Hey, friends, Suze here. It’s June, and you know what that means in New England–fiddleheads, asparagus, and strawberries.
You don’t know what a fiddlehead is? It’s an edible fern still in its curled-up stage, and, yes, it looks like the scroll-y end of a violin. The season is super short–like about 10 days or so because they have zero shelf life and must be picked locally, one by one. They taste something like a cross between asparagus, green beans, and broccoli. Lightly steamed and tossed with a bit of butter or olive oil and perhaps a bit of lemon juice or white balsamic vinegar, they’re delicious. And all the more delectable because they’re so fleeting. Wait one day too long and they’re a full-flown fern!
But enough about vegetables. Let’s talk about strawberries. How I love those bright red June jewels, sensual and juicy. I love them right out of the garden, their flavor intensified by the warmth of the sun. I love them sliced and tossed with just a bit of sugar, or a drizzle of real maple syrup or honey, to bring out their natural juice and sweetness, or unsweetened and topped with thick, creamy vanilla Greek yogurt. Sigh. If I didn’t have a whole flat of berries in my refrigerator, I’d want to go to the pick-your-own farm right now!
One of my favorite things to do with strawberries (and other berries too) is to make jam. If you’ve never canned anything, it might seem a little daunting, but I’m here to tell you that homemade strawberry jam is the perfect way to start your canning career. With just a bit of advance organization, it’s super easy! One taste of freshly made strawberry jam on a whole grain English muffin and you will never, ever go back to any jam you buy in the store, I guarantee. And if you make a batch or two now, you can give jars away as holiday gifts. This is a perfect recipe for sharing with friends, family and neighbors.
So here’s how to do it:
Buy your jars. I like the eight-ounce crystal quilted jelly jars made by Ball because they’re so pretty! Here in New England you can buy the jars at most grocery stores, as well as farm supply stores such as Agway and Tractor Supply. I think I’ve seen them at Walmart too. The jars themselves are reusable pretty much indefinitely as long as they aren’t chipped or cracked, so when you give away your jam, be sure to ask for your jars back eventually.
The jars will come with a two-piece lid: a metal ring and a round, flat metal top with a special coating on the underside. The metal rings can also be reused unless they are rusty, but you will need to buy new tops every time (you can buy them separately).
Buy your pectin. Pectin is a natural fruit-based gelling agent (it’s abundant in apples, for example). It comes in different forms, such as a liquid, but I prefer Sure-Jel Lower Sugar Recipe (the kind in the pink box). I have not always had good luck with other brands, but Sure-Jel has never failed me, so I stick with it. This is usually found right next to the canning jars, or sometimes near Jell-O and instant pudding in the grocery store.
Buy your berries. Get your fruit from a local farm if you possibly can. You’re supporting your neighbors and small business as well as getting a quality product. Organic is always best! You can either buy the berries already picked and pay a couple of bucks more, or get some exercise and pick them yourself. You will need about six heaping quarts of berries, or about six pounds. (Get another couple of quarts to eat fresh). To correctly pick a berry, hold the stem between your index and middle fingers and pull gently. The berry will pop off along with its little green top. Leaving the top intact keeps the fruit fresher longer.
Which berries to pick? You want them to be firm and bright red–not orangey-red or greenish-white, which means they’re underripe. Not purple-red and mushy, which means they’re overripe. The best way to judge ripeness is to taste one. It should be firm, sweet but slightly tart. If it’s extra sweet and squishy, pass it by. If you’re really not sure, err on the side of less ripe than overripe for the best tasting jam.
Take them home–do not wash until just before you’re ready to use them!–and put them in your fridge for up to a day or two.
Prepare your jars. Run the jars, lids and rings through your dishwasher while you prepare the berries (below). Keep the jars hot in the dishwasher.
