Last week a friend of ours gave us a bag of plums from the tree that I had planted between our yards back when we lived in Aurora. And while many were ready or close to ready to eat, quite a few were still tart since the fruit has to be picked before full ripeness or the squirrels will get it all. So what else would you do with a full bag of tart fruit? Make Jam!
Trouble is, the last time I was jamming was back when I was in high school and rode a dinosaur to get around. Well okay... maybe it wasn't quite that long ago, but a woolly-mammoth might not be out of the question. My mother and I made quite a few batches and variations of our family recipe that my grandmother used to make called "Winter Jam".
Why was it "Winter Jam" you ask? Because it was made with frozen strawberries and canned pineapple. Both available easily in winter when fresh fruits were either unavailable, or prohibitively expensive. Of course, this being the only recipe that we hand on hand, we adjusted it for fresh fruits and berries (both massively available in Georgia), and made it into a double-batch with varying results.
And while this recipe could probably be turned into a plum jam, I have had several problems with it never getting a good set, or jell/firmness, when I have made it in the past. And while most things that claim to be low-sugar make me squinch up my face like you hit me with a yucky stick, jams are the one area that can be so sugary that it makes my teeth hurt. And fruit is so sweet to start with, maybe a low-sugar could still be good?
So to the Google-mobile! And several days of jam research. Yes... I am that much of a geek.
While the internet can be helpful for a lot, sometimes it can provide too much information until you feel like just eating all the tart fruit and kicking the idea of jam to the curb. But, perhaps just because my streak of stubbornness runs about 10 miles wide, I pushed through and sifted a thousand articles on jams, recipes, canning in general, and even the history of jam making.
In case you don't want to spend two full days going cross-eyed just to enjoy a little jam, here is a short list of other important things I learned about jam making. Please excuse any errors and put corrections in the comments... I was at this for two days and very confused through half of it...
- Making up your own recipes for jam can be very difficult, doubling can be perilous since there is an upper limit to how many jars will probably set right, and even adjusting recipes can result in a runny mess. However, newer pectin options can give hope to those that want to get creative with their jam, jelly, and marmalades without a scientific degree or a dozen generations of experience in jam.
- Old-fashioned jam recipes call for one-to-one or higher ratio of sugar to fruit. That is a LOT of sugar, but there were reasons for that.
- Pectin (the thickening agent) was made from apples, and later became commercially available, and binds to sugars. Not enough sugar meant a runny syrup instead of firm jam.
- Low sugar jams are a relatively new thing. Because the set, jell/firmness, of a jam or jelly was based on pectin that bonded with sugar, you either had full-sugar jam or a low-sugar syrup. However, modern times come with modern innovation, and a new pectin that is citrus based became available. This pectin bonds with calcium instead of sugar, so low, or even no-sugar jams can be made while still having a nice firm set.
- While the acidity in fruits help preserve the jam, the largest preservative in jam was the sugar. Not enough sugar meant that the jam would need more processing to be shelf-stable, and not last as long after opening.
- Processing in a water-bath canner is now recommended even for high sugar jams. Why, when I just killed all the bacteria and/or mold by boiling the heck out of the jam for a few minutes? Spores.
- Mold spores take a much longer time in boiling temperatures to be killed than active mold or bacteria cells. Even the spores present in the air can get on top of your jam as you pour, cover, and close the lids. Full sugar jams help prevent spores from making mold by limiting the available moisture, but especially in low-sugar jams, the added processing time in the boiling water-bath, with the jars already closed, kills the spores that might have gotten in your jar with the air as you filled and closed them, or might have not had enough time in the preparing boil of the jam to die.
- So... What is a water-bath canner? While you can look it up and find a "Water Bath Canner" for ridiculous money, and even electric ones for more money, it is in fact... just a big pot. Yep. That is pretty much it. A big covered pot that you can put some kind of rack in the bottom to keep your jars off direct heat and cover fully with water and boil for the needed time based on your altitude. The rack in the bottom can even be made out of canning lid rings and/or a cooling rack or splatter screen. I even found some people who only used the lid rings zip-tied together for their rack.
