I don’t know why, but making jam gives me an immense sense of satisfaction. Seeing the ingredients come together, simmer down into that thick, delicious mixture, and then admiring those lovely rows of jewel-tone jars…I love it. And with fruit now coming in fast and furious, this is jam-making season.
I’ve been doing jams and preserves for a few years now, which means I’ve learned quite a few things, the most important being: most jam recipes are terrible. I don’t even use recipes anymore, I just go by instinct, what I know I and my husband like (not too much sugar), and flavours I know go together. And it’s working out pretty well for us.
Thinking about giving DIY jam a try? Here’s my advice:
1. Don’t take any recipe as gospel. Jam, unlike, say, cake baking, is not a precision science. You can mess around with flavours and ratios a fair bit. You do not need special sugar for jam, and if you’re clever about your fruit combinations, you don’t need to add pectin either. Pair low-pectin fruits like cherries, strawberries, and raspberries with high-pectin fruits like currants, plums, or citrus and you’ll be fine. You can also add an acid, like lemon juice, which helps draw out the fruit’s natural pectin.
2. Reject any recipe that calls for more sugar than fruit. Unless you have a serious sweet tooth, you should never put in more sugar than fruit. You’re just making sugar jam at that point (consider, too, that fruit has quite a bit of naturally occurring sugar). Too much sugar completely masks the flavour of the fruit, which renders the whole jam pretty pointless. I prefer to actually taste my fruit, so I put in slightly less than half the fruit’s weight in sugar. Worked like a dream.
3. It’ll take longer than you think. Most recipes I see laughably claim that the jam will reach setting point in just a few minutes. Bullshit. It takes at least a good 15 minutes of simmering for your jam to reach setting point. Though, if you are using pectin, this might go a tad faster. I can’t say for sure, since it’s been a while since I bothered with pectin, and even then, it was the liquid type.
4. Setting point tests are kinda unreliable. Recipes will tell you to pop a couple of small plates in the freezer and test your jam by dropping a bit on the plate, leaving it for a minute or two, and see if it crinkles up when you shove it with your finger. I’ve gotten this to work exactly once, and it was only after I tossed the plate with the jam on it back in the fridge for a bit. And the jam (actually, it was marmalade) wound up setting far too hard. So, I don’t really bother with the plate test. Or temperature. I’ve heard that 220 degrees is the setting point for jam. I’ve never ever ever had a preserve hit 220. Not even when I boiled it for almost 40 minutes. It always seems to stall right around 190. And guess what? It turned out fine.
For testing jam, I mostly use instinct. You’ll start to notice that the mixture looks much thicker as it’s bubbling away, and if you dip a spoon in, it’ll begin to coat said spoon fairly thickly. If you can draw a line down the back of the spoon with your finger and the jam doesn’t run back together, that’s a really good sign it’s done. Go ahead and pour it into your sterilised jars. And if you later realise it wasn’t quite done, just pop it back in the pan on the stove for a little while longer. Jam’s pretty forgiving that way.
5. Get sealable jars. For a country that’s as into jam making as Britain, I’m surprised by how hard it is to find sealable jam jars. You know the ones I’m talking about—the small-sized mason jars. I used to be able to just pop down to Ace Hardware for them, but I haven’t found them in any stores over here. Oh, you can get jam jars with plain screw-top lids, and really massive sealable jars, but if you want the smaller ones, you have to order them online. It’s worth it, though. Apparently, jam is ‘sealed’ in jars over here by putting a little waxed disk over the hot jam. Guess what? That’s useless. Maybe I did it wrong somehow, but I lost several jars of marmalade to mould because those disks did nothing to prevent contamination. So, this time I ordered the sealable jars. If you’re not going to be eating the jam in the next couple of weeks, it’s worth it.
Got any jam-making advice? I’d love to hear it!
½ kg (1 ¼ lbs) raspberries, fresh or frozen
225 g sugar
Juice of ½ lemon
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
Fresh hot pepper of choice, to taste, chopped fine (I used Scotch bonnets, but then, we really love our spicy in this house)
Mix raspberries, sugar, and lemon juice in a pot and leave for about 40 minutes to an hour, to macerate.
Add the ginger and hot peppers and place the pot over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Bring the mixture to a boil, skimming off some of the foam that rises to the top (no need to go completely nuts here, if you miss some of the foam, it’s fine).
Lower the heat to medium and simmer the jam for about 15-20 minutes, until it starts to bubble thickly and coats the back of a spoon.
While the jam’s cooking, sterilise your jars and lids either in the dishwasher or in boiling water. You can also do this in a low oven, but it takes a couple of hours, and who has that kind of time?
Ladle your jam into the sterilised jars. It will be quite liquid at this point—fear not! It will thicken further as it cools. If you’re using the little waxed disks, put them shiny-side down on top of the hot jam, making sure there are no air bubbles beneath. Screw on the lid tightly and store in a cool, dark place. If you’re using sealable lids, screw them on and process according to package instructions (about 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath should do it). Sometimes they can take up to an hour to fully seal outside the water bath, so don’t panic if the top button doesn’t push down right away. If after cooling down completely the lid still hasn’t sealed, try processing it again or use another lid.
This versatile jam is perfectly good on toast or a crumpet, or you can serve it with sturdy meats, like venison. Marvellous on a venison burger!