Now that jam season is coming into full-swing, I’d like to address the issue of making jam without a recipe. Really, you don’t need the mathematical formula the little folded sheet (that unfolds to poster size and comes inside the pectin box) suggests you do, nor often the pectin itself. I’ve been doing up small batches all month – raspberry from my sister’s garden, Nanking cherry, strawberry, huckleberry, chokecherry… and those are just the berries. I plan to soon veer over to stone fruits – apricot, peach and plum. I may get crazy and mix them together, even.
Although fruits have been preserved in sugar for thousands of years, people have only in recent decades developed a fear of jam-making. The common opinion has come to be that jam is difficult to make, difficult to set, and will take the better part of a day (or at least an afternoon) to procure. Not so. And although a jar of jam can be easily had at any corner store, it really is worth the effort to simmer some fruit yourself. To simplify the process, fruit + sugar = jam.
If you are among the nervous, take comfort in the fact that runny jam is perfectly acceptable; delicious, even. (I far prefer a loose jam to one that resembles stiff Jell-O.) If it’s exceedingly runny, you have yourself a lovely fruit syrup, one that will enliven pancakes, waffles, ice cream, fresh biscuits and angel food cake – just pretend that it’s exactly the way you intended it to be.
To get all scientific about it: the main components of jams and preserves are fruit, sugar, pectin and acid (such as lemon juice). Fruits vary in their pectin content, but typically under-ripe fruit (such as strawberries with white spots) contains more pectin and acid, both necessary elements for the jelling process. (Fruits higher in pectin include apples, currants, oranges and plums; middle-of-the road fruits include blueberries, raspberries, cherries and rhubarb; low-pectin fruits include apricots, peaches and strawberries.) Commercial pectin can always be used as extra insurance, but isn’t really necessary. Apples (with their seeds) and citrus peels are high in pectin – I’ll often add some to the pot (if I’m straining the mixture to make jelly) or wrap in cheesecloth to simmer, then pull out after the mixture has cooked.
When making jam, aim for 1 cup sugar to every 2-3 cups chopped fruit. This is not as much as it sounds – a great many recipes call for equal quantities of sugar and fruit, so feel free to use more. You’ll want to cook them together, rather than cook the fruit and then add the sugar, as the sugar helps pull water from the fruit but leaves the pectin. Add about a tablespoon of lemon juice per pound of low-acid fruit. (If you’re not sure if your fruit is low-acid or not, add it anyway.)
Bring the lot to a rolling boil and cook, skimming off any foam that rises to the surface, until it thickens and looks like loose jam. (Keep in mind it will firm up as it cools.) To test, either use a candy thermometer (it will set at around 220°F) or drop a spoonful on a small dish you’ve chilled in the freezer. If it sets up into something that resembles jam, and wrinkles on the surface when you push it with your finger, it’s done.
Sugar acts as a preservative in jam and jelly-making, so if you haven’t followed a precise formula and are nervous about properly sealing and processing it in jars, simply store small quantities of jam in the fridge for a week or two (keep a jar for your own family’s use) and freeze the rest – jam freezes beautifully.
Clear as jam?