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Hot Damn! Homemade Fruit Jam

It has been over two weeks since I made jam this summer. I really didn’t want to make jam but I had to. Kind of the way that you have to make Christmas cookies. It’s in the genes. Now that the jam has been processed, the floors cleaned and I’ve had time to do other things, I am very happy I did it but, at the time, it was more than I felt I could manage and still go to work the next day and cook.

My mother’s father was a doctor, working in Ohio during the Great Depression. Patients didn’t have money to pay the doctors so they often paid with produce. My mother said that invariably, during the hottest days of summer, boxes of plums, peaches and tomatoes would arrive on their doorstep and they would need to preserve them immediately. She, her mother and sisters worked feverishly to save the produce for winter when they’d really need it.

Because of this, I only saw my mother make jam once. My aunt and cousins had come for the summer and my aunt and mother made apricot-pineapple jam. My mother said that she was “jammed out” after her childhood, and I can certainly agree that canning pints and quarts of fruit and jam when it’s 90 plus degrees with 90% humidity would not be fun.

This didn’t deter me, however. When I lived in Sebastopol many years ago, I had access to an entire orchard, and despite hot weather, I couldn’t resist putting up the beautiful fruits, especially when my daughter was born. Her first foods were pureed plums, peaches and apples that I canned for her.Strawberry-Rhubarb-Jam-IMG_1102

Invariably, each year fruit would show up and I’d make jams or butters or applesauce. And when I finally was able to buy a home of my own, I planted two apple trees as well as a Blenheim apricot (hands down the best!), a  Santa Rosa plum and a Meyer lemon — my own tiny orchard.

My family and friends now anticipate my Hot Damn! Fruit Jam each holiday season.  That said, given my current work schedule, I continually remind myself that I am not going to make jam this year. It never works.

This year my apricot and plum trees blessed me with a good crop, the first in four years. Living less than a mile from Monterey Bay, a lot depends on whether we have a dry period during pollination or not. If a big storm comes in, all bets are off. I love my fruit trees so much that I spend way too much money on their maintenance to justify the amount of fruit I receive in return, so I’m not going to pass up the opportunity to enjoy whatever returns I get for my money and labor!Apricot-Jam-on-ToastIMG_1106

Even when the crop is too meager to put up, I can’t bear to see the overripe peaches, plums and nectarines at New Leaf Market go to waste, or the raspberries that ripened too quickly in their containers and need to be culled, so I’m forever bringing home fruit and processing it.

This year was a moderate year; I only put up 32  jars of jam. Okay, so far. The autumn raspberry season hasn’t yet hit and I have an abundant crop of apples.

There have been years, however, when it was downright scary. The good news is that when it’s  holiday season, I have a ready supply of gifts for family and friends, the postal and UPS carriers and anyone else I wish to thank. After all, you can only hand out so much vanilla extract before people beg off, saying they have four bottles still in their cupboards. (At least it’s not giant zucchini.)

When I first started processing fruits I used pectin. Everyone I spoke to said that’s how you do it. The problem is the amount of sugar necessary in standard jam making.  It’s not even a cup-to-a-cup; it’s double the amount of fruit! Even the recipes using pectin designed for low-sugar preserves calls for a lot of sugar. That much sugar and the flavor of the fruit is overwhelmed by the sweetness.

Then about ten years ago I discovered the joys of what I call “French” jam making, which is not French at all, but just the old fashioned way of making jam. It’s really quite simple; you slowly cook down the fruit until it is thick. You add a small amount of sugar (or agave nectar or other sweetener), fresh lemon juice and some spices or even herbs to taste. If you have really ripe fruit or fruits with low pectin, you can add some greener fruit with it or put in apple peels and remove them just before you process the fruit.

I cut  stone fruits into small pieces and mash the berries. I often add one or two vanilla beans cut into pieces to the pot, and with plum or strawberry rhubarb, I also add allspice berries and black pepper. With pear or apricot, a bit of cinnamon is perfect. And with all the fruit I preserve, I add fresh lemon juice.Apricot-Jam-in-PotIMG_1104-150x150

With strawberry or other berries that give off lots of juices, you can cook the berries briefly, pull them from the pot, add some sugar, then reduce the liquid until it becomes thick and sticky. Add the fruit back in and finish the jam.

Raspberries and blackberries have a fair amount of pectin in them. Add them with plums to help thicken the plum conserve or jam.

If you have lots of freezer space, you can freeze the jams until you’re ready for them. Or, you can process them to ensure they last well. This is especially important when you cut down on the sugar as sugar acts as a preservative in jam.

Over time I’ve found some good suggestions on the Internet that have improved my jams. For instance, for 2-1/2 pounds of raspberries you only need about 3 cups of sugar and the juice of a small lemon. You can start the berries on the stove while simultaneously warming the sugar in the oven just until it’s warm. It will blend more quickly and evenly with the berries and the jam will be ready faster.

As per how to process, I suggest doing a Google search for professional instructions. What I do is to put the jars through the dishwasher. I take the hot jars and place them upside down on a clean dish towel. I boil the lids and seals in a pot of water for 15 minutes and keep very hot. When the jam is ready and has a low boil, I ladle the jam into about five or six jars. I then put the pot back on the stove to get really hot again. I wipe the rims of the jars, put the lids on and tighten the seals.

I used to have a large canning kettle, but it eventually rusted out. I’ve found that as I’m usually not making a large amount of jam, my large soup pot fills in just fine. I fill it with water and bring it to a boil. Before I put the jars in to process, I put a folded tea towel in the pot, which sinks to the bottom. The towel acts as a cushion for the glass jars. Sometimes I use a flat steamer and use it instead of the towel.  I put in five or six jars and make sure that the water is at least two inches over the lids. I then process the jars for ten minutes.

My favorite tools include a funnel designed for jam making and a pair of tongs that tightly grip the jars when I lower them into the water bath and remove them when they have processed.

I put the processed jars on tea towels on the counter and revel in the clink of the lids going tight. Check each lid after about 15 minutes to make sure they have sealed. Never use the same lids twice as they won’t seal safely the second time.

Making jam isn’t rocket science, but it’s helpful to do your homework first. You will be rewarded with jam, preserves, butters, chutneys, and conserves that you’ll enjoy year-around and so will your family and friends. And I can tell you from ample experience, it feels really good to see the jewel-like colors of homemade jam sitting on the shelves or in the boxes. Hot damn!

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Patricia Rain
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Patricia Rain

is an author, educator, culinary historian, and owner of The Vanilla Company (www.vanillaqueen.com), a socially conscious, product-driven information and education site dedicated to the promotion of pure, natural vanilla, and the support of vanilla farmers worldwide. She also does culinary presentations for food professionals, cooking schools, trade shows, food fairs, and private groups, and is a regular radio and TV guest.
Patricia Rain
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