- How big of a water-bath canning pot do I need? Enough to put a rack of some sort in the bottom, your closed jars on top of that, and an inch or two of water on top of that. So... if your stock-pot is common sized, you might need to look for short jars, or a cheap taller stockpot.
Of course, the thought of trying to water-bath can my jams at near 9000 ft made me a little bit queasy. I mean... one of the hardest things to do up here is boil water. Seriously? Seriously.
The lack of air pressure means that boiling takes a lot longer than at low altitudes, and our gas stove means that too much of the heat escapes around the sides of the pot. A double whammy that means I don't often cook anymore, let-alone make something that will need to boil for 30 to 40 minutes for every batch of jam. (Only 10 minutes for you sea-levelers.)
So I debated the merits of low-sugar, full sugar, water-bath, and bothering at all for many sleepless hours, and finally decided that since the several "Guessapies" (made-up recipes that I was only guessing would turn out right) that I had prepared were mostly based on low-sugar pectin, that I would try one in the water bath and change all the recipes to full-sugar if the water-bath proved impossibly annoying.
Then I kind of felt like an idiot when my very large stock pot about 1/3 filled with water started boiling sooner than anything I had ever cooked up here. Boom... Boil! Why? The size of course. The base of the pot was so large that all the heat from the gas burner was applied directly to the pot with none escaping around the sides and the thin metal sent that heat immediately into the water. (Now if only I could find a giant skillet made the same way for under $200.)
I used a few jar lid rings in the bottom and then put a splatter screen with the handle bent back on top of them to give a flat surface for the jars to sit on. The splatter screen held bubbles in place, so it ka-blooped loudly as the bubbles came together and forced their way around or through the screen, but it worked.
So my water-bath canner was an easy success, and I did the water bath process even on the full-sugar jams. I think I will get a rack to prevent the ka-blooping when I make my next Amazon order as they come in many sizes and types and this one is only $3.68 and can be used as a steamer rack for my pot as well... Steamer Rack
To clean and sanitize my jars I washed them and their rings in the dishwasher with the "Heated Dry" which kept them warm for several batches of jam making.
The flat lids must be boiled to sanitize and soften the gum edge that makes the seal from jar to lid.
Really, the hardest part was pitting and chopping and blending fruit and preparing the lime zest into perfectly sliced slivers. However, with some time, a counter-height bar chair, and a blender, it wasn't really hard work at all... though the lime zest was pretty annoying. About half-way through the lime zest slicing, I have to admit to wondering if all that work would be worth it.
After one taste of the first jam and that perfectly sized zest gave my tongue a little smack... it IS worth it. Oh... baby!
This little bit of heaven... Low Sugar - Cinnamon Candy Apple Marmalade (Recipe Made Up by TinkerT)
I also tried to make our family recipe Winter Jam with Certo liquid packets, but even reducing it back to a standard batch resulted in a less firm set than I hoped for. So I think from now on I will be going with Ball Low Sugar Pectin even for my full-sugar recipes. Hubby helped me make 6 batches on Saturday, and one on Sunday... all different flavors... and I plan on making three to four more flavors on Tuesday. Yep. That is a lot of jam... but it is soooo yummy!
Now for those of you who just want to be jealous of my jam making prowess, you can turn away and go about your lives... because the next post is a full how-to for making these amazing jams and marmalades.
- Plum Delicious Preserves (Ball Standard Recipe adjusted for tart plums)
- Strawberry Coconut Jam (Recipe Made Up by TinkerT)
- Low Sugar - Coconut Cherry Crunch (Recipe Made Up by TinkerT)
- Low Sugar - Cinnamon Candy Apple Marmalade (Recipe Made Up by TinkerT)
- Extra Low Sugar - Tart Cherry Lime-alade (Recipe Made Up by TinkerT)
- Low Sugar - Cinnamon Limeade Crunch (Recipe Made Up by TinkerT)
- Winter Jam (Strawberry and Pineapple) (Family Recipe Adjusted for Ball Low Sugar Pectin by TinkerT)
Note: I used this Ball Pectin Calculator
to get an idea of what the pectin/fruit/juice/sugar ratios should be for jams and jellies that were similar to what I wanted to make and then made best guesses as to what would work for my recipes. I printed the "Guessapies" and made notes and changes as we went, so now I have firm recipes for making them again.