Sunday, August 1, 2010

Jamming and Canning Update

So, I got brave and tried jamming this summer. 

So far I've tried both freezer jams and cooked/canned jams and am loving it, though not every try has been an unblemished success.  However, even my failures are reasonably tasty so I'm not worried about it if I have less-than-perfect results.  That's the fun part about jamming!

I just bought a whole bunch more fruit to do some more this week, and have plans for late-season fruits for the end of the summer and fall.  Hope I have enough storage space!!

Freezer Jam

Because they sounded easier, I started with freezer jams.  Oh my goodness, I TOTALLY fell in love with them.  I think I like them even better than cooked jams, frankly.  Freezer jam just tastes so FRESH, like the real fruit itself.  In the middle of winter, it will be like having a little bite of summer to cheer me up.  Yummmmmm.

So far I've made a bunch of batches of strawberry freezer jam.  Made most to use as gifts for teachers and friends at the holidays, and made a couple for ourselves.  I'll be making more for ourselves because I love strawberry freezer jam so much!  Definitely worth the time and effort.

I was also impressed with how easy freezer jam is.  Truly, you can be a total kitchen klutz like me and still do freezer jam "right."  It's pretty no-brain, honestly.  You wash and chop up your fruit, combine some sugar and pectin with some water and bring it to a boil, then combine that into your chopped fruit. (Exact methods vary slightly by pectin brand.) Pour into jars and cool for a day to let it set, then freeze it.  It's just that easy.

That said, some fruits lend themselves to freezer jam better than others.  Strawberry freezer jam, as I mentioned, is absolutely outstanding and super-easy.  Recently, though, I tried blueberry freezer jam and was not as impressed.  I think the flavor would be better if the blueberries were cooked, but I still have yet to test that theory out.  So a lot will depend on the type of fruit you want to use.

I just bought some Bing cherries so we'll see how cherry freezer jam turns out.  While I love the taste of fresh cherries, I'm not a big fan of cooked cherries. I'm hoping cherry freezer jam might just taste enough like fresh cherries to make it more palatable to me. If not, more Christmas gifts for friends and family!
But although results vary by type of fruit, I am a HUGE fan of freezer jams.  And they are so easy, anybody can do them.  Trust me, if I can do it, anybody can.  Run on down to your local farmer's market, get some fruit, and give it a try!

Low Sugar vs. Full Sugar Jams

A word about sugar and pectins before we go any further.  I started with Sure-Jell, available in nearly all grocery stores. It comes in two kinds --- low-sugar and regular.  I bought both, to see which I'd like better.

The low-sugar kind has more concentrated pectin so you don't have to use as much sugar to preserve the fruit, but you can also use it with artificial sweeteners if you'd like.  I prefer not to pollute my body with artificial chemical stews, so I'm not a fan of artificial sweeteners.  However, even with just the sugar alone, the "low-sugar" pectin recipes have plenty of sugar in them, trust me.  I can't imagine using the full-sugar versions for freezer jam!  I think that'd be just too sweet. 

So if you are doing freezer jam, I recommend the low-sugar pectin boxes.  It's got plenty of sugar in it, even in the low-sugar version.  And since it's freezer jam, you don't have to worry about having enough sugar in it to keep it from going bad. 

For the canned (cooked) versions, you can still use the low-sugar recipes, but they don't keep as long.  Sugar inhibits the growth of bacteria so if you use the low-sugar kinds, you can't keep them long-term.  So if you are canning and preserving in order to have emergency food on hand (or you don't anticipate using up your supply within a year), it's better to go with the full-sugar version. 

Cooked Jam

I never did find a canning class in my area, so I ended up inviting a friend of mine over to teach me how to process cooked jam properly. 

