There are great black holes in my pantry where last season's bounty of shimmering preserves, tasty relishes and succulent jams once stood. My secret cache of Peerless Red Raspberry Jam — the perfect "just because" gift — is down to one jar. Dilly beans bit the dust months ago.
My husband is conscious of the erosion and has laid claim to the remaining quarts of Damn Good Garlic Dills and Oregon Strawberry jam while my mother has reminded me that she's 'completely out!' of my apricot jam.
It's hard to let go of something special. Near impossible when it goes so well with the morning toast. But along with the summer berry crop comes the happy realization that a new preserving season is upon us. As a dizzying display of fresh, local produce tumbles from the fields, once again we are caught up in the frenzy of capturing the harvest.
If you're a newcomer to the preserving scene, I'm here to help. Dauntless canning is my aim. In the months ahead, I'll be merging all sorts of preserving tidbits into my regular columns. I'll break down worrisome phrases (what the heck's a jelly stage?) keep you updated on preserving research, provide well-tested (and delicious) recipes and hints and explore U-pick fields and roadside produce stands.
But for now, it's time to get a little sparkle into your pantry. For starters, I'd like to help you get a batch of blueberry jam under your belt. There's nothing like a gleaming collection of canning jars, freshly filled with sapphire-tinted preserves, to instill confidence and make a canner proud.
So I'm going to start off with two jam recipes. They're both straightforward and produce stunning results.
But Oregon Blueberry Jam with Added Pectin is particularly uncomplicated.
"Added pectin" is one of those pesky phrases I promised I'd dissect. It simply means the recipe uses commercially made pectin instead of relying simply on natural pectin within the fruit. For beginning canners, it's pretty much a guarantee that you'll get a lovely gel instead of syrup or — more disappointing — a rigid fruit clump. The recipe makes about 8 half-pint jars of jam.
Of course, for more seasoned canners or those who are more experimental by nature, please do try the other recipe, Peerless Red Raspberry Jam. Its virtue lies in its pure goodness: just berries, sugar and lemon juice. In correct proportions and with just the right amount of simmer time on the burner, this concoction works with the fruit's natural pectin to create a lovely soft gel that I particularly love. The secret to perfection is the brief, fast cooking in small batches (this recipe cannot be doubled). A wide, shallow pan is essential. A 12-inch, cast-iron skillet is perfect.
Meanwhile, back to the canning kettle and a few things to keep in mind:
- Equipment. Most items are self-explanatory and will be found in any store where canning supplies are sold. The bare-minimum list includes: A boiling water canner with rack, canning jars and lids, a jar funnel and jar and lid lifters.
- Fruit selection. When picking out berries, looks can be deceiving, so always request a taste of the fruit before buying. For jam making, berries don't have to be extremely sweet (a little tang will be countered by the sugar you add), but they must have a full and rich berry flavor. For Oregon Blueberry Jam with Added Pectin, make sure that all of your berries are ripe. Unripened berries contain a higher amount of natural pectin, which might make your finished jam too firm. On the other hand, in Peerless Red Raspberry Jam, since you won't be adding commercial pectin, it's a good idea to use a few under-ripe berries to make sure the jam gels.
- Measure carefully. Don't reduce the amount of sugar or lemon juice; both are necessary to guarantee a proper gel.
- Check the "best if used by" date on the box of pectin. No sense handicapping yourself with marginal pectin.
- Follow the recipe exactly as written. Don't skip a step or reverse the order of steps. For instance, commercial pectin comes in two basic styles, liquid and powdered. When using liquid pectin, the fruit, sugar and lemon juice (if called for) are combined and brought to a boil BEFORE stirring in the pouch of pectin, at which point the entire mixture is boiled for exactly 1 minute. On the other hand, if you use a recipe calling for powdered pectin, the pectin is combined with the fruit and lemon juice (if called for) then brought to a boil BEFORE the sugar is added and boiled for an additional length of time.
