Strawberry jam for beginners

Mastering the art of homemade strawberry jam isn't as mysterious as it seems, as long as you follow these three simple tips.

Owen Thomas
Homemade strawberry jam is often a surprising bright-red color that eventually dulls to a standard jam-red after a time. Properly processed, the jam will keep for a year.

Homemade jam seemed so difficult and mysterious to me, something that could only be achieved after a career of trial and error littered with batches that failed to set. But the closer my wife and I moved to places that had nearby fields advertising "pick your own strawberries" – cheaper and therefore more tempting to acquire in mass quantities – the more the idea of making jam grew in my mind. I was determined to master the art of jam-making.

I had little family expertise to draw on. I had eaten homemade jam, but never had stood at the elbow of someone making it. I imagined a sweaty, daylong ordeal in a kitchen filled with steam and lava-hot strawberry slurry. But I knew someone who came closer than anyone else I knew to being the grandmotherly salt-of-the-earth Downeast Maine kind of home cook. If I asked her nicely, surely our friend Kathy would guide me through the arcane world of jam.

Kathy proved to be a willing mentor. She sent an effusive, detailed letter, single spaced with narrow margins. She said she’d tried everything over the years, from traditional recipes, to freezer jams, to “quick and easy” methods. She had used every variety of commercial pectin, and said that she (or at least people she knew) could taste the difference among them. Her wisdom, the fruit of decades, gave me courage. It was simple, too:

1. Use Sure-Jell pectin.

2. Use the Sure-Jell recipe in the box and do exactly what is says. (In other words, do not gasp at the amount of sugar you’re going to dump in and decide to use less because “that can’t possibly be right – 7 cups?” Yes, it is.)

To Kathy’s advice, I add the obvious No. 3 for the beginning cook:

3. You need special equipment for this, and a well-equipped kitchen. That means your first batch may cost a lot more than the equivalent amount of store-bought jam. Think of it as part entertainment, part investment, part making Christmas gifts, part delicious concoction that makes you feel good about yourself every time you triumphantly open a jar, and part getting in touch with your pioneer forebears. I think it’s worth it. And if you have access to a kitchen and can follow directions, you can do it.

What you'll need

1. Canning jars, with bands (the things you screw onto the jars) and lids. Use new lids, and don’t reuse them. Eight 4-ounce jars or four 8-ounce jars for one batch.

2. A giant kettle (canner) into which you can submerge the finished, sealed jars of jam all at once to simmer, covered with 1 to 2 inches of water, for 10 minutes. The canner has to be at least 3 or 4 inches taller than the jars you’re using, as the water level will rise when you add the filled jars. I use a big spaghetti kettle. Having a lid helps.

3. A 6- or 8-quart saucepan in which to heat the strawberry-sugar-pectin mixture. Use a big one; you want to avoid splatters. Wear long sleeves and closed-toe shoes. Use a long wooden spoon to stir. The sugar-strawberry liquid has a higher boiling point than water. Keep little kids well away. You’ll need a small saucepan, too: After you wash the lids, you put them in the saucepan and pour boiling water over them.

4. A jar-lifter. I don’t know what I did before we got one. I think I used kitchen tongs and swore.

5. A plastic jar funnel is a revelation. You don’t have to have one, but I highly recommend it, even if you only ever make one batch. (Jars and paraphernalia are available at big grocery stores and hardware stores.)

6. A strawberry huller, metal ladle, and metal spoon (for skimming off the foamy scum – you’ll never get all of it, but it will make a difference if you do your best for a minute or two before ladling the jam into jars). I’ve already mentioned the long-handled wooden spoon for stirring. At least one kitchen towel, to put the jars on when you fill them.

7. A potato masher and bowl for roughly squashing the strawberries. You could also pulse them in a food-processor. (Do not purée!)

8. A 4-cup wet measure, a 1-cup dry measure.

9. Cleaning supplies, for afterwards. I had to wash the kitchen floor twice. Use cold water to rinse any spilled jam out of cloth dish towels; hot water may set the stain.

Strawberry jam

From Sure-Jell, makes 1 batch, fills eight 4-ounce jars.

2 quarts of strawberries

7 cups of white granulated sugar, which is most of a 5-lb. bag. (Astonishing. But delicious.)

1/2 teaspoon butter or margarine

1 box of Sure-Jell pectin

1. Bring boiling-water canner, half-full with water, to simmer. Wash jars and screw bands in hot, soapy water; rinse with warm water. Pour boiling water over flat lids in saucepan off the heat. Let stand in hot water until ready to use. Drain well before filling.

2. Stem and crush strawberries thoroughly, one layer at a time. Measure exactly 4 cups crushed strawberries into 6- or 8-quart saucepot.

3. Add sugar; stir. Add butter to reduce foaming. Bring to full rolling boil (a boil that doesn't stop bubbling when stirred) on high heat, stirring constantly. Stir in pectin. Return to full rolling boil and boil exactly 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Skim off any foam with metal spoon.

4. Ladle immediately into prepared jars, filling to within 1/8 inch of tops. Wipe jar rims and threads. Cover with 2-piece lids. Screw bands tightly. Place jars on elevated rack in canner. Lower rack into canner. (Water must cover jars by 1 to 2 inches. Add boiling water, if necessary.) Cover; bring water to gentle boil. Process 10 minutes. Remove jars and place upright on towel to cool completely. After jars cool, check seals by pressing middle of lid with finger. (If lid springs back, lid is not sealed and refrigeration is necessary.)

Other tips:

I began picking strawberries at 10 in the morning and had two batches of processed jam in jars, cooling on a dishtowel, by 2 p.m. That includes picking, driving, and lunch. I picked six quarts (should have reread the recipe first). I made a third batch later that afternoon, and had almost a full quart of berries left. I still don’t know how that happened.

I’ve never bothered with wax. The hazard posed by handling the fruity equivalent of napalm is enough excitement for me, and you do not need the wax seal.

Happily, bringing the jam to a rolling boil takes much less time than I thought. This time I used a wide (12 inches) but deep saucepan, and it took about 12 minutes on high heat (gas stove)  after I’d stirred in all the sugar. Be ready to dump in the powdered or liquid pectin quickly, and you’ll need to time 1 minute. I had a stopwatch.

The resulting jam is often a crazy bright-red color that eventually dulls to a standard jam-red after a time. Properly processed, the jam will keep for a year.

Did I say wear long sleeves and closed-toe shoes? Keep young children away and out from underfoot. They could stand or kneel on a chair and hold onto the back of it, perhaps. But not too close!

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