We use a majority of the strawberries we pick for making strawberry jam, some of which is given to friends and family for gifts. It seems that canning is quickly becoming a lost art, as fewer and fewer people of my generation have been taught how to do it. In the last few years, I've had many friends over to teach them how to make preserves, and it is my hope that those people will in turn teach others these skills. Below are some tips I've picked up from years of making jams.
What do you need to make jams and jellies?
Water Bath--you can use a wide and deep stock pot or purchase a large water bath made for canning. The virtue of purchasing one made for canning is that it comes with a rack which holds the jars in place while they boil.
Jars—you can use old mason jars, just check the tops to make sure they aren’t nicked. I don’t recommend using jars not made for canning, such as mayo jars. They can be used, but they are a thinner glass and not as reliable. And, if you’ve never before been burned by sugar, you don’t really want to be (I cringe to think of one of those jars bursting with hot jam in it). Jars need to be cleaned well and then put in a hot water bath to sterilize. Ace Hardware in Bearden carries a wide range of sizes of canning jars, and they have a $5 off coupon in the Knox County School Coupon Book. If you prefer to make freezer jam, then your options for storing the jam are much more varied. Many stores sell containers especially made for freezer jams.
Fresh lids--the new jars will have new lids on them, but if you are canning shelf stable items, the lids need to be new to consistently seal. Lids need to be cleaned. If you put them in boiling water, the lid might not seal on the jar. Many canning books recommend pouring boiling water over them and then setting them aside.
Jar Lifter—there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it, this is really a helpful tool.
Pectin--If making jam, it is helpful, though not necessary, to have some kind of pectin option. Low sugar Sure-jell is my favorite; it is in a pink box. If you choose to use alternative sweeteners, such as honey, you might want to try Pomona's Universal Pectin.
Wide Mouthed Funnel--You need some kind of ladle with which to fill your jars. Though not necessary, a wide mouthed funnel is helpful. The smaller funnels are fine for jelly, but they clog with the fruit in jam. Whenever you fill the jars, make sure to wipe down the top with a damp cloth to make sure there is not anything in the way of the lid sealing to the jar.
Gimmicks--The little metal lid magnet on a stick in my opinion is a waste, though others like it. I find that it isn’t long enough to really keep me from getting burned, and therefore I use a pair of tongs instead. When hot packing things like pickles, they make this silly plastic stick that you can use to press the bubbles out of your foods. I find it a waste of money, as a butter knife or rubber spatula will work fine. It does come in the canning kit available at many stores, and so if you have it, by all means use it.
Making strawberry jam
If you are a first timer, jams are much easier to make then jellies. You will clean, de-stem, and cut up your fruit. The recipe will call for you to mash fruit, and I find that a potato masher works really well. For berries that have lots of seeds, such as blackberries, the recipes often give instructions for draining part of the berries and reserving the fruit so that your finished jam isn't too seedy. Make sure that you reserve any spoiled berries or stems for your compost pile. Start your hot water bath going so that when it is time to put them in the water will be ready for you. Do not fill it too full, as the packed jars only need an inch or two of water over the top when boiling. If you fill the pot too full, it will overflow when you place your jars inside.
The next step is to get everything you will need to make the jam out and on your counters. Sterilize your jars, put on your apron, and lay out some extra towels. You will need a damp towel with which to wipe down the jar rims once you have filled them with jam. Have your sugar measured. If using the low sugar Sure-Jell recipe, you will mix the pectin with a quarter cup of your measured sugar and set aside. If using the Pomona's pectin, then follow the package instruction for mixing it. If using a recipe that does not call for packaged pectin, follow the instructions for getting the fruits ready. It is nice to have a clock with a second timer handy so that you can keep track of how long your jam mixture boils.
A sugar burn is not a fun experience. One reason it is of such concern is that the hot sugar is sticky making it much more difficult to get off of your skin easily. Keep a small bowl of ice water on the counter whenever making candies or jams. If you are unfortunate enough to be burned by sugar, as by my level of detail shows that I have been, you can submerge the burned area in the ice water.
Use a heavy, non-reactive stock pot when making jams and jellies. Use one that is deep enough to allow the mixture to come to a full rolling boil without splashing over the rim. Many recipes will suggest a 1/2 teaspoon of butter to reduce the frothing of jams and jellies. While the froth will not hurt anything, using the butter and later skimming the froth makes for a much clearer finished product. Boil the fruit mixture according to your package instructions. Once it has completed cooking take it off of the cooking eye and onto a trivet. Skim the froth with a slotted spoon if desired and begin filling the jars. Note: Reserve the froth in a small bowl and once cooled you can use it to taste your jam. Use an old rag as your work surface to prevent having to clean your counters later. Make sure to fill the jars as full as your recipe requires. Wipe the rims with a damp towel. Put the lid on and screw the ring finger tight. Place in your water bath and boil them for the length of time your recipe calls.
Because jams have bits of fruit inside, it is helpful to turn the jars every 10 minutes or so when they are cooling on the counter. This will help the fruit to more evenly distribute itself in the jar. Make sure all of your lids have sealed by running your finger across the top to feel an indention. What happens if it does not seal? There are instructions for this on-line and on many pectin recipe boxes. If you do not want to go to that much trouble, know that the jam is safe to eat, but it will not be shelf stable. Store it in your refrigerator and eat it in the next few weeks. This is also good to know in case your recipe didn't quite fill one of your jars to the recommended level. Oh darn, I'll just have to eat that jam myself!
In the next few days I'll post some more recipes for preserving strawberries. Why include this in a blog about saving money? Eating in season foods is significantly cheaper than buying out of season. Locally grown produce is much fresher and better tasting--think about how mealy tomatoes are when bought in December. Local purchases support your community's economy. The produce travels much less distance, making it better for the environment. Because less time has passed between when it is picked and when it is eaten, less of the vitamins have oxidized, meaning it can be a little healthier for you. While it may seem that our family has purchased a lot of strawberries, keep in mind that we rarely buy them out of season. The strawberries we pick in these next few weeks last us until the following summer. And, boy are they delicious! Yum, yum!