ball and Kerr are popular brands. Sterilize the jars by soaking them in hot water (180 degrees Fahrenheit) or just running all parts through a cycle in your dishwasher.

Fill a large stockpot with water and bring to a boil. Add your freshly cooked jam into the jars, leaving about one-quarter inch of space at the top of the jar. Place the top lid on the jar, then lightly tighten the band portion of the lid onto the jar. Carefully place the full jars in the pot of boiling water for about ten minutes. Water should cover the jars by at least an inch or two, and should also flow freely around the jars. A “popping” sound after the jars have been removed means the airtight seal has formed and your jam is safe! Sealed jars should be stored in a cool, dark place.

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Easy Freezer Jam

Portion Of Peach Jam

For busy moms, people new to making jam, and others hoping to try something new, freezer jam is a great place to start. Homemade jam has a fresh flavor that can not be duplicated in store bought versions. Freezer jam is fairly simple and very quick to make. Once made, it can be stored in the refrigerator for a week, or in appropriate containers in the freezer for up to a year. There are a few points to ponder before beginning to produce your own.

Be sure to pick fruit that has ripened to perfection and is in season :

Freezer jam is akin to fresh fruit. To get that freshness of biting into ripe fruit into your creation, you need to pick only ripened, in season fruit. (Strawberry and raspberry are popular choices.) If you choose underripe fruit, your jam will most likely taste sour. It will also not jell enough. If you choose overripe fruit, it will produce a foul tasting concoction that may jell too much.

Pectin allows your jam to jell:

There are two types of pectin:  powdered and liquid. These pectins are not interchangeable. Be sure to follow the recipe you are using to ensure yours will come out correctly.

Using the appropriate containers:

Plastic, freezer proof containers can be used for recipes. You may also use freezer proof glass, wide mouthed jars. Be sure to use small containers.

GINGERED PEACH AND APRICOT JAM:
-3 cups crushed peaches (about 12 small peaches)
-1 cup apricots (about 3 small apricots)
-2 tsp. fresh grated ginger
-1 1/4 cups sugar
-2 Tbsp. lemon juice
-1 packet of powdered pectin (1 envelope)

Mix crushed peaches, apricots, grated ginger and lime juice. Using instant powdered pectin, mix together pectin and 1 1/2 cups sugar. Stir pectin into prepared mixture of mashed fruit for three minutes.

Put jam into appropriate, small, freezer proof containers. Allow jam to set in refrigerator. For extended storage, place containers in freezer, but only after jam has fully set.

Choosing other fruit for your jams:

Using the same basic gingered peach/apricot recipe, you can substitute strawberries or raspberries in place of the apricots for a delicious taste sensation . Be sure to add the same amount of crushed raspberries or strawberries, in place of the same amount of apricots that are called for.

Strawberry and raspberry flavors add a very distinct, fresh taste. As long as you don't double the recipe, as it alters how the finished product jells, you can interchange fruit in the same quantities. Experiment with unusual fruit combinations. And welcome to the tasty world of jam making!