We made cooked jam together earlier this week, and it really was quite a bit more work than the freezer jam.  Not a huge amount, mind.....but there was quite a lot of stirring and standing over a hot kettle.  Fortunately, it was a cool day so it wasn't too bad., but there was a lot of stirring.  If you made a lot of batches, that would get old pretty quick, so it's good to have a helper nearby who can take over when your arms get tired.  (Trust me, they will!)

The canning part was really not that hard; I don't know why I was so anxious about it.  However, she did an abbreviated version of the process so I still haven't had the "full" training yet.  Doesn't sound as hard now, though, so I might attempt it on my own.

Our results with this first batch of cooked jam wasn't the best, though.  I think we did everything "right" but the jam didn't "set" (get firm).  It looks like ice-cream sauce sloshing around in the jars. (I'm not sure what went wrong; I'm thinking that perhaps we overcooked it by accident, which can interfere with the action of the pectin.) So I'm bummed about that but realistic that things don't always come out perfectly.

There is a way to try re-setting the jam; directions are on the pectin boxes.  I'm debating whether to try that or just leave it runny; I'll probably gather my courage and try to fix it.  [Anyone have any wisdom for me on that, other than to read the directions on the box?]

Different Brands of Pectin

One thing I learned is that all pectins are not alike.  A friend of mine recommended Pomona Pectin, which is made a different way (from citrus, not apples) and works in a different way (interacting with calcium instead of sugar).  Because of this, it is powerful enough that you can get away with using a lot less sugar in their recipes. 

I like the sound of that....even with the low-sugar versions of the Sure-Jell recipes, it was still an awful lot of sugar and tastes overly-sweet to me.  If I can find a way to decrease the amount of sugar yet still have a great-tasting jam, I'd like that.

[No, I'm not trying to lose weight, nor am I diabetic. I'm just not a big fan of a lot of excess sugar. I have PCOS and am insulin-resistant, so I try to be reasonable....not going sugar-free but not overdoing it either. I usually buy low-sugar jams (without artificial sweeteners) or fruit-only jams to lessen the carbs and get more fruity goodness.  I just think it's healthier, especially for someone like me with insulin resistance.  So that's what I'd like with my homemade jams too.]

If Pomona Pectin can help me make regular or freezer jams that have even less sugar yet still taste good, I'm all for that.  You can even use honey, agave, stevia, or concentrated fruit juice to sweeten your batches if you prefer. I like that kind of flexibility and will be interested to see if I can come up with a fruit juice-sweetened or lightly-sweetened jam that's as good as the store-bought kinds.

Another advantage is that Pomona Pectin can be used to make double- or triple-batches, which you're really not supposed to do with the other pectins.  Oh, and it's a lot more economical.  Costs a little more upfront than Sure-Jell, but makes a lot more batches from the same amount.

Unfortunately, Pomona Pectin can't be bought in a lot of regular grocery stores (some natural food-type stores carry it), so I'm continuing to use regular pectin until my source of Pomona Pectin (a food co-op) gets their supply in again.  If you don't have a local food co-op or natural-foods store that carries it, you can always order it from Amazon

Future Plans

Another thing I learned is that it's difficult to grow enough of your own fruit to both eat it fresh and have enough for preserving. It basically means that I will be buying (or picking) fruit from elsewhere for jams and keep my home-grown stuff for fresh eats. That's a little disappointing; I had dreams of canning up my own fruit exclusively. Bzzzzzt. Need to plant more trees/plants if I want to do that in the future....but not sure if I really have the time to care for all that. I'll have to ponder that some more. For now, I'm going to have buy most of my canning fruit from local farmers.

I'm going to be making some more strawberry freezer jam this week, and trying cherry freezer jam too.  I hope to fix my runny cooked jam as well, then re-can it. I'd like to do more, but it's shaping up to be a busy week this week, so I need to be realistic about my time constraints.

Another thing I really want to try is chutney or grilling sauces.  These combine fruits with savory ingredients like onions, vinegars, garlic, and spices. Doesn't sound that appealing, I know, but it truly is. It's really good when baking or grilling meats, either while cooking them or as an add-on afterwards.  And it's truly divine with chicken curry.....yummmmm.

