You hear “homemade jam,” and you think of grandmas puttering around a kitchen, talking to Tweetie bird and stirring a gently steaming pot, saying “Oh dear this” and “Oh dear that.” But I’ve been there, and I know the reality. I know the sting of hot bubble burns, the throbbing of skin-on-glass doozies, and the adrenaline spike of hundreds of near-misses that could have scarred me for life at the very least. Making jam is entering a world of fiery pain, my friend. Proceed with caution.
OK, so it’s not hard. If you throw berries or most tree fruit in a pot with some lemon juice and sugar and cook them down long enough–say 30-40 min–they will become gelatinous. If you scoop that still-hot substance into a Ball jar, gently screw a lid on it and drop it in boiling water for 5-10 min, it will “can,” so to speak. Pull it out, wait a bit, and you’ll start to hear a popping noise, a sign that you did just enough to make Board of Health officials believe your side of the story.
But in this simple process there’s a lot of weirdness, a good deal of physics, and plenty of peril. Let’s break it down into a convenient 10 steps:
1. Pick your ratios but keep in mind, they’re your ratios. I don’t think everyone who’s ever written a cookbook about jam making was wrong when they said 1:1 berry-to-sugar ratio, but wait, yes, maybe I do. Because I’ve made jam at 2:1 berries-to-jam for a few years now, and nobody ever complained of tartness, or bitterness, or God forbid, microbial funk. I even pick underripe berries to balance it out, like some of the wiser books and websites say. But still man, what the hell with all that sugar? I am not an anti-sugar crusader (Remember that movie Requiem for a Dream? Wasn’t it like totally beyond nuts?), but cutting back on sugar doesn’t hurt. So try like 8 cups berries, 4 cups sugar and a 1/2 cup of lemon juice. Something like that.
2. This whole berry thing–which is what I’ve dealt with most (besides apple butter)–is really about boiling the mushy stuff long enough to get the pectin out. Plenty of recipes say you should add a box of pectin. That is bullshit. Pectin is the key thickener in jam, but it comes from fruits. That’s where they get it from, to put it into the box. So… *shrug* If you’re cooking with raspberries or strawberries, even apples, you’ve got more pectin than you need. (Trust me, I’ve accidentally passed out drunk while boiling down apples, woke up just in time to not burn down the house, and ended up with jars of apple butter so thick it was like eating a paste of fruit leather. Yummm!) Final word: If you buy pectin, the terrorists win.
3. What you do have to buy is a stick blender, if you don’t own one already. I am lucky enough to have a 400-watt job that was a wedding present, but there’s a Cuisinart for like $27 so no excuses. (We tried the Breville cordless and it sucked ass, so avoid.) You need a stick blender because just after you add your berries and your sugar and your lemon juice and you cooked it a bit, you want to break up the berries. We all like a nice jam (otherwise we–meaning you–wouldn’t be reading this) but let’s just chop it into bits with our stick blenders. Some people go so far as to crush and strain half their raspberries to reduce the number of seeds, but seriously why work with raspberries at all if you don’t like seeds?
But stick blending represents the first major danger point, not only because a stick blender has no safety latch, and is the simplest way to cut off your finger. And also not only because it’s a thing you plug into the wall socket and then put into a pot of liquid–pretty sure the Underwriters Laboratory has assured its electrical safety in triplicate. No, the real danger comes when you are waving that magic wand inside the pot and it starts to kick up. You don’t want it too close to the bottom of the pot or it will scratch, or just suction itself down like a pool-cleaning robot. And you definitely don’t want it near the top, where it can jet jammy solids at your face. You want to hold it steady in the middle.
4. Bubble, bubble, boil and boom, you got a third-degree burn. If I haven’t said this already, I should have: Wear long sleeves. At first, it’s just liquid, and you don’t even really need to stir it. Just keep an eye on it. But as you’re nearing the end, it takes on the look and consistency of magma from the hellfires of Mount Doom, and it feels like that too when it slaps against your bare forearms. Why do chefs all wear long-sleeved jackets? That’s why. I like a good silicone glove for my stirring hand. That’s a long last 10 minutes if you don’t wear protection.
