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Berries, Jams & Jellies

by Elizabeth Skipper | July 17th, 2013 | Techniques, Tools, and Tips
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strawberry jamSummer’s in full swing, although many of us here in NH are wondering when we’ll get to enjoy it. It’s either been too wet or too hot and humid to want to venture outside except at dawn or dusk, and of course that’s when the mosquitoes attack. But weather which makes me wilt is just what raspberries like, apparently, because this year the bushes have provided a bumper crop.

I’ve harvested enough to make a 100% raspberry pie – a first – sent some home with my daughter, frozen a couple of quarts, and eaten more than one bowl of what’s referred to around here as “raspberry moosh.” This is good with other berries, too. Pick as many berries as you like, add sugar to taste, mash them up with a fork (you may need to cut up strawberries first), pour on some heavy cream, and go to town. Yum!

Everbearing raspberries actually produce two crops, one in July and one in the fall. So I have more raspberries to look forward to when July’s harvest is done. NH’s strawberry season just ended, but blueberries are hot on their heels. Our strawberry shortcake on the 4th of July contained wild blueberries as well, which my daughter was lucky enough to find. Isn’t that a perfect color combination for the occasion?

Whether you grow them yourself or buy them, the berries and fruits of summer make you want to preserve some for the winter months. The most obvious shelf-stable method is to make some kind of jam or jelly. They’re not the same, so here’s a bit about the differences.

Jam is probably the easiest kind to make. Fruit is chopped or crushed, and quickly cooked with sugar to the proper consistency. Because jam should be made in small batches, it’s not a big production; and you can easily put up a few pints without much trouble.

Butters are similar, but the fruit is pulped, i.e., skins and seeds removed, and cooked with sweetener to a thick consistency. They may or may not contain spices. Butters are cooked for much longer than jams; they need to be stirred often to prevent scorching and sticking if done on the stove top. To avoid this, some people make fruit butters in the oven or in a crockpot. Probably the best known is apple butter, but there are European varieties made with pears, a combination of apples and pears, or prunes; and popular in the fall is pumpkin butter (yes, it’s a fruit.)

Jelly is more work and requires more skill. First the fruit is cooked, then the juice is strained from it. Because jelly should be clear and sparkling, care must be taken not to allow any pulp to make its way into the juice. The juice is cooked with sugar until it reaches the right stage of gelling. Not enough cooking and it remains fruit juice; cooked too long, and jelly becomes gummy like Turkish delight. I once made a batch like that with apple juice, and while I was disappointed, my daughter loved it. It was a little hard to get out of the jar, though.

Marmalade is similar to jelly, except it has small pieces of fruit or fruit peel suspended within it. When we think of marmalade, orange comes to mind first. Other citrus fruits like lemon, lime, and grapefruit are used too, though, and ginger makes very tasty marmalade. I tend to think of making these in the fall or winter, as that’s when citrus fruit is in season.

In addition to sugar, fruits contain varying amounts of pectin (which is what causes gelling), and acid, which affects flavor and also helps with gel formation. Learn which fruits are high in pectin – tart apples, Concord grapes, quinces, blackberries, currants, and cranberries are the most commonly known ones. You can either combine these with low pectin fruits, or add purchased pectin so a fruit will gel.

Fruit that’s slightly under-ripe is best for jam and jelly making, because of its acidity. Citric acid or lemon juice can be added to fruits naturally low in acid so they’ll gel properly.

If you’re new to this kind of cooking, don’t be intimidated. Be sure to follow directions until you’ve made a few different kinds of preserves successfully. Don’t try to double recipes (see above comment about jam being best made in small batches.) Use a larger pan than you think necessary to allow for boiling up, and be sure the pan is wide for good evaporation. Exercise caution – boiling sugar can cause a nasty burn if you’re not careful.

How can you tell if your jam or jelly has cooked to the right stage? Thermometers are recommended as the most reliable method, but not everyone has one. My cooking school friend who makes tons of jam likes the sheet method. When you think the fruit/sugar mixture is almost ready, dip a cool metal spoon into it, and tip the spoon so that some of the mixture drips back into the pan. The mixture, which started off light and syrupy, becomes thicker and will drop off the spoon two drops at a time. When the two drops come together and “sheet” off the spoon, your jam or jelly is ready.

With the exception of jellies, all preserves need to be processed in a boiling water bath. Yes, this is “canning,” but again, don’t let that intimidate you. All it means is to submerge the filled jars in boiling water for the recommended amount of time to sterilize the contents and vacuum seal the jars. You don’t need special equipment, only a large enough pot to do the job. Check your kitchen cupboards before buying anything.

Making it yourself enables you to have lovely, quality preserves made of fruit and sugar, with perhaps a bit of added pectin and/or acid if needed. Compared to most of what’s available commercially — jams and jellies made with little fruit and lots of high fructose corn syrup — what you make will be tastier, better for you, and a source of pride when you see those pretty jars lined up on the kitchen counter. Do try your hand at it.

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