The Best Damn Jam


That’s what Pierre called it when we were charged with choosing one out of twenty entries at the Bowness Harvest Fair on Saturday morning. I tough job, but somebody’s gotta.

We tasted all of them. Some a few times. What amazes me in contests like this is how completely different everyone’s entry is. There was peach, crabapple, nanking cherry, raspberry, strawberry, saskatoon berry and blueberry, and I’m certain I’m forgetting some. (Come to think of it, there was no plum. What gives?) There was apple butter and peach butter and even one chutney. One sweet jelly was made with wine and was meant to be served with goat cheese. Another thick, runny strawberry jam was flavoured with fresh mint and black pepper.

Yet another was named for the Saturday afternoon it was made on. I loved this. I wanted it to win just by virtue of its hand-written label. But the jam inside – thick and pulpy (he too values the nanking cherry and wants to get as much off the pits as possible – yes, it was a man who made it) it wasn’t too sweet, and tasted like fruit. It was a runner-up.

But the best damn jam was the purest raspberry – there is nothing better, don’t you think? Just raspberries, a bit of lemon juice, sugar and pectin, I think. I’m hoping to get the recipe, but really, it’s all about the berries. And I hear this guy (another man! yes! men who make jam!) has a pretty sweet raspberry thicket behind his house. I have envy. I’ve managed to destroy my raspberries, and so far as I can tell, you can’t make jam out of chard.

For the rest of Saturday I cooked for a Great Gatsby-themed party – flapper pies, lemon cakes, pigs in pastry (a reference to the book – homemade sausage rolls), chicken satay with peanut sauce, pesto salmon bites, ham and sweet potato frittata, gruyère gougères. Today Sue arrived to work on our book – we go gangbusters on food photos this week. She came in time for Feast of Fields – such a great event if you ever have the chance to go. And we discovered a sure-fire cure for insomniacs: wine in the afternoon, then several hours of book editing.

So because it’s late and I don’t have a recipe to offer, here’s a recap of a post on jam-making from August of last summer. Because I’m newly inspired by all the wonderful homemade varieties out there, how many entrants were new at it, and how really un-scary jam making can be if you Just Do It. There isn’t much better than toast with your own jam.

Although fruits have been preserved in sugar for thousands of years, people have only in recent decades developed a fear of jam-making. The common opinion has come to be that jam is difficult to make, difficult to set, and will take the better part of a day (or at least an afternoon) to procure. Not so. And although a jar of jam can be easily had at any corner store, it really is worth the effort to simmer some fruit yourself. To simplify the process, fruit + sugar = jam.

If you are among the nervous, take comfort in the fact that runny jam is perfectly acceptable; delicious, even. (I far prefer a loose jam to one that resembles stiff Jell-O.) If it’s exceedingly runny, you have yourself a lovely fruit syrup, one that will enliven pancakes, waffles, ice cream, fresh biscuits and angel food cake – just pretend that it’s exactly the way you intended it to be.

To get all scientific about it: the main components of jams and preserves are fruit, sugar, pectin and acid (such as lemon juice). Fruits vary in their pectin content, but typically under-ripe fruit (such as strawberries with white spots) contains more pectin and acid, both necessary elements for the jelling process. (Fruits higher in pectin include apples, currants, oranges and plums; middle-of-the road fruits include blueberries, raspberries, cherries and rhubarb; low-pectin fruits include apricots, peaches and strawberries.) Commercial pectin can always be used as extra insurance, but isn’t really necessary. Apples (with their seeds) and citrus peels are high in pectin – I’ll often add some to the pot (if I’m straining the mixture to make jelly) or wrap in cheesecloth to simmer, then pull out after the mixture has cooked.

When making jam, aim for 1 cup sugar to every 2-3 cups chopped fruit. This is not as much as it sounds – a great many recipes call for equal quantities of sugar and fruit, so feel free to use more. You’ll want to cook them together, rather than cook the fruit and then add the sugar, as the sugar helps pull water from the fruit but leaves the pectin. Add about a tablespoon of lemon juice per pound of low-acid fruit. (If you’re not sure if your fruit is low-acid or not, add it anyway.)