Prepare your berries. Fill up your colander with berries and give them a quick rinse under cold running water, draining well. Hull the strawberries by circling the pointy tip of a paring knife around the green top, then discard the tops. Quarter the fruit and place in a bowl. Every once in a while, squish the berries with a potato masher. You want juice and bits of berry to equal six cups. When you get to six cups, you’re done and can eat the rest.
OK, I promise, the time-consuming part is done! Now with a bit of organization, you will have jam cooling on your counter in about thirty minutes.
Set up the following on the counter right next to your stove:
- Newspaper or paper grocery bags to reduce mess (cover the counter)
- A plus/minus one cup ladle
- A long-handled large spoon, wooden or metal
- A canning funnel, if you have one. Not strictly necessary, but these wide-bottom funnels are inexpensive (get them where you buy your jars or order online if you’ve got the time) and make filling the jars easier. If you don’t have one, don’t sweat it. You can just carefully ladle your jam into the jars.
- A clean, lint-free dishcloth (the microfiber ones work well)
- Your jars, still hot from the dishwasher
- Your metal rings
- Your flat metal lids, sitting in a pan or bowl of very hot water
- A bowl containing 3-3/4 cups of granulated (white) sugar
- A bowl containing 1/4 cup of granulated (white sugar) mixed with the contents of your box of pectin (Sure-Jel)
Now you’re cooking! These last steps go fast, and you can’t stop in the middle of the process, so make sure you won’t be interrupted.
Place your six cups of mashed berries/juice in a very large saucepan (I use my mother-in-law’s old copper-bottomed Revereware dutch oven), along with the sugar-pectin mixture. Give it a good stir and turn up the heat to high. Continue to stir until the mixture comes to a full rolling boil. What that means is that as you continue to stir, the mixture continues to boil. If you stir and the boiling bubbles subside, it’s not there yet.
When you get to the full rolling boil (usually takes about five minutes on my stove), carefully add the rest of the sugar (the 3-3/4 cups) and stir. BE CAREFUL! Working with anything this hot requires caution. Stir the mixture gently until it comes back to a full rolling boil (usually less than five minutes). Now check your watch or the kitchen clock, and boil and stir for exactly one minute, then shut off the burner.
Immediately ladle the hot mixture into one of your jars, leaving about 1/8 to 1/4 inch of space between the level of the fruit and the lip of the jar. Do not fill all the way to the top, and do not leave too much space. Using the lint-free cloth dipped in water and rung out, wipe the lip of the jar. It must be perfectly clean (water droplets are okay) in order to seal. Now place a flat metal lid (shake the water off) on the jar, and screw the metal ring onto that. Immediately turn the jar upside down on the newspaper.
Working quickly, repeat the process until your jars are filled. If you have not quite enough to fill the last jar properly, don’t worry. You will just keep that jar in your fridge and use it first (it’ll probably be gone that same day!). Wait five minutes, then turn your jars right side up and allow them to cool, undisturbed and out of any drafts. Eventually you will hear a satisfying “pop” as the jars seal. In a couple of hours, check your seals by pressing down on the flat metal lid. If there is any play in the lid, your jar may not have sealed and you should put it in the fridge rather than on the pantry shelf.
Caveat: The instructions inside the Sure-Jel package call for you to process the jars in a boiling water bath. This involves setting a rack inside a very large stock pot, filling with water, and boiling the filled, sealed jars of jam for ten or fifteen minutes. Honestly, I don’t do this. The turning-the-jars-upside-down method is an older technique that I’ve been using for years. Strawberries, and other fruits, have a high acid content that naturally inhibits growth of any nasty stuff.
You should make the decision whether to do further processing based on your comfort level. If you’re really worried, you could always just keep your jars in the fridge. They will last a long time.
And that’s it! Ever wanted to try canning? Once you get the hang of it, it’s not scary or intimidating, and the results are so worth it. Let me know if you have any questions about the process. If you’re not interested in canning, tell me about your local farm stand or your favorite place to buy fresh fruits and veggies.