Jammin’: An Amateur’s Guide to Making Fruit Preserves
My husband, The Russian, and I first started making fruit preserves when we moved to the Seattle area in early June 2009. We quickly discovered that the Pacific Northwest is berry heaven. A U-Pick Blueberry farm flourished less than a mile from the townhouse we’d rented. If we drove a few miles into the countryside, we could harvest strawberries and raspberries at a dollar or two per pound. Blackberry bushes grew like weeds everywhere with fruit free for the picking. Faced with such abundance, we bought ourselves some canning jars and, armed with recipes culled from the Internet, proceeded to make preserves.
Our first summer in suburban Seattle, we preserved blueberries, raspberries, and (of course) blackberries. We lined up jars of the homemade stuff in our pantry and sent the reserves out to friends and family across the country. What we didn’t eat or can, we froze, packing our small freezer with summer fruit to be used in smoothies and pies throughout the endlessly rainy Pacific Northwest winters. We were infinitely pleased with ourselves–two urban Jews, largely divorced from nature, discovering the simple life.
The next summer, we branched out, purchasing fruit that we couldn’t pick ourselves from the local farmer’s market. Our preserve collection expanded to include nectarines (flavored with a touch of vanilla), apricots, plums, and peaches. Then there were our ill-fated attempts: honey-ginger-pear, cherry (replete with a few too many pits), and blackberry-apple. We also bought a bunch of tomatoes and canned tomato sauce, which was incredible and lasted only a couple of months. And The Russian, being Russian, felt compelled to pickle cucumbers and a variety of peppers, as well as a whole batch of mushrooms he found alongside the road near our health club (word to the wise: don’t try this unless you know for sure the mushrooms you’re gathering aren’t poisonous).
Sometime during our three summers in the Pacific Northwest, we tossed the recipes and perfected our own formula for preserves: one cup sugar for every two cups fruit, the juice of a lemon or two, and a package of pectin for every four or five cups of sugar. It’s not a foolproof formula but it’s generally successful, and the results invariably taste better than almost anything you can buy at the store.
Now that we live in North Carolina and no longer have berries virtually growing at our doorstep (and have gotten older and somewhat tired of the work involved in picking fruit ourselves), we get our supplies at the local Whole Foods when they offer seasonal fruits for cheap or the local farmer’s market.
It’s currently strawberry season here in the Triad. North Carolina ranks fourth nationally in strawberry production, well behind the big hitters–California and Florida–but almost tied with the number three state, Oregon. Berries are plentiful at the farmer’s market and relatively inexpensive. A couple of weekends ago, we purchased six gallons of the little suckers for a bit less than fifty bucks. I would have settled for four gallons but The Russian, being a child of scarcity, always insists on buying more food than strictly necessary. We ended up preserving four gallons, freezing one-and-a-half, and refrigerating the remaining half gallon to eat fresh.
The first step in making almost any kind of preserves involves cutting up the fruit into manageable pieces, and removing any stems or pits. This task generally falls to the Russian, who diligently prepared all six gallons of strawberries for cooking, while I ran off to the store for additional supplies.
Of course in our house, nothing happens in the kitchen without the supervision of a cat or two; in this case, Diesel and evil white cat Sergei, who managed to knock a couple berries from the basket and bat them around the floor for a while until he got bored and decided to take a nap.
We found that a gallon of halved strawberries translates into roughly fourteen cups of fruit, full capacity for my stock pot. Add to that seven cups of sugar, the juice of one lemon, and a couple of packages of pectin and cook on high, stirring as necessary, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture comes to a boil. I begin boiling water in our large pasta pot at the same time I start cooking the fruit. That way, the water will be boiling steadily by the time I’m ready to immerse the jars of preserves in order to kill off any nasty bacteria. Be sure to sterilize the jars before canning. We usually run ours through the dishwasher.
Eventually, the fruit and sugar mixture will come to a boil. But don’t turn down the burner just yet. You’ll want to wait until a foam or froth develops on top (in my experience, this frothing has occurred with all the fruits we’ve preserved, not just strawberries). At this time, immediately turn down the burner to the level needed to maintain a rolling boil. Keep an eye on the pot to ensure it doesn’t boil over (been there and got to clean up the sticky mess). Stir things up every now and again. I usually boil off about a third to a half of the liquid until what’s left thickens to the consistency of heavy syrup. This process takes about a half hour to 45 minutes, or until you run out of patience. Then, turn off the heat and transfer the fruit mixture to jars.
When we initially started making preserves, I used a ladle to pour the mixture directly into my jars, a very messy process that often resulted in the spilling of hot liquid over fingers. Ouch! I also used a regular pair of kitchen tongs to transfer the filled jars in and out of the boiling water bath. By our third season of fruit preservation, we acquired two immensely useful canning tools: a funnel and forceps. If you decide that canning is for you, I’d highly recommend that you purchase both these items at the same time you buy your second supply of jars. They make the process ever so much easier.
Once you’ve filled the jars with preserves and screwed the caps on tight, immerse them in the boiling water bath for at least 20 minutes. The water should completely cover the tops of the jars. Remove the jars with the forceps and place them on a rack to cool for several hours. If all goes well, your preserves will continue to thicken as they cool. If you didn’t add enough pectin or failed to boil the mixture down sufficiently, don’t fret. Once you open and refrigerate the preserves, even the runnier mixtures tend to coagulate into a spreadable substance. And besides, unless you’ve really managed to screw the pooch, they’ll taste divine, a little bit of summer in a jar.
We transformed our four gallons of strawberries into 22 jars of preserves: some four-ounce, some eight-ounce. (The four-ounce size is ideal for gifts, should you decide to inflict your preserves on family and friends.)
Now that I gotten the hang of the basic process, I enjoy a bit of experimentation. I used the one-cup-sugar to two-cups-fruit ratio for the first batch. For the second and third batches, I cut out a cup or two of sugar and added two teaspoons of vanilla. We’ve used vanilla when preserving nectarines and peaches and found it gives the fruit a bit of a floral undertone. It seems to do the same for strawberries. For the last batch, I omitted the vanilla and cut back the sugar to four cups per 14 cups of strawberries. As expected, that batch is a bit more tart than the previous three, which suits my taste preferences. I also like to add a bit of spice to my preserves; for example, cinnamon and a touch of clove work well with blueberries. The Russian, however, is not a big fan of spice.
Canning season has just begun. As summer wears on, I’m sure we’ll be back to the farmer’s market for peaches and tomatoes. I’m also hoping to find apricots. While the process of preserving is labor intensive, it’s well worth the effort. There’s something magical about opening a jar of preserves during the middle of winter and inhaling summer’s bounty all over again.