Bring the lot to a rolling boil and cook, skimming off any foam that rises to the surface, until it thickens and looks like loose jam. (Keep in mind it will firm up as it cools.) To test, either use a candy thermometer (it will set at around 220°F) or drop a spoonful on a small dish you’ve chilled in the freezer. If it sets up into something that resembles jam, and wrinkles on the surface when you push it with your finger, it’s done.

Sugar acts as a preservative in jam and jelly-making, so if you haven’t followed a precise formula and are nervous about properly sealing and processing it in jars, simply store small quantities of jam in the fridge for a week or two (keep a jar for your own family’s use) and freeze the rest – jam freezes beautifully.

Clear as jam?


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26 comments on “The Best Damn Jam

  1. molly
    September 13, 2010 at 1:12 am

    Really? Promise? Can it be so simple? For I am among the most jam-phobic of all…

    I may just consider reversing my position. Oh, they looks so, so, so good…

  2. Jade @ No Longer 25
    September 13, 2010 at 4:26 am

    I can’t stand jam on toast – it’s too sweet and savoury miced for me. Which is odd because I love lemon curd on toast!

    I do love jam with scones though or in cakes, or even spread on digestive biscuits! I’ve not tried making it before mostly because the thought of cleaning the pan afterwards sounds like a lot of effort.

    I may give it a try soon though.

  3. sharon
    September 13, 2010 at 4:54 am

    Some jam makers in my family used paraffin to seal the jars and then we didn’t need to keep it in the fridge until opened. I’m unsure of that process because I don’t do it. I’m going to have a breakfast of jam on krentenbrood buns (is that an oxymoron?) right now. It’s early, but when I can’t sleep for some ache or other, I get up and do something useful. Like make toast. Spread with cultured butter and strawberry jam. It was actually the idea of making chocolate puddle cookies that got me up, but this is quicker.

  4. sharon
    September 13, 2010 at 5:24 am

    Jade, when you’re done making your jam, fill the cooking pot about 1/3 with water, put your used utensils in there, bring it to a boil then put the lid on the pot and turn the heat off. The steam rising and trapped will clean your jammy mess. After about an hour, just pour it out and rinse.

  5. Vivian
    September 13, 2010 at 10:19 am

    Numbers 6 and 7 in the contest looked like lovely jellies. Do you remember what they were? My jellies always seem to turn out cloudy, especially the crabapple though I DO NOT squeeze or even touch the dripping jelly bag. I’ve got some frozen chokecherries to try when things slow down a bit. It’s my favorite flavour.

  6. the other Al
    September 13, 2010 at 12:34 pm

    Live with me….

  7. Stelvis
    September 13, 2010 at 1:49 pm

    Using paraffin isn’t a safe way of sealing jars, just an FYI. You need to freeze or do a boiling water bath.

  8. lynn
    September 13, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    The raspberry jam looks delicious 🙂 I want some. As for Sharon’s comment about using paraffin to seal the jars — that used to be the way old-time canners did it. My husband’s grandma taught me that method about 30 years ago. Today’s line of thinking is that, better than paraffin, if the jars are hot and sterilized, and the jam is hot when you put it in, and you’re using new canning lids with the little rubber rings, you simply ladle the hot jam into the hot, clean jars, screw on the new hot, sterilized lids, turn the jars upside down for five minutes, then invert them. Before long (within the hour) the jars should seal and you should hear a nice little “ping” and your jars are good to go in the cupboard, safely sealed, unrefrigerated, until you’re ready to open and use them.

  9. Laurie in Burnaby
    September 13, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    We used to seal jars with parafin in NZ, where it was considerably hotter than here. It worked a treat.