I'm also contemplating buying a dehydrator and learning more about dehydrating fruits, but I'm not sure if I'll have the time or money to really pursue this right away.  We'll see how the rest of the summer goes.  Things usually start getting busy soon so this project may wait for next year.

Tomato season is just starting so I will be roasting tomatoes soon.  I've got my own home-grown onions and garlic this year to add to our homemade freezer spaghetti sauce.  I loved that so much last year that I plan on doing a LOT more this year.  Super easy and super tasty!!  And a quick and easy meal in the middle of winter, which is always welcome on busy days.

So that's what I've been up to, canning-wise.  I think in learning about this, the key has been to respect your personal learning style, to understand that you don't have to learn it all at once, to know when to follow recipes exactly and when to experiment, and to give yourself permission to learn in small stages.  Just like with kids.....start with baby steps and go from there.  You don't have to become an expert overnight....and I'm not, that's for sure!

If anyone out there is interested in trying any of this, as a fellow newbie I'd recommend starting with strawberry freezer jam.  The results are really exceptional and the process couldn't be easier.  The more you do it, the more organized you get about doing it, so pretty soon you get it all down to a science and can do it very quickly.  I can do mine in 30 minutes or so. 

Then if you want to learn more from there, you can.  Or you can stop and still have lots of fruity goodness in your freezer!

**If you have any experience fixing runny cooked jams, using Pomona Pectin, or have any good recipes for chutney or grilling sauces, I'd love to hear from you!  Or tell me what you are up to in YOUR garden and kitchen this summer.

***Art by Kustodiev, 1918, found at Wikimedia Commons.


Tami said...

Some james will still set up and thicken more just as they sit on your shelf--I have some that appear to be pretty runny, but when you open the jars they're really not that bad. I was a big fan of freezer jam until I got more comfortable with canning, and now I only do the cooked/canned jams. I find they're easier to give away as gifts, and they don't take up my valuable freezer space. My #1 reason for canning jam is being able to avoid HFCS and having more control over what goes into our bodies.

Chutti Pen said...

Jammers- I like THAT!

Echoing less experience with Freezer jams-just not got the space, and like to give jams as gifts. We just picked up three jams we had entered in the county fair. We got 2nd place on the elderberry, which is really spectacular. Whaddoo they know?

Hubby and I will be making several batches with neighbors plums later today. Think you are on the right track with method. Pectins tend to vary less than your individual fruits. Have you fooled around with acid and how that affects pectin? Often a quick reboil with the addition of a couple tablespoons of lemon juice will re-activate the pectin.

How do you check for set? do you just do the "sheet test" with the spoon drips, or do you keep a cold plate in the freezer and add a spoonful to it and check in about 5 mins? The plate method is more reliable. And yes, once in a while you get a better set after things sit overnight. You'll get a feel for it the more you do it.

We pretty much do jam intuitively. A cup of sugar for each cup of fruit, plus one tablespoon acid ( lemon juice for sweet, vinegar for savory). One box pectin per 4 cups fruit. You'll find out what works for you.

I want to learn to make these Greek Spoon Sweets:

In the meantime, we are going to try putting up whole plums with cardamom and ginger ( to be served savory with main dishes).

Keep at it-it's fun!

Anonymous said...

Jams can be tricky to get to set right, it requires following the directions on the pectin box EXACTLY. However, while some will be runny for the first few months, you will notice that they get thicker the longer they sit on the shelf.

It is not the sugar that prevents the bacteria growth when jams are canned, it is the canning process itself. I have canned all kinds of fruit without any sugar, even berries which get real mushy when canned. You could cook the fruit and can it with absolutely no sugar and it would be fine, just not "jam". I have more trouble with jars not sealing correctly when I make jam vs anything else. I may not be getting the rim clean enough or not leaving enough headspace, who knows.