A couple of entries ago I chronicled the trials and travails I’ve been experiencing while experimenting with making jelly. Little did I know when I decided I should try to make jelly that it was, of course, the most difficult thing to make in the “jams, jellies and preserves” family. I should have known this–if only for the sheer fact that I have this knack for choosing to do things the most difficult way possible. So, it stands to reason that I’d choose to start with the most difficult thing to make in the preserves family rather than choose the easiest and work my way up. Nope. Not for me. Difficulty first!
I don’t know whether this is a conscious choice that I’m not really aware of or an unconscious choice (although those are probably the same thing, der, Dr. Freud!) or what. I think it’s probably more a function of gravitating toward what sounds most interesting to me at the time, which at the time of starting jelly was to try making wine jelly. Also note that I wasn’t starting with some sort of fruit-based jelly, I, of course, started with wine. See–difficult!
Anyway, part of the reason jelly is difficult is because it starts with liquids, not solids. Jelly is made from the juice of the fruit, not the fruit itself. So, it also requires more time, because, if you do it in any sort of authentic way rather than cheat by buying fruit juice, you have to go through this whole rigamarole of making juice, draining it in a jelly bag and then creating the jelly, which seems to always require pectin and sugar. I am curious to know whether jelly can be made without using sugar, say, by using agave or honey as a sweetener so you can avoid the white stuff. If anyone knows, please let me know…
But on to jam. My forays into home canning currently include experiments with jam. Jam, unlike jelly, can be made fairly easily. Now, you can make a quick jam that includes pectin, but it seems most jams can be made without added pectin. (As an aside, The Joy of Cooking actually advocates for making jelly without added pectin, just using the addition of apple juice to whatever kind of jelly you’re making because apples are particularly high in pectin, so even jelly can be done without pectin if you so choose.) Jam can pretty much consist of fruit, sweetener and lemon juice, maybe a little water to get things going (but I’ve seen some recipes that don’t even call for water–Rachel Saunders of Blue Chair Fruit fame doesn’t use water).
What I like about jam thus far is that, as mentioned in my last entry, it’s more forgiving than jelly. I think it’s generally less difficult to mess up unless you let it cook too long and it starts turning gummy. Jelly demands a level of perfection that I tend to have a low tolerance for–it’s ideally supposed to be very clear and pretty. I don’t always do so well with pretty. I like things a bit more rustic, so that is something that is nice about jam, it’s supposed to be chunky and lack uniformity. I’ve never been one for uniformity…
Jam recipes also seem like they’re more easily adaptable. For instance, I started first with two batches of blueberry jam–one made with sugar, as the recipe called for, and then I decided, heck, why not try agave nectar to see how that works? So, I used the same amount of agave nectar in the recipe as was called for sugar and it turned out swell–and according to the nectar bottle, I probably could have gotten away with less. Now I understand why it’s probably pretty easy to make some of those “no sugar, all-fruit” jam varieties that rely on either juice or nothing as a sweetener.
Whereas with jelly, I’m a bit afraid to mess with the recipe since things didn’t gel when I tried to experiment, jam seems like it will more easily lend itself to my imposing some experimentation on it. Which is good for me since I prefer to stray from the exact recipe when I cook and try what I think sounds good. I’ve already taken some inspiration from some of the recipes in Sherri Brooks Vinton’s Put ‘Em Up and Put ‘Em Up Fruit cookbooks on home canning. I see a lot of funky fruit combinations being put together in jams these days, so I’d like to take this a step further and experiment with some herbal combinations. Vinton has a couple good recipes along these lines for Blueberry Basil Jam and Cherry and Black Pepper Preserves. I’ve tried both of these and the blueberry, in particular, is a revelation! It’s pretty freakin’ amazing and well worth trying. So my wheels are spinning in this direction and I hope to share some herb and fruit experiments as I come up with them (see below).
Also worth trying are non-traditional jams. I’ve also made a batch of Vinton’s Fennel Onion Jam–this one combines the savory and sweet and it’s dee-lish. It would make for a great garnish or accompaniment for a cheese plate or for crostini topped with goat cheese–yum!
Now that I’ve made a few batches of jam (loosely) using some actual recipes, I’m feeling confident enough to try making my own without really using a recipe from a book. I also spent some time edumacating (yes, that is a word – at least is is now!) myself with Rachel Saunders’ online jam making class at Craftsy.com. If you’re interested in preserves, this class is well worth taking. Saunders has some very specific tips regarding the craft of jam making (for instance, she only uses copper jam pans for her jams). Of course going to the lengths of getting a French copper jam pan may be excessive for most of us, but I found the online class a really good introduction to Jam 101–she gives a good overview of the basics enough to let you fly from there if you so choose and there’s a built in Q&A function in the class that allows you to post questions at any point during the videos and then Rachel will presumably be pinged by the Craftsy admins and she’ll get back to you with an answer.
Drawing on what I’m going to call the Saunders and Vinton methods, I’ve come up with the Melsted Method. For a basic, very small batch of fruit jam without pectin, I think you can generally experiment with the following combination:
– 4 c. fruit
– 1 c. sweetener
– 1/4-1/2 c. water
– 1/8 c. lemon juice
Using this general method, I came up with this today:
Mixed Berry Basil Jam
– 4-5 c. mixed berries (I used blackberries, strawberries and blueberries – an approximate combo of 1/3 of each for the total)
– 1/4-1/2 c. water
– 1 c. light agave nectar
– 1/8 c. lemon juice
– 1/4 c. basil, chiffonade
1) Wash berries and pick over for any stems, etc. Cut strawberries in half if you so choose.
2) Place berries in saucepan with water over high heat – bring to boil and allow fruit to start breaking down while creating its own juice. You can mash it with a spoon or potato masher if you want.
3) Add sweetener and lemon juice.
4) Cook berries and additions. Fairly soon after you add the sweetener and lemon juice, the mixture will start a vigorous foaming, with large bubbles. (Saunders calls this the pre-gel stage.)
5) Continue cooking mixture, stirring frequently. Eventually, foam bubbles will start getting smaller and will migrate more to the sides of the pan than coming from the middle. Feel free to skim foam if you so choose, but try not to skim too much of the actual juice.
6) As bubbles get smaller, you’ll also notice the mixture will begin thickening – this is the beginning of the gel stage. At this point it’s a matter of cooking it down to your own desired consistency and thickness. The whole process takes approximately 20-30 minutes.
Note: There are various methods you can use to test doneness–from testing the temp (should gel at 212 degrees Fahrenheit) to using putting spoons or plates into a freezer and testing when the jam “smooshes” and gels on the frozen spoon or plate. I sort of used a combination of the freezer and how the consistency of the jam felt as I stirred it with a spoon. To me, when the mixture feels fairly thick with a consistent lack of give as I drag the spoon from side to side, that’s getting close to done. If there are areas in the pan, where it still feels sort of liquid-y and thin, it’s not quite ready. Let it keep cooking if it feels at all runny.
7) When it reaches the desired consistency, turn off. Stir in basil. Let stand for 5 minutes. Skim any foam that’s left.
I’ve found that by the time it reaches the desired consistency, there is very minimal foam left to skim–that’s been my experience, at least…
8) Jar and can using water bath method.
Give it a try and let me know how it goes. And as referenced in the title–this goes well not only with toast, but with a little Bob Marley in the background!