Making jam is probably the easiest and quickest preserve you will ever make. It’s like an intro to preserving: it’s all about peace and love and there is no such thing as a #jamfail. Even the jams that don’t turn out perfectly can be rebranded into something totally delicious, and everyone will still think you’re amazing! Runny jam: hello, ice cream topping or pork chop glaze! Super thick jam: hello, awesome cookie filling! Making jam is fun, delicious, and allows for those creative inspirations. It doesn’t have to be assembly-line huge, unless you want it to be, and it definitely doesn’t mean that your kitchen will end up looking like a jam-splattered Jackson Pollock painting (unless you’re me and you try making mountains of jam while you’re in the middle of a renovation and have a screaming toddler pulling at your pant legs. Then your kitchen will be a disaster. Sorry).
The history of me. And jam.
I had always thought jam was this big procedure that left your whole kitchen stained with sticky berry residue and resulted in 79 million jars of jam that you’d have to store until the apocalypse. When my husband and I bought our first home, it came with some lovely old concord grape vines. I waited all summer for those deep purple jewels to sweeten. All I could think about was my childhood love of Welch’s grape jam and how much better my jam was going to be because the grapes were mine! I had this romanticized image in my head of rows and rows of grape-filled jars lining my pantry shelves. I couldn’t stop thinking of those pb&j sandwiches that I was going to eat and eat and eat! I was geared up for serious homesteader-style canning! That first harvest I canned 96 jars of grape jelly and jam. 96, people! And that didn’t even begin to put a dent in the grapes! It took days, and days, and DAYS, of purple stained fingers, cheescloth bags caked with grape skins, and sticky, drippy trails leading from the garage and back to the kitchen again. We lived on grape jam that winter. And the next. And everyone got jam for Christmas and New Years and birthdays until we noticed people weren’t inviting us over anymore. It was a jam-ageddon. It was huge and it was entirely exhausting. I had made the mistake of preserving waaay more than I’d ever need (in fact, I still have some dusty, old jars of grape jam in my basement…). You’d think that this would forever end my jamming affair, but it did not.
You see, even though we were still living high off the grape jam hog, strawberry season came, and then raspberry season, both of which saw my kitchen in a state of jam-making upheaval: all those jam covered spoons, sticky, spotted floors, and as always, more jam that we’d ever eat in 10 years of living on sandwiches!
I thought that this was how jam had to be made. It had to be bushels of berries and pounds of sugar in order for the jam magic to work. It wasn’t until in a fit of frugality, I attempted something crazy: a taste test of sorts, that forever changed the way I saw jam production.
The joy of the small batch jam
This is like jamming Xanadu. Did you know you can make a single jar of jam? One pot, really, and you don’t have to double boil it, unless you want to save it. You can cook it in like five minutes, pop it in your fridge, and eat it over the next week or so. You can make enough for a few pieces of toast, or even for that brie you’re going to bake right now. This is perhaps the greatest thing about small batch jam: you can test out a jam idea you have without committing to the time and cost of a larger batch. I have found that some of my best jams have come out of these small batches where I’ll use up fruit that’s kicking around in my fridge, or bits and bobs of a backyard harvest that’s too small for any larger scale production. All you need is a basic ratio and then you can double, triple or quadruple it and if you love it and would like to make a bunch of jars to keep in your pantry (or save for bartering purposes later…it could happen!)
So what exactly is jam and how do I get this ratio thing?
Jam is just fruit and sugar boiled together until it gets nice and thick and sticky. The sugar breaks down the fruit and the fruit releases a natural pectin that thickens the mix. The end result is that goopy goodness that makes a peanut butter sandwich so sweetly complete. A typical fruit to sugar ratio is 2:1, meaning 2 cups of chopped fruit to 1 cup of sugar. However, depending on variables like the sweetness of the fruit, the natural pectin level, or the desired outcome of the jam, sometimes that ratio can change. This is where the small batch comes in handy: you can play with your ratios until you get a jam you really like.
Adding less sugar:
Even though jam is totally easy, it’s also a science. You know when you make hot chocolate and you take that little package, dump it in the cup and then add hot water? If you were to only add 1 tablesppon of water, you’d have a hot chocolate paste. If you were to add 1 litre of water, on the other hand, you’d have brown water that kinda tastes like chocolate on the back of the palate somewhere. If you’ve made hot chocolate before then you know there’s a little wiggle room for the hot water: a bit more or a bit less, depending on how chocolatey you like your drink. Sugar in your jam recipe works kind of the same way. Although many recipes will call for a 2:1 ratio of fruit to sugar, you can play around with your sugar level by adding a bit less. My best advice on this is trial and error in small batches. But you could probably safely remove 1/4 of the sugar amount without adversely affecting the results. An important thing to keep in mind is that sugar acts as a preservative. And if you are looking to keep your jam for longer than a week, that sugar is necessary for keeping the jam from going rancid.
Acid is a must:
The pH level of your jam is important. The very least you will ever have to know about jam is this: in order to keep your jam from developing bacteria like botulism (yup, it’s still around), you have to add some acid, usually in the form of lemon juice. The acid bumps your jam’s pH level up which helps keep those bacteria at bay. This is especially important with lower pH fruits like peaches and strawberries. The added bonus is that lemon elevates everything, in my opinion. It’s really good at cutting that sugary sweetness and bringing out the natural flavour of the fruit.
What the heck is pectin?
Pectin is what causes your jam to gel. Powdered pectin is super easy to use and is basically foolproof, but it’s not always necessary (and I’m saying “not always” because some more fragile flavours need much less boiling down, but for the sake of my life and my love of boiling stuff ,I don’t use powdered pectin!)
Pectin is found in all fruits, and as the fruit ripens some of that pectin dissipates. I have made the mistake of using the juciest strawberries and culling out the ones that were firmer or still had some white on them. Don’t do this! Super ripe fruit have lower amounts of pectin and if you’re not using a powdered pectin, this can stop your jam from gelling (don’t be me!). Those little whitish blueberries, and itty-bitty strawberries that are greenish are full of pectin, which will help your jam get all jammy and won’t’ make it taste bitter. I promise!