Friday, April 15, 2011

Strawberries

Our local store recently had a big sale on strawberries. Being the frugal shopper that I am, I bought 10 pounds.
We decided to make one batch of strawberry jam. If you have never canned anything before and you want to give it a try, strawberry jam is probably the easiest thing to start with. You can buy pectin at the grocery store, usually near canning jars or/and vinegar. It will probably tell you on the outside of the box how many strawberries you need, but it will likely be about 2-3 pounds. Detailed directions will be inside the box. I've used powdered and liquid pectin. All things equal, I prefer powdered, but I get liquid if it works out to be cheaper (just be aware that liquid pectin usually comes with 2 pouches in a box, and with some fruits you use one pouch and with some you use two. If you go with powdered, you will use one box for each batch of jam or jelly. If you want to reduce the sugar content, you will need special reduced sugar pectin).

So the first step was to wash and cut up the strawberries. I cut enough to make one layer in my bowl
Then I took out all my frustrations on them with a potato masher

I kept repeating these two steps until I got the amount of mashed fruit my brand of pectin called for. Then I covered the container and stuck it in the fridge, because I have 3 kids now and definitely don't have time to do all this all at once anymore.

I ended up using 2.5 pounds, so I cut up the other half pound and put them in a container with a little sugar and threw them in the freezer. They're ready to go next time I want to make crepes or pancakes or waffles and need fruit topping.

Later that night, when the big girls had gone to bed and we only had one little person to look after, I pulled the strawberries out of the fridge. I washed my canning jars and put them in a large pot of water on the stove to stay hot. I got out lids and rings and also put the lids in a small pot of water on the stove so they would be hot. I made sure my ladle, canning funnel and jar lifter were out. Quick note: back when we started canning, I was extremely resistant (foolishly) to spending any money. I did manage to fill A LOT of jam jars with no funnel and a regular cooking spoon. I don't recommend it, but it's possible. A ladle and funnel are cheap though and well worth having, I was wrong to put off that purchase.

With everything assembled, I mixed the strawberries and pectin in a large pot and stirred constantly over medium-high heat until it was at a rolling boil. You can add a small pat of butter too to minimize foaming later on, but I haven't seen a huge difference when I do that.

There is a lot of sugar in jam. Did you think it was so tasty because it's healthy or something?

Once the strawberries/pectin were boiling, I dumped all the sugar in at once

And stirred, stirred, stirred to mix it in. Continued stirring until it came back to a boil

Notice how much it foamed up when it boiled, this is why you need a big pot. Once it boils, it needs to continue cooking for 1 minute.

There is also benefit to learning to recognize when jam is done on your own. If you under cook it, it will come out runny (though sometimes it sets up more if you just leave it alone for a few weeks). If you over cook it, it will come out very stiff. Now, jam that doesn't set up CAN be reprocessed, and the pectin directions will tell you how to do that, but it's better to get it right the first time. Some books will tell you about putting a drop of jam on a cold plate to test it, but by the time you go to the trouble, you can overcook the jam. Better to learn what it looks like hot. The jam will start to "sheet" off the spoon. I tried to catch a picture of it...the drops will join each other instead of being thin enough to drop off on their own



Once the jam is done, remove it from heat, stir a bit more to settle it down some, and you can skim the foam off. I just use a cooking spoon to do this and I don't get every last bit. Here is the pot when I was almost done skimming
And here is all the foam I took off
Ladle hot jam into hot jars, top with a hot lid and screw a ring on finger tight. This is not the time to have children under foot. If you missed it, everything you're working with must be hot and there is ample opportunity for someone to get burned if you're distracted. For this reason, almost all of our canning is done after the kids are in bed. If they are up, one of us does this on our own and the kids aren't allowed in the kitchen. They can watch from a distance and learn the process, but they're still too little for me to feel safe directly involving them in this part.

Then process in a boiling water bath for the appropriate amount of time for your altitude.

You may notice our fruit "floated" to the top a bit. This is generally a no-no (if you're going to be entering the county fair or something like that). I've never been able to prevent it completely, but I've read it helps to chop the fruit smaller and really crush it. Whatever, that sounds like more work to me and while a blue ribbon would be nice, the jam tastes the same on a PB&J, so I'm not real bothered by it.

Just a note, the technique will be a little different for liquid pectin, so be sure to read your directions. The method of putting wax on top of the jars is no longer recommended and is much more likely to cause spoilage. The inversion method (where the jars were filled, then inverted until they cooled instead of being processed in boiling water) does work, but only if you do everything just right. Even then, the seals tend to be weaker, so a boiling water bath is recommended because it is more fool proof.

Jam has a high enough sugar content to make it more resistant to mold growth anyway, plus boiling water baths are easy, so this is a nice place to start with canning. It's not quite as intimidating as pressure canning vegetables.

The rest of the strawberries I bought were either eaten fresh or turned into fruit leather. Strawberry fruit leather is another easy thing to make. It takes about one pound of berries to make one tray of leather on our dehydrator. Just wash and cut up the berries, puree, add sugar or honey if you want, and dehydrate. It's just like doing the peach leather I blogged about except strawberries don't require peeling, added lemon juice and are less likely to need sugar.

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