5. The freezer test works–or it doesn’t. Every time I make jam, I test it by putting ramekins in the freezer, pulling them out and dolloping on some goo as I near the finishing point. After the dollop goes on, I stick them back in the freezer, wait a minute or so, then just lick the ramekin. If it tastes like jam I want to eat, my pot o’ goo is done. If it runs down the side of the ramekin, or just feels too loose, I keep a-goin’. Still, the test isn’t perfect.
6. There is such a thing as overcooked jam. I know because I almost always err on that side. It’s better than ending up with berry syrup, which is useless except on buttermilk waffles, but it’s still no good. You’re aiming for Bonne Maman (a brand only recognized when it’s written in cursive), so don’t overshoot your mark and get raspberry chew.
7. Jars at the ready. (I don’t know why they call it canning, because you use jars. I guess people don’t say “jarring” because it means “offensive” or “annoying.”) The sport of canning has about 1/10th the microbial concerns of beer brewing or wine making, so I just give the jars a good scrub, and make sure I scoop the jam in when it’s good and hot, leaving about a half-inch up top where the lid lip starts. I like those canning funnels, but only ones that have a lip that only goes down to the “fill line” itself. I noticed lately that some go down too far, and to me that’s bad. Once your jar is full of the hotness, lightly screw on the lid and set it in boiling water.
8. The boil is where the rest of the bacterial massacre hopefully takes place. If you accidentally missed a spot, here’s hoping that 5-10 minutes at 200+ degrees kills any living critters in that jar. But that’s not the only reason these jars are in the water. The other reason is physics. I was a dumbass when I canned for the first time, and I now can’t believe I didn’t know how it actually worked. You might know and if so, skip this part. But if you don’t get it, don’t be ashamed. The people who wrote the books I read didn’t explain it very well, but I will:
You poured in the goo, but you left a half inch of air at the top. That air may be necessary, but it’s bad news, so here comes the boil. The heat from the canning bath excites those air molecules, so they separate from each other, like you learned in school. As they space themselves out, they run out of room, and some have to up and skeedaddle. That’s why you only lightly screw on the lid–you want it to act as a trap door that lets really anxious air molecules out, but refuses entry to less uppity (and bigger) water molecules. Because of this, there will be bubbles. As a fellow bumbler, I don’t know exactly how long you have to leave it in there to become the CEO of the Smucker’s Corporation. I do know that if you keep it in there for 5-10 min, and watch the bubbles come out, you can be confident to yank out the jars without any ill effects.
This is the last of your real danger points, so be sure to get yourself a pair of canning tongs, which come in most canning kits. That and the funnel are really the only two useful pieces of that otherwise superfluous tool kit, but it’s cheap (see below). Just don’t be fooled into buying that giant canning pot, unless you’re going into business.
9. We all know the warning that goes: “If the vacuum seal is popped, do not consume.” Yet here you pull out your jars after 5, 7, even 10 minutes, and the vacuum seal is as outie as outie can be. Again, PHYSICS!!!!!! There are like three air molecules left in there, but they’re still fighting the good fight. They’re crazy, like the soldiers who fought against Rambo in Rambo: First Blood Part II (whose sequel was Rambo III even though it should have been Rambo II: First Blood Part III). But they’ll back off, when the heat–and the molecular excitement–dies down. Yes, if you pull your jars out of the boil then go read a book, you’ll start to hear pop, pop, pop from the kitchen. Those pops are the sound of a reduced number of air molecules retreating from a battle they clearly lost. Like Rambo’s enemies.
10. There’s a disheartening “Oh I totally didn’t cook it long enough” moment that comes that evening, about 4 or 5 hours after you’ve successfully canned. You’re standing in the kitchen, looking at these impressive little jars of professional-looking jam. But you pick one up and its contents are syrupy and goopy and not at all jamlike! What did you do wrong? Simple. You didn’t wait a full day for the shit to set. It takes longer than you think. Stick it in the fridge if you want to expedite. But suffice it to say, that next morning, when you’re making your toast (I actually like putting jam on rye but I am probably alone or in a very small, presumably Jewish minority), you whip that stuff out, and it will be jammy like Sunday morning.
OK, that’s all I can tell you. Go forth, you sons of bitches, and make some motherlovin’ jam.
Still Frightened and Confused?
• Decent canning tool kit
• One of the few-and-far-between recipes that’s similar to mine
• There’s a National Center for Home Food Preservation, believe it or not
• Leave a question in comments and I’ll try to help
Thanks to Liz and Cory for the pics, and the recent jam session