Jam season is coming sooner than we think. We seem to be having an early spring - when it isn't winter again. In the usual scheme of things, strawberries arrive in June, followed by the early raspberries, cherries, blueberries, plums, apricots, peaches, figs, blackberries, fall raspberries and the rare treasures, local Lynden Blue and Madeline Angevine grapes. Apples ripen from June to October, depending on the variety. Where to start?
The first step is to plan. How many people are you jamming for? Will your family want gifts of jam for the holidays or do their tastes run to high end electronics? Do they adore strawberry and scorn figs? How much jam would you go through if you weren't paying $8 a jar for the good stuff? Then, gather your equipment. Fruits, pickles and tomatoes are canned in a steam canner or water bath canner. Having used both, I suggest a steam canner. A steam canner inverts the water bath canner construction, with a shallow water tray and a large cover to hold the steam. Pressure canners take so long to come up to temperature that there is no advantage in owning one unless you want to can green beans, meat or fish.
Steam canners are available on line (Territorial, etc.). I saw a few at Yaeger's last year. Yaeger's also has water bath canners and half gallon jars, which are about useless for canning but ideal for storing dry beans. They have the second best price on canning jars. The best is the Fred Meyer on Lakeway. The supermarkets jars are ruddy expensive, only useful in an emergency. I suggest laying in your canner and jars well ahead of time, as in now. Check craigslist for used jars, but they go awfully quickly. Jars will last indefinitely unless abused. Check used jars for a smooth surface on top, no nicks or scrapes. The most useful sizes for jamming are 12 oz, pint and 8 oz.
The wonderful thing about jamming is that you can control the amount of sugar in your jam. The sticky sweet flavor of commercial jams, required to be 55% sugar, never appealed to me. However, even with the low sugar recipes, you will go through quite a bit of sugar. Plan on buying the giant 25 lb. sack of sugar. You will need it unless you make completely sugar free fruit spreads. It's cheaper to get a large sack of sugar and split it with a neighbor than to keep buying 5 lb. bags. Terra Organica and the Coop will order bulk organic sugar for you at a slight discount to the bulk bin price. Last year, I got a 33 lb. sack of raw sugar (dried cane juice), Fair Trade, from Paraguay, distributed by Sunspire, very nice stuff, at a price I could live with. After the jam season, the rest of the bag went into coffee all winter.
Low or no sugar jam is made with low-methoxyl citrus pectin that is activated by calcium, commercially available as Pomona Pectin. The stuff is not cheap if purchased in little boxes. I suggest getting a half pound (http://www.pomonapectin.com
) and splitting it with a friend. It comes with recipes. It's easy to use, but the procedure is a bit different from regular pectin.
Low-methoxyl pectin needs sufficient acid to set, so it is advisable to purchase a jar of organic lemon juice concentrate before you are headed home from the U-pick with 35 pounds of leaking raspberries in your car and discover that the lemon juice concentrate is all sold out.
Regular pectin made with less than recommended sugar produces an uncertain thin syrup, so plan on following the recipe if you use Sure-Jell.
Apricots come from the other side of the mountains. You can generally order a case. Apricots dehydrate wonderfully, so those not eaten can be dried.
If you are reusing jars, check the discount grocers for lids. The best time to do this is December, but a person can't think of everything ahead of time. Rings can be reused unless bent or rusty, but you will need new lids every time.
Additional equipment needed is a widemouthed jar funnel, jar tongs and a regular set of tongs for handling lids. There is a magnetic wand sold for this purpose, but I like to keep single use tools to a minimum.
The Master Preservers will run classes on canning in the summer. They are required to use only official recipes and techniques, which must be very frustrating for the instructors. The official USDA recipes appear to be designed to terrify people into buying everything ready made, in supermarkets. The instructions that came with your canner and the pectin box are actually sufficient for making beaucoup great stuff. Last year's classes were standing room only, so if you are interested, you will want to sign up early. I recommend taking the pressure canner class if you are thinking about canning meat, fish or low acid vegetables such as green beans and carrots.
For jam, applesauce, tomatoes and pickles, a steam or water bath canner is not difficult to use. You won't poison anybody if you exercise due caution about food safety. Check each jar edge by running your finger around it to inspect for cracks and nicks, carefully that is. Put boiling jam into scalded jars, seal carefully with hot lids and process according to directions. There are just a few tricks of art: wash new lids, pour boiling water over them, and let them sit for 15 minutes to soften the glue. Fill jars to within a half inch of the top to allow room for expansion, and wipe off the tops of the jars with a paper towel dipped in very hot water before putting on the lids and rings. You don't need to reef on the rings, just get it snug. Handle the jars carefully and keep them upright as you put them into the canner and remove them after processing to cool on a folded towel. The glue is hot and the seals are fragile. Allow to cool overnight. After the jars cool, the rings will be loose. Just unscrew and remove the rings. Cranking down will break the seal. Check each seal by trying to move the lid sideways with your fingers. If the lid moves, the seal is broken. Put that one in the fridge and eat it. Wipe off, label and store your jars in a cool, dark cupboard. Every so often, check your seals. Apply common sense here, if it looks or smells funky, don't eat it and don't try to save the jar. If your home canned jam grows something Technicolor in storage, the seal is broken and pitch the whole thing, jar and all. I have had two seals fail during storage in 30 years. However, someone I know (not saying who, as my mother will get after me) lost more than one batch from tightening down on the rings after processing, hence breaking the seals.
Check out the books Summer in a Jar, Putting Food By, and Preserving the Harvest for small batch recipes. If you have grandma's jam recipe, use the instructions on your canner for filling and processing the jars. Some old recipes call for the long-discredited overflow method of jar filling. Use common sense about whether grandma's recipe has enough acid for safe preservation, by comparing it to modern recipes.
There are small farmers in the county who aren't on the Farm Finder map because they didn't pay up. As you go about looking for sources, note who else is in the neighborhood.
The most affordable fine jam starts with free fruit, quite doable with blackberries, apples and to some degree plums (ask around), less so with other fruits. The next level is the U-pick operations. The farmer is struggling to make a profit, so perhaps we can forgive them for the usual practice of having the professionals in to pick and pack commercial orders before opening to U-pickers. U-picking may take longer than expected, if you end up gleaning rather than picking.
Dedicated dumpster divers often end up with cases of well ripened fruit. The challenge there is dropping everything else to jam up. There is no time to lose, as the next step is compost.
If you are planning on getting your jam fruit at the farmer's market, you may have to call ahead to reserve a case. In any case, show up early. The farmers get nervous with fruit sitting in the sun, and may sell your special order to someone else.
Once you make your own, you will never go back. For one thing, your family will refuse to eat the cheap stuff. Then again, I am way too cheap to buy the expensive stuff. You can make jams, jellies, chutneys, and fruit spreads of the very best quality for a fraction of the cost of buying it. And you know exactly what's in it.