Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Strawberry Jam

One of my newest and most satisfying passions is making jam. And jellies and marmalade and pickles. Sure I suppose many people ask why? When its so easy and convenient to pick up a jar off the shelf of the nearest grocery store and toss it in the cart. I feel pity for those people--they're kind who/ve never had homemade jam before.

Some of my fondest memories were eating my mom's homemade raspberry jam. My over zealous father planted what seemed like an acre of raspberry plants in our backyard. As a child it was part of my chores to pick the raspberries so my mom could make jam. No one ever warned me to put on jeans to wade through a tight congested patch of thorny vines. Sadly it wasn't my favorite chore. I think now, I'd gladly face a thorny patch just to be able to pick a handful of sweet and puckery raspberries.

Strawberries, on the other hand, were a lot of fun to pick. We would drive to the closest strawberry farm for the experience of picking our own. Back breaking work, bent over in the field in the burning sun, seaching for glistening rubies. I'd wager I ate half the berries before they reached the basket.

Upon moving to Iowa, I searched for a "pick your own" strawberry farm. We found a lovely one just outside Mason City, Iowa, not too far from where we live, called Furleigh Farms. It had all of the qualities I remembered as a child: a field blanketed in the green saw toothed leaves of the strawberry plant with the delectable treasures hidden beneath. I chose a beautiful mid-June Saturday to bring my son, with the hopes of establishing a summer ritual. We picked nearly four gallons, a haul of 17 pounds, of strawberries!

At home, I set to work quickly preparing the bright gems. Many canning books emphasize the need to capture the true taste of the sun in each berry before it has the time to wilt. My goal was to have the berries sliced and ready to go in less than two hours. There were four gallons, afterall, and just me slicing.

I decided to make a batch of jam. Not with all four gallons, just some; the rest were sliced and frozen for other desserts and tasties later in the year. I proceeded to make a batch of traditional strawberry jam. It is a tremendous feat for me to make any recipe without tweaks or alterations like adding basil or a little apple juice to boost flavor. I remained steadfast and made an unmodified, and completely traditional strawberry jam. I promised myself to stick with just three ingredients: strawberries, sugar, and lemon juice. That's it.

The lemon juice is added if the berries are perfectly ripe, dripping with juices. It boosts the acid level in the jam which is important for preserving qualitities and lifts the flavor with a little touch of radiance.

Don't worry: you don't need four gallons of berries to make this jam and you don't need a straberry farm nearby either. I would encourage you, though, to find your strawberries from a source as local as possible and as pesticide-free as possible. It really makes a difference. Some traditional recipes call for de-capping the strawberries (just removing the green tops) and tossing the whole berry into your pot to mash. I sliced mine into thirds or fourths for the large ones and for the small ones I just tosed them in. The berries will cook down into lusciousness either way. The choice is yours.

One word of caution: use a very large pot. At first my pot seemed large enough but when it was rapidly boiling, it was sputtering in all directions.

Strawberry Jam
Makes 6 Half-pint jars (8oz jars)
Time Approximately 1.5 hours

8 cups, roughly sliced strawberries
6 cups sugar
Juice of 1 lemon

1. Put the sliced strawberries into you large pot. Pour sugar on top. Let this mixture sit for 20-30 minutes to allow the juices to be drawn out of the strawberries. Place a small saucer in the freezer.

2. Add the juice of one lemon. Stir the mixture. Prepare your glass jars and lids.

3. Heat slowly over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved.

4. Bring to a boil and boil rapidly until the mixture is thick. (This is called the jellying stage; the mixture will be 214 degrees F.)

5. Remove the saucer from the freezer and spoon about a teaspoon of the jam on the plate. This step quickly cools the jam so you can easily see what the consistency is. If it is jam-like, it's done cooking. If you like a thicker jam, cook it for another 2-3 minutes; place the plate back in the freezer for your next test.

6. Pour the jam into sterilized jars to within 1/4 inch. Wipe the top of the jar with a damp washcloth, place the lid and ring on. Process in a boiling water batch for 5 minutes.

7. Allow the jars to cool at room tempature. The seals on the jars will have sealed tight.