PREPARE JARS AND LIDS
If you're going to make your jams "shelf stable" as opposed to storing them in the refrigerator, you will need to process the filled-and-closed jars in a boiling water canner. This is the time to fill the canner with water and get it heating up on a back burner while you make the jam. I'll walk you through processing jars in a boiling water canner further down in these instructions.
Start with freshly washed canning jars and two-piece canning lids (available this time of year in most supermarkets and hardware-type stores). Wash them by hand in hot, soapy water then give them a rinse and place the jars, bottoms up, on a towel-lined cookie sheet in a warm oven until needed.
To prepare the lids, just follow the manufacturer's directions that came with them. Typically, you'll place them in a pot of water which you'll bring JUST to a boil, then remove from the heat. The hot water softens up the sealing compound that is on the flat lids. Leave the lids in the hot water until you use them.
PROCEED WITH MAKING THE JAM
Wash 2 quarts of whole blueberries. Place measured berries in a 6- or 8-quart, heavy-bottomed pot. Add 7 cups granulated sugar, stirring to dissolve sugar. Bring this mixture to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Add 1 teaspoon butter and stir it in.
Remove the pot from the burner. Add one 3-ounce pouch of liquid pectin and quickly stir it into the hot fruit and sugar mixture. Return the pot to the burner, bring to a rolling boil (NOTE: "rolling" means a vigorous boil that can't be stirred back down to a simmer) and boil hard for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
Remove the pot from the heat and place it on a hot pad to settle down for a couple of minutes. At this point, if there is any foam on the surface, scrape it off with a spoon.
FILLING AND CAPPING YOUR JARS
Remove a hot jar from the oven and place it next to the pot of hot jam. Place the jar funnel on top of the jar and ladle some hot jam into the jar. Fill the jar to within 1/4 inch of the top. The space left between the surface of the jam and the top of the jar is called the "head space." Lift off the funnel and place it on a clean surface, like a saucer or dinner plate. To make sure there are no droplets of jam on the jar rim, wipe it with a clean, damp cloth.
Attach lid. This phrase will be used in all future recipes. Here are the steps it involves: Using your magnetic lid wand, fish out one of the flat metal discs from the pot of hot water. Shake off excess water and place it on the jar rim with the sealing-compound side down against the jar rim.
Next, remove one of the metal screw bands, shake off excess water and screw it down onto the jar. Screw firmly, but not excessively. If you're planning to process your jars in a boiling water canner (see below), then place your filled and closed jar in the pot of hot water using a jar lifter. Repeat the filling and closing with all of the jars, placing each one in the pot as it is filled and closed. You will probably run out of jam before you run out of jars.
PROCESS IN A BOILING WATER CANNER (or not)
If you have enough refrigerator space, you can, at this point, simply store your jam in the refrigerator without further ado. They will hold their quality well beyond one year. But if you want to make your jams "shelf stable," so they can be stored at room temperature without molding or otherwise suffering in quality, you need to process the jars in a boiling water canner. In some cookbooks, this procedure is called a "boiling water bath." Use a pot that is deep enough to ensure that the jars are covered by at least 2 inches of water and that there will be 2 inches of pan left to keep the boiling water from bouncing out while it's boiling.
When the jars are filled, lids screwed on and placed in the boiling water canner, bring the water to a boil. You may have to adjust the heat slightly at this point to tame the boil — you don't want water leaping out of the pan, but you do want a vigorous boil that won't go away. Boil the jars in the water (this is called "processing") for 10 minutes. Note, the processing time varies from recipe to recipe, although most jams are processed for 10 minutes. After the jars have been processed, remove them with your jar lifter and place them on a towel in a draft-free area of the kitchen.
LISTEN FOR THE PING
The most satisfying sound to a food preserver's ear is the telltale "ping," signifying that a vacuum has been formed and the jar is sealing properly. The ping occurs as the lid is sucked down from its convex to concave position. It occurs anywhere between the first few moments after removing the jars from the canner up to an hour or so. After the jars have completely cooled, check the seal by pressing down on each lid. If it's truly sealed, the surface will be solid and won't bounce back to your touch.
Place unsealed jars in the refrigerator.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Oregon, food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at email@example.com