Saturday, 15 September 2012

Opinions from the Kitchen: Berry Jam Without Additives

Every time I look for jam in a store, I spend a good fifteen minutes standing in front of the shelf, reading the back of the bottles and wondering why in the world you would need so many thickeners and preservatives for something as simple as jam. Doesn't anyone just sell fruit and sugar in a jar? Apparently not. I figure it's always in the manufacturer's best interest to make people believe their product is too complicated to reproduce at home.

This is not the case for jam. Our grandmothers made it using stuff from the back yard. To make my own better-than-store-bought berry jam at home, all I use are berries, half an apple, a lemon (or lime), and some sugar.

The lemon did not show up to have its picture taken - pretend it's there

These berries are from the local farmer's market. I like to keep things cheap, healthy, and environmentally sustainable. There are quite a few ways I try to do that.

I don't buy special jars

I've never actually bought preserve jars. People never return them once they've eaten the jam anyway, and if I did this I'd find myself having to buy new ones every year. There are many types of glass jars that you can reuse.

Mason jars are the classic choice for pickling and preserving at home. They've been around forever, so they're easy to get ahold of, their quality is assured, and most grocery stores carry replacement lids and rims. Often if I buy preserves at a local market or specialty store, they'll come in Mason jars. I keep the jar and metal ring. Voilà, a reusable jar. I always replace the round sealing part of the lid (single use only, they rust!), but everything else can be reused hundreds of times as long as the glass doesn't get chipped. Other good sources for Mason jars are garage sales, estate sales, and the dusty sections at the back of mom's cupboards.

Specialty stores will often sell products from small producers who buy jars in bulk (you can tell this because the lid doesn't have anything printed on it). They're probably buying decent jars. If they are made from thick glass and have sturdy metal lids with an unstained plasticized interior, I keep them. On the other hand, I stay away from brand name manufacturers' jars. They're custom made for one time use.

I toss any jar that has small cracks or chips. If the rim is chipped, chances are the jar will not seal and what you put inside will be wasted. If the jar itself is cracked or chipped, the pressure from high heat might cause it to explode. Bad news! I also toss lids with any remote sign of rust. After all that, I'm usually left with enough glass jars accumulated over the year to make a couple of batches of home made yummyness.

I don't buy pectin

Pectin is naturally found in fruit and it's what allows preserves to gel. Raspberries and many other berries already contain some. Apples and citrus fruits contain a bunch. You can use this naturally occurring pecting to thicken your jam by making your own pectin from apples. (No fancy apples needed, you can use crab apples - raid a tree in your neighbourhood!) Or you can do it in one step and just cook down the jam until the naturally occurring pectin kicks in. This is why I add some apple and lemon juice and/or zest.

Before it reaches its boiling point, I squish my berries into a bright red fruit & sugar mush. When it starts to boil, the volume increases and it becomes frothy. I used to fill my pot up to the top to make as much jam at once as possible, but it tended to bubble over and make a mess at this point. I've learned to make more batches of jam, using less fruit at a time.

Once all of the pink froth is reabsorbed, the jam turns a deep dark red. At this point I let it boil for 20-30 minutes, checking to see how thick it has gotten every 5 minutes or so.

To check thickness, I keep a plate in the freezer and drop a small spoonful onto the cold plate in order to cool the jam down quickly. That makes it easy to tell how thick it will be at refrigerator temperature. When I like the thickness, it's ready to be poured into sterilized jars.

I don't have a canner

A canner is basically a large pot in which you submerge your full jars for boiling, to kill any bacteria that might make the contents go bad. They actually sell special pots for this, and some of them cost a lot of money. They also take up a lot of space for something you only use a few times a year. To me, this seems like a waste.

If you're making jam to have at home, and you have some extra freezer space, you can skip this step entirely. Once the jam has cooled, pour it into airtight freezer safe containers and freeze until you're ready to eat it.

I often make jam to give away, and I don't have much freezer space, so I do process mine in boiling water. I use a regular stock pot, which can fit 8 small jam jars or 3 large pickle jars at a time. The only difference between a stock pot and a canner is that the canner comes with a rack to hold your jars. The rack serves two purposes: one is to keep your jars from being in direct contact with the bottom of the pot. To replicate this, I just grab a large handful of forks and spoons from the cutlery drawer and spread them at the bottom of the pot. The second thing it does is easily lift the jars out of the boiling water. I've found that you can accomplish this just as well using silicone tongs and oven mitts.

I've found Ove Gloves to be super useful for canning because they insulate well without restricting motion. I use them to securely hold boiling hot jars and screw on the lids. Careful though, they're not waterproof! If you spill boiling water, you will not be able to get the gloves off quickly enough to prevent a serious burn. If there's a chance of boiling water getting in, big silicone oven mitts are a better choice.

One afternoon in the kitchen was all it took to make jam to last us the rest of the year. I ended up with one batch of raspberry, and one batch of raspberry-blueberry (my all time favourite). The overall cost (berries, apple, citrus, sugar, and Mason jar sealing thingies) comes to just under $5 per jar, which is about what you'd expect to pay for good jam anyway.

Kitty can't resist a photo opportunity


  1. This is a fantastic idea! I am never thrilled to see so many additives in things you know shouldn't have them.
    Would you consider linking this up at my Pinworthy Projects Party? I hope to see you there!