Wednesday, April 29, 2009

In a Jam...

Any of you who know me personally know that I've been on a "canning" kick since oh, about Christmas. Yeah, yeah. I know that doesn't make much sense because you can't really get fresh, local produce right now, but it's good practice and June is coming up soon which means STRAWBERRIES! Yum!

Anyway, I happened upon a deal for California strawberries a few days ago ($1 per one-pound box) and I thought I'd try my hand at making jam. My grandmother used to make jam and I've done some tinkering with it in the past. I've always appreciated it like one would a work of art and, let's face it, it seems very complicated and time consuming. When I actually started reading about it, I discovered that that was not so. It turns out you can make yourself a pretty snazzy home-made jam or jelly without special equipment, without mason jars, and without delving into canning. In fact, you can even make jam and jelly in the microwave!

First, A Jam Primer (aka "Getting in a Jam")
Preserved fruits fall into three major categories: Jam, Jelly, and Preserves. Depending on your information source, the descriptions vary quite a bit and overlap more than you'd think, so I'm going to take a little literary license, expand the list, and make-up my own definitions.
  • Jelly - Jelly is a clear, firm fruit spread made by mixing fruit juice with lots of sugar and commercially produced pectin (a cousin of gelatin), boiling it a bit, then pouring it into jars to set-up. It's a bit of a pain to make from scratch because you can't press the fruit during the juicing process or you'll have cloudy jelly. Jellies are usually made from fruits that naturally produce a clear juice like grapes and apples.
  • Old-Fashioned Jams - Traditionally, jam is made by boiling-down chopped fruit with sugar only. It's a bit like making candy where you're slowly evaporating and concentrating the mixture till it turns thick, dark, and syrupy. Also, sugar reacts with the natural pectin in the fruit to help it jell or set-up once the jam cools. The result is a very sweet, sometimes caramelized fruit that's soft, spreadable, quite sweet, but really tastes like concentrated fruit. Typically, berries are used to make jams because they have a lot of natural fruit pectin (under the skins) and because it's okay if you have pulp (and seeds in the case of strawberries) in the product. The downside of old-fashioned jams is that you typically end-up with about 1/3 or less of the volume you started with, so it takes a lot of very expensive berries to yield an 8-oz jar of jam.
  • Quick Jams - Quick jams are somewhere between old-fashioned jams and jellies. With quick jams, you boil the fruit and sugar only briefly with the addition of commercial pectin. The pectin helps it set-up and you still get chunks of fruit in the spread. It has less of a caramelized flavor and the yield is higher since you don't have to boil it as long.
  • Preserves - I've seen multiple definitions for preserves. Some lean towards old-fashioned jams, others lean towards quick jams. To make matters worse, commercial producers often call jam preserves and the other way around, so I'll leave the jury out on this.
  • Seedless Jams - This is a marketing name someone thought-up because kids don't like (and have difficulty digesting) the seeds in strawberry jam. As best as I can tell, it's more like a strawberry jelly than a jam, as pectin needs to be added to help it set when so much of the pulp and skin is removed.
Now that we've settled the bickering over terminology of grandmothers and farmhouse wives everywhere, let's talk about how this can apply to you, an everyday cook with little time on your hands. There are three things we can do to cheat the system:
  1. Refrigerate It - One thing Grandma knew was the concept of "Refrigerator Jam". What this means is that you don't have to "can" jam. You can simply pour it into a very clean container of your choice (a mason jar, a plastic container) and stick it in the fridge. Properly refrigerated, the sugar will help keep bacteria out and your jam will last for months (well, if you don't eat it all in one sitting). There are also recipes for freezer jam.
  2. Use the Microwave - It turns out there are recipes out there for microwave jams, microwave jelly, and even microwave applesauce. Note: Please don't use the "just pour it into a jar and let it seal on its own" or "pour it in a jar and cover it with paraffin wax" canning methods found in the jelly recipe I linked to. Those processes are no longer considered safe by the USDA. If you really want to preserve it, use a boiling water bath canner and follow a tested recipe.
  3. Buy Juice - Commercial pectin is pretty powerful stuff--so powerful, in fact, that you can use it to make jam out of commercially produced juice. To make it worthwhile, make sure you're buying 100% juice (not "juice drink") and maybe shop in the organic aisle since organic juices tend to have little or no added sugar and no extra "junk" like corn syrup.
Why go through all that trouble?
One look at the back of any jar of commercially produced spreads (even the brand names you know and love) will answer that question. That PB&J sandwich is mostly corn syrup and "filler" fruits that are neutral tasting and cheaper than the fruit that's supposed to be in the jar. Pardon me, but my grape jelly shouldn't be 60% pear or apple juice.

Another reason is that the cost is actually justifiable in most cases. A friend of mine happened across this excellent blog post about whether home-produced jams are cost effective, but I'll give you my own analysis on top of that. My wife puts a spoonful of "no sugar added" blueberry preserves into her plain-flavored oatmeal every day (less calories, more flavor). We were buying little 6oz jars from Stonewall Kitchen at $6.99 per jar. It turns out that, even in the off-season, I can buy two bags of frozen blueberries from Trader Joe's at $2.79 each and produce 20oz or so of jam. That's $1.65 per ounce versus 28 cents an ounce.

And last, but not least, taste is the final reason. I've never liked strawberry jam because it always tasted like "artificial" strawberries to me. After mixing-up my batch of homemade jam, I found that I love the stuff (especially slathered on a bagel OVER cream cheese). It's just tangy enough so you know there's real fruit in it but candy-sweet, the way a good jam or jelly should be. And, it makes the best PB&J sandwiches you'll ever put in your mouth. :-)

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