It was spring of 2008, the strawberries were gorgeous and cheap at the farmers market, and I got carried away. When I came back to my senses, I was walking home with an entire flat — nearly 10 pounds — of strawberries. I realized there was no way to use them all before they spoiled, and I remembered my Tennessee grandmother’s strawberry jam. She was gone by then, and I didn’t have her recipe, but I was a confident cook. So I went into the kitchen with a box of powdered pectin and a bucket of sugar and finished hours later with...an inedible candied mess.
I spent the rest of that year learning the basics of how to preserve — not just jam, but also pickles, relishes, boozy fruit, sauces, canned tomatoes, and all the rest. The next year I became certified as a master food preserver through the University of California Cooperative Extension. I started a blog, Saving The Season, to document my ongoing experiments. And eventually I wrote a cookbook called Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving. Since then, I’ve taught preserving around the country, including regular stints at the Institute of Domestic Technology in Los Angeles and guest lectures at the Culinary Institute of America and the International Culinary Center.
Lessons Learned from Years of Canning
Seven years and nearly 4,000 jars later, my big takeaway is that home canning is easy, simple, cost effective, and deeply pleasurable. The prime goal of my book and teaching is to encourage people to add a little preserving to their kitchen life. Almost any home cook already has the skill and the equipment to start — home canning is just home cooking by another name.
When I was growing up in the South, households across the social spectrum would “put up” a few preserves every summer: canned tomatoes, bread-and-butter pickles, chow chow relish, peach preserves, wild blackberry jam. For most people, home canning had less to do with absolute necessity than with taste and tradition. I would compare it to baking a pie from scratch: you may not do it every day or every week, but for people who like to be in the kitchen, it’s a great way to spend an occasional Saturday afternoon. And unlike with a pie, you’ll enjoy the results of your home canning work for weeks and months to come.
In later posts for this series, Home Canning 101, I’ll explore single topics including: food safety and botulism, proper canning techniques, pickling, fermenting, the role of sugar in sweet preserves, pectin, preserving with alcohol, pressure canning, large-batch projects, marmalade, and much more.
But this first post is to get you going if you’re a canning novice, or to get you back into it if you’re feeling rusty. And for that, there’s no better entry point than basic jam.
Homemade Jam-Making Basics
I call this a Universal Jam Recipe because it works with any fruit (other than citrus, which is a somewhat different beast). You can make jam with whatever grows well where you live. Now, in May and June, strawberries and rhubarb are available in much of the country; California already has cherries and early stone fruit.
This same basic recipe will also carry you through the rest of the canning year with only minor adjustments. The results are modestly sweet and balanced with freshly squeezed lemon juice. In every season, use the best fruit you can find. “Good fruit makes good jam,” is my first rule of jamming.
My second rule is to work in small batches. Three pounds of fruit will yield something like 2 ½ pints of jam, give or take. If you want more jars, make two small batches rather than one double batch. I promise the results will be nearly as fast, and the quality will be superior.
Also, for now don’t worry about canning your jam — that is, you don’t need to process the sealed jars in a boiling water bath. Just store the jam in the refrigerator, where it will last for weeks.
Later I’ll get into safe canning techniques. I’ll also cover botulism in depth, but for now, rest assured that homemade jam won’t kill your friends and family. In briefest terms, jam made from almost all familiar fruit is classed among the “high-acid foods,” which are not susceptible to the risk of botulism. Acidity is a silver bullet against botulism. The only way to hurt someone with a jar of jam is to hit him in the head with it.
Fruit jam obviously has a natural home on breakfast toast, pancakes, pound cake, and ice cream. But also consider using jam on the savory plate — similar to how we use cranberry jelly with turkey. A dab of peach or apricot jam is delicious with pork, for instance, while cherry jam and plum jam goes well with cheese.
Universal Jam Recipe
Yields about 2-1/2 pints
- 3 pounds prime, just-ripe fruit, such as strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, cherries, peaches, plums, etc.
- 2-1/2 cups sugar, or adjust as explained below
- 1 lemon
- Clean and cut the fruit as you would for making fruit salad or fruit pie. For example: remove the caps from strawberries, and cut into quarters; or peel and pit peaches, and slice into pieces; or trim rhubarb and chop it into chunks.
- Using a potato masher or your own clean hand, crush the fruit until soupy. Measure this puree, and note the quantity. You’ll probably have about 5 cups, but expect some variation depending on the fruit. Put the puree in a wide, heavy-bottomed, non-reactive pot. The puree should be no more than 1 inch deep in the bottom of the pot.
- For every two cups of fruit puree, add to the pot one scant cup of sugar and 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice. Stir to combine, and taste. Very tart fruit (such as sour cherries or some plums) might need a little more sugar. Very sweet fruit (such as white peaches) might need a little more lemon juice. Adjust to taste.
- Bring the fruit-sugar mixture to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently. After it boils, continue to cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, for 12 to 14 minutes, or until thickened. Check the consistency by turning off the heat and putting a spoonful of hot jam on a chilled saucer in the freezer for one minute. When ready, the cold jam will form a light skin that wrinkles when you push your finger through it, and it will cling to the saucer when you tilt the saucer upright. If the cold jam is too runny, bring the pot back to a boil for another minute or two, stirring constantly, then check the set again.
- When the jam is thickened to your liking, ladle it into clean half-pint jars or other air-tight containers. Allow to cool, then store in the refrigerator for up to a month.
Next up in Home Canning 101: The Universal Pickle Recipe.
Kevin West is working on a second book about the specialty food business and is developing a television show about the history and culture of food. Since 2013, he has also been the consulting creative director of Grand Central Market, a historic food hall in downtown Los Angeles that was named one of Bon Appetit’s 2014 Best New Restaurants in America. Find Kevin on Saving the Season and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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