    I don’t make jam, because I have so little use for it (a jar of excellent marmalade lasted 5 years) but I do love the look of colourful jars all in a row.

  10. Karen
    September 13, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    My Opa got me started on toast with jam and a slice of cheddar-the cheese gets gooey because of the warm toast and really brings out the flavour of the jam.

    Ps as this is harvest season, if anyone has zucchini, Julie’s Choc. Chip Zucchini Brownies from her One Smart Cookie book are a MUST!

  11. Avery
    September 13, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    This post reminds me of the episode of “Friends” where Joey gets obsessed with homemade jam (which he eats with a spoon)…

  12. sharon
    September 13, 2010 at 5:28 pm

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen homemade jam that wasn’t in some jar reused, nor have I ever seen a woman in my cooking life hot-water bath her jam. I re-use too, however, I do freeze, taking care to leave expansion room, and to tell my giftees how to keep it. I also make an antipasto that I freeze and do buy new jars for that because I give them as Xmas presents, handing one or two to my host/ess as I cross the threshold.

  13. eroica
    September 13, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    Mmmmmmm. Nanking cherry jam on a brown rice pancake with a glob of vanilla yogurt…for me it easily displaces maple syrup.

  14. Robyn
    September 13, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    julie you truly changed my life with the skillet strawberry jam. i used the same method with raspberries and peaches, and each turned out great! thank you!

  15. Tina
    September 13, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    I’m always happy to see the prune plums from BC at the market which I make into a beautiful jam with enough Grand Marnier in it to make it really interesting. In our house it is called first date plum jam as that is what my husband and I did on our first date (I had a case of plums going fast in the basement)! Last year I made a mistake with adding the sugar too soon and the plums were turning into plum leather, so I scooped out the solids and was left with this amazing plum syrup we use for pancakes, fruit salad, ice cream etc. The best cooking mistake ever and I’ll likely never be able to repeat it.

  16. Barb
    September 14, 2010 at 11:12 am

    I love jam, too. I make it now and then but for now my Mom is the Queen. You name the flavor; she makes it (almost). As easy as it is to buy a jar of really good jam; it is very satisfying to make your own really good jam.

  17. Delishhh
    September 14, 2010 at 11:15 am

    Wow – that simple? I will have to get some rasberries now 🙂

  18. Hettar7
    September 14, 2010 at 5:01 pm

    I did this with blackberries and sugar. stored it in my refrigerator for forever. And it was good. Very good. And it was easy. So very easy.

  19. Aimee @ Simple Bites
    September 14, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    I have the perfect palate for the job. Why can’t anyone ask me to do judge a jam contest??

  20. Darlene
    September 16, 2010 at 11:03 am

    Hello Julie, how are you? Will you and Ned be back for It’s Just Food? I just got the Viva channel a few months ago, so I was looking forward to many more episodes of your show. I enjoy watching It’s Just Food. If you have time please feel free to email me as I love the recipes you have on your site and on your show.

    Take care and happy cooking & baking,

  21. Michael Cormier
    September 26, 2010 at 11:47 am

    Hello. I am the proud maker of jam #3, the winning raspberry jam at the Harvest Fair, and was just told by my neighbour, the maker of the Nanking cherry jam, that we were both featured on this blog.
    Julie said that she’d like the recipe so here it is, although, if you want your jam to gel into jam instead of fruit sauce, I think it’s as much about the procedure as the ingredients. In order of appearance:
    8 cups fruit
    1 tbsp. lemon juice
    1 package of pectin
    4 cups sugar

    – stir and crush the fruit together with the lemon juice over medium high heat until it begins to boil.
    – stir in pectin and bring back to a boil.
    – stir in sugar and bring to a rolling boil that cannot be stirred down. Let it boil for 2 minutes.
    – remove from heat and put into hot, sterilized jars.

    If you don’t use pectin, your jam won’t gel.
    If you don’t use enough sugar, your jam won’t gel.
    If it’s fruit sauce you’re after, do what you want.

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