Context – Why?
Scott and I love picking berries in the peaceful, bucolic meadows of Sauvie Island. Strawberry picking is a sure sign that a new season is right around the corner - so close, in fact, that we can taste summer in the juicy ripeness of the just-picked fruits. Blissful moments abound in strawberry fields, which appeal to all the senses. We hunt for the brightest red fruits, listen from the "pop" off the vine as we press our thumbs between the calyx (the green, leafy top) and the stem of the plant, sample and savor sweet berries and run our hands through the plants for hidden gems. We call out to each other and show off the most perfect strawberries in the world. This process continues - long after we have filled our soft, green pints with enough fruit for us and our neighbors. Inevitably, Scott has to beg me to come to my senses and realize enough is enough. This year enough was 17 or so pounds of the fruit -- enough to eat in a few days, share with our neighbors and, with any luck, preserve as Jam. Strawberries are delicate fruits, prone to rotting in just a few days in the refrigerator or crystallization in the freezer. Canning is one of the few ways to preserve the flavor and quality of the fruit over the long term. In addition, I always find store-brought jam to be cloyingly sweet. My own jam could be made much more to my liking and enjoyed as a spread over toast or as a topping dripped over vanilla bean gelato.
Process: Strawberry Jam
I searched the web, ordered books from the library and sifted through the paper manuals I received at a water canning class I took through Portland Community College over a year ago. In the end, I settled on a variation of the recipe pictured below (honestly and regretfully, I am not sure of the source of the recipe as I quickly and clandestinely took a photo of this recipe on my iphone during a salsa-making class).
I only approximately followed the recipe as I had way more than 2 quarts of strawberries and wanted to use way less than the recommended about of sugar. This is what I did :
1. Hulled and then rinsed all of the strawberries in a colander
2. Halved all of the strawberries and then put them in a large pot
3. Crushed strawberries in the pot with a potato masher
4. Brought another large pot of water to boil and boiled jars, then lids and rings. I made sure to put a canning rack in the bottom. I laid out boiled (sterilized items) on paper towel covered table
5. Scooped in about 4 cups of sugar, 1/2 cup lemon juice, and 1/4 cup powdered pectin (I realized afterwards that the directions said to add sugar later).
6. Brought all items to a boil, watching to make sure the foam did not boil over - I boiled this mixture for about 5 minutes.
7. I then ladled the mixture into a funnel and filled up my ball jar almost to the top - with an approximate 1/4" head space left at the top.
8. I then used the magnet gripper to pick up the lids and rings once again to put in the boiling water and then used the magnet gripper to pick up a lid and carefully place the lid directly over the clean ball jar opening. I then used the magnet gripper to grab the metal ring and placed that on the jar as well and then firmly tightened the rings around the lids.
9. I used the rubber tongs to transfer the hot glass jar into the boiling water bath with the canning rack. I carefully tried to place the jar in the water, but 1) the jar tipped over 2) the boiling water overflowed causing a burst of flames 3) there wasn't enough water to just cover the top of the lids, but there was so much water that the pot overflowed (the pot was too small)
10. I processed each jar for 10 minutes - meaning each jar boiled for 10 minutes
11. I used the rubber tongs to remove the jar and waited to hear that signature vacuum "click" that let's you know the jar has sealed.
12. I only heard the click once for my jars of jam, but check the seal on each jar by pressing on the lid. If there is no give or bubble, the jar has sealed properly and you probably won't die of botulism.
Failures and learning:
1. I probably should have measured how many quarts of strawberries I actually had as I used a taste-test guess and check method
2. My processing pot was too small. Specially, I need a deeper pot so that boiling water can cover multiple cans - I had to process just one can at a time because my pot was just barely deep enough. I have to purchase a smaller canning rack to fit my narrower and deeper pot.
3. Water boiling over causes large and scary flames - avoid this in the future.
4. Two out of the five cans of jam did not seal. One failed because I accidentally tipped it over while placing it in the water bath (result: boiling over water and burst of flames, screaming and sweating) and the other failed because I ran out of jam and could only fill the jar halfway - too much head space for proper sealing.
We met Don Kruger, the owner of Kruger Farms, on our walk out to the Strawberry field. He is an urban farming pioneer and has also started a chain of successful farm stands in Portland. He loves talking about strawberries and cued me into their summer concert series and pickling classes in late summer.
I could help but thinking about my canning experience and the homesteading movement that is so popular right now. I recently read Emily Matchar's book, Homeward Bound, and I am not quite sure what to make of DIY culture and urban homesteading. It seems at once reactionary and progressive...
The recipe part of jam isn't all that hard and once I get a properly sized pot suited for the canning bath, the whole experience will probably feel a lot less terrifying. Homemade strawberry jam is more satisfying and tastier as a condiment and as a dessert than anything I could purchase at the store. I will try it again - maybe with a different berry before summer comes to an end.