Think of the sharp burst of delectable flavor you get when you pop a fresh raspberry, just off the cane, into your mouth. How about the explosion of rich sweetness that sun-warmed, ripe strawberries yield as they melt on your tongue?
As anyone who has ever bought a disappointingly rigid, plastic-tasting berry out of season in a supermarket knows, there is just no substitute for the authentic flavor of seasonal delights. However, with some artisanal skills at our disposal, we can certainly preserve some of those flavors and enjoy them in the off-season.
With Tu b’Shevat around the corner, now is a great time to pay homage to the fruits in our lives and experiment in the kitchen with creative jams and preserves. While home canning is the subject of a different post, and does come with some genuine risks and require detailed guidelines, making and canning jams is one of the easiest, safest and most rewarding of canning projects and a great place to start.
While January is obviously not the season of choice when it comes to picking fresh berries in the Mid-Atlantic, it is a good time to practice your jamming skills with small batches of store-bought produce and make plans and preparations for the summer. There are also some great recipes for jam using dried fruits like apricots, which is a fun way to enhance your Tu b’Shevat celebration.
At its simplest, jamming can mean cooking equal parts of fresh fruits and sugar, pouring the cooked mixture into sterilized glass jars and boiling the sealed jars. (See here for instructions.)
From there, of course, it’s all practice and nuance. Gel point, the point at which a liquid jam becomes firm and spreadable, is an illusive beast and is impacted by the amount of pectin in the fruit, the type of pot you use and how long you cook it, as well as other considerations, such as elevation and humidity. When you start getting good at making jam, you can bring out subtle flavors, play with sugar content and achieve beautiful color and texture blends. This article has some great details if you are looking to understand the chemistry and logistics of gel point.
While I have done a fair amount of jamming and canning, I still have trouble with added pectin. Pectin is a naturally occurring substance found in different fruits in different levels. It reacts with sugar to create a gelled jam or jelly. Many recipes call for added pectin, which you can buy at the supermarket and which comes with explicit directions. Partially due to my personality, which does not do so well with explicit directions, I prefer pectin-less recipes and jams, even if they don’t set up quite as hard as those with pectin, and I rely on longer cooking to get a thicker product.
One thing I like to do is to add interesting, complementing flavors to otherwise simple jams. I often add some infusion of lavender flowers to fresh figs, for instance, fresh ginger to blueberry jam and balsamic vinegar to strawberry jam.
Along with obvious choices like fresh berries or summer fruits, there are myriad creative jam ideas waiting to be explored. Two favorites of mine are green tomato and ginger jam and red pepper jam. Both green tomatoes and ripe red peppers lend themselves to delicious sweet-savory jams perfect for accompanying cheese plates or roasted meats.
Photo courtesy of Shiran Dickman.