Prior to this summer, I had never done any real canning. I’d made small batches of jam, quick pickles and such, but never the whole big cauldron of boiling jars, sealing lids, hoping for no botulism, etc. I don’t know why: maybe fear of improper preserving and an irrational paranoia of spreading some nasty food-borne illness to my family and friends. Craziness, right? Well, this summer I conquered my fear. Afterall, my Nanny Yetman makes The. Most. Incredible. Raspberry Jam. in the whole wide world. Something about those pesticide-free Newfoundland berries. My Mom used to bring back big jars from Newfoundland, which she would package up in a gazillion layers of bubble wrap to send to me in Chicago. My Aunt Noreen in B.C. cans everything: seedless (!) wild blackberry jam, smoked salmon (from the Queen Charlotte’s!), salsa, tomato sauce, all manner of delicious condiments. She could probably write a dissertation on canning. With all this good family canning mojo, I figured surely I could make a few jars of decent jam.
It all started with plums:
My next door neighbor Cindy has a huge plum tree in the backyard. A few weeks ago, she brought over a big sack of plums, and then another sack and another sack. Well, you get the picture. Even with two little fruit monsters in the house, we had more plums than we could possibly eat. So, I got into research mode—the internets (Food in Jars is a very helpful site), the library, interviews with brave canners, etc.—and studied up on canning. As it turns out, botulism is extremely rare in high acid foods like fruit jams when you follow good canning practice. And canning fruit jams is pretty easy: sterilize jars in boiling water, make jam (this is the most challenging part), fill hot jars with jam, put them back into the boiling water and boil them for 15 minutes or so (depending on altitude), take them out of the boiling water and listen for the satisfying pop of the lids that tells you: “Don’t worry; you aren’t about to poison your family.” Well, that’s good to know.
I decided to make jam without using commercial pectin, because you have to use a very high proportion of sugar when using pectin. For my first batch of plum jam, I used:
- 9 cups of chopped plums
- 3 cups of sugar
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- the zest of a lemon
I let the plums steep in the sugar while preparing the cans. This helps to bring out the juices. Then it’s just a matter of patiently simmering and stirring until the fruit begins to gel.
When the fruit initially comes to a boil, it starts to release a little foamy “scum” (terrible word, no?). Every single recipe I read said to spoon off this scum, as you would when making chicken stock. I never did find out why, but I dutifully spooned off the foamy stuff. This is what the jam looks like after about 10 minutes of simmering and stirring:
At this point, I used an immersion blender in order to make a completely smooth jam. The plum skins get incorporated and give the jam its gorgeous color. After 20 minutes of cooking time, I started testing the jam to see if it had gelled.
I used the cold spoon test to check the jam. You put a spoon in the freezer for a few minutes and them dip it into the jam. When the jam has set up, it will coat the spoon and form slow drips that cling to the edge of the spoon:
The plum jam took about 25 minutes to reach the gel stage. I ended up with 4 half-pint jars, one of which was consumed almost immediately.
I went on to make another batch of plum jam in which I used even more plums and less sugar. It didn’t thicken up as much. The consistency was more like a thick sauce: perfect for pouring on yogurt and ice cream. Then my neighbor across the street had a bumper crop of apricots, so I made some apricot jam, which turned out amazingly good. I used the following ratio for the apricot jam:
- 6 cups of apricots
- 4 cups sugar
- 1/3 cup lemon juice
The apricot jam gelled up faster than the plum jam and I kept the jam chunky (no immersion blender). I ended up with 4 half pint jars.
I have learned the canning is not scary at all. It feels so wholesome and good to preserve summer fruits in all their glory. If I can do it, you can totally do it.