It's summer. Strawberries are past peak, but blueberries, cherries, currants and raspberries are ripe for the picking. Peaches are available at farmers markets. Other fruits will be ready before you know it.
It's the beginning of jamming season, the time to harvest all that fruit at its peak of ripeness, then make jams and preserves that extend the sweetness of summer fruit into the cold winter months. If you have a freezer, you can freeze the fresh fruit and make "freezer jam" during the long, dark, cold nights of winter.
Many today think jamming is a thing of the past - something our grandmas did. Those who have never done it think making jam is very difficult, unnecessary labor. After all, jars of jam are readily available at the supermarket.
(Photo — Yvona Fast)
But the tradition is coming back - and I hope it's going to last. Maybe it's the economy, though the stuff at the supermarket really isn't that expensive. But maybe people are discovering that supermarket fare just doesn't compare to what you can make yourself.
Homemade jam tastes so much better than anything you can buy at the store. In comparison, commercial jams taste like colored sugar with artificial fruit taste. The homemade version often has less sugar. It's also free from additives like food colors, artificial flavors and preservatives. And the flavor? It's pure, concentrated, intense fruit flavor with just enough sugar to give it sparkle.
Jam is sweet, sticky and wholesome. Making your own jam is fairly easy, doesn't take much time, is a fun activity for the whole family, and fills the house with a wonderful scent. You can take pride in your own creation, and colorful jars of homemade jam make tasteful gifts. Making jam with the kids teaches your children where food comes from - not jam from the grocery store jar but from fruit, boiling on the stove, ladled into jars. Kids can have fun squishing the fruit down to a pulp and stirring the pot.
There's no mystery to the skill; making jam is simply cooking fruit with sugar. The basic tools include a large, wide pot that allows rapid evaporation as the fruit simmers; a large spoon that won't become hot when left in the pot; and clean, sterile jars with lids to store the end product. There are just two ingredients: fruit and sugar. Some recipes may need pectin, and some like to add spices or an acid like lemon juice. You also need the ability to follow directions, a sense of adventure, a bit of imagination, willingness to experiment and a pinch of common sense. Once you get the hang of it, you'll want to improvise: altering the fruit, modifying the sugar content, adding herbs or lemon. It's really not that difficult to wash a few jars and boil up some fruit and sugar.
Now, a few definitions. Although commonly used as a synonym for jam, technically, fruit preserves is an inclusive term for any fruit product that is cooked, jelled with pectin and canned. Different types include jam, jelly and marmalade.
Jelly is a clear spread made from fruit juice that is thickened. Jam is made with crushed fruit, so it contains both juice and the flesh of the fruit. The end product is thick. Conserves are jams made from several fruits; they often add nuts and raisins. Fruit butter is a very thick, homogeneous spread, where the fruit is made into a paste by blending or running through a sieve and long, slow cooking. Usually, larger fruits - like apples, pears, plums or peaches - are made into butters. Marmalade is a jelly with pieces of fruit suspended in it; in Britain, it has a bitter tang and includes some form of citrus fruit.
The natural agent that causes jam to thicken is pectin, found in many fruits. Some fruits, like apples or black currants, contain pectin. Others, like strawberries or rhubarb (not technically a fruit), are low in pectin, so you will need to add it. Pectin works best in the presence of sugar; that is why the standard rule is to have equal quantities of fruit and sugar - a pound of sugar to a pound of fruit. But low-methoxyl pectin is a type of pectin that thickens jams and jellies without the need for added sugar. It's extracted from citrus peel and requires calcium phosphate to thicken the fruit. It makes it possible to make a less sweet product, or use other sweeteners such as honey, the herb stevia or even artificial sweeteners.
Sugar also acts as a preservative. But if you seal your jars tight and store the finished product in the fridge, you don't need to use much sugar.
To make jam, prepare the jars by washing, then sterilizing in boiling water. Some people put them in the oven at about 225 degrees Farenheit to keep them hot and sterilized until the jam is done cooking. Others take the jars out of the boiling water and fill with the piping hot jam.
Simmer the fruit with a tiny bit of water for about 30 minutes, until it gets soft and mushy. To make a very smooth product, you can mash it with a potato masher or blend with an immersion blender. For a chunkier product, you can omit this step. Keep a close eye on the simmering fruit, stirring once in a while to make sure it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pot.
When the fruit reaches the desired consistency, add the sugar and pectin (if using), and cook about 10 minutes. You have to cool the jam first before adding the pectin, or it will clump. Test by dropping a teaspoon into a cool saucer. It should set. Taste. When it reaches the desired sweetness and setting point, pour into prepared jars and seal. Some people put the jars upside down on a wire rack; this shows if the jars are tightly closed. When cool, store in the fridge.
There are countless websites with information. The book "The Food Preserver" is one useful guide. But don't let summer come to an end without trying your hand at making jam. Our Adirondack summer is short and fleeting. So hurry up and can it to enjoy the sweetness all year long - on toast, pancakes or waffles, or baked into tarts.
Peach Jam with Currants and Apples
The apples and currants provide the pectin, so no additional pectin is needed.
1 cup currants
4 large peaches
1 teaspoon fresh squeezed lemon juice
2 medium apples
1/3 cup sugar (or more, to taste)
Put a small bowl or plate in the fridge.
In small saucepan, place currants with about one-half cup water. Cover, and simmer 10 to 15 minutes.
Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add peaches, and cook 2 minutes. Run under cold water or immerse in ice water to remove skins. Quarter, pit, and slice or chop coarsely. Sprinkle with lemon juice and toss with sugar.
Peel and core the apples, and chop or grate to bowl with the peaches.
In large saucepan, place apples and peach mixture along with the juice. Simmer 20 minutes or until fruit is soft. Mash with potato masher to break up large chunks of fruit. Add the currants, with their liquid, and continue cooking another 10 minutes, until thickened.
To test for doneness, put a little jam on the bowl from the fridge and see if it gels.
Add more sugar or cook longer, if needed.
Place in hot, sterilized jars and seal with sterile lids. Process in boiling water bath for 5 minutes. If jars are not sterile, jam can spoil or mold.
Mom's Strawberry Rhubarb Jam
3 quarts strawberries
1 quart diced rhubarb
1 cup sugar, more as needed
Pomona pectin, half-strength (non-sugar)
Place strawberries and rhubarb in pot. Cook, stirring, 15 to 30 minutes until fruit softens. Cool to room temperature. Stir in sugar and pectin (there are different kinds of pectin; follow directions on package for the pectin). Return to boil and cook, stirring, 10 more minutes. Place in cold bowl to test for setting and taste.
Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.