I did not realize how lucky I’ve been with my jam making experience in the last year. Every jar was a little reminder of seasonal fruit at their height of freshness captured in jiggly spoonfuls. This week I finally met my match with two consecutive batches of strawberry jam that refuse to set. I am now the owner of ten jars filled with strawberries in deep garnet syrup with a hint of mint, tarragon, and basil. The faint herbal note is the perfect counterpoint to the sweetness of summer strawberries. Alas, they are so runny the best that I can do is to call them conserve!
What you see in the photo tells a different story. That was my first batch of strawberry jam in 2011 made two weeks ago. It was a lovely soft set that mounds just enough on the spoon to be delightfully spreadable on my morning toast. Perhaps good thing comes from when I least expect? I had a small basket of strawberries left over from the premium ones I picked over for rumtopf. Instead of eating them out of hand, I cooked them into two 250mL jars of jam. I wasn’t even particularly mindful of what I did. It was a simple matter of macerating the berries overnight in sugar 40% of their weight with lemon juice, brought everything to boil, removed the berries, boiled the syrup to 218F, and finished cooking with the berries until gelling point. I could not believe how easy it was despite all that I read on the difficulty of strawberry’s low pectin content.
My success with that first batch of strawberry jam armed me with confidence to make more. Many many more. But not in the exact same manner. I wanted to improve upon success. I did my share of reading on the importance of never overcooking the berries to avoid the dreaded cooked berry taste. I read all the tips and tricks to minimize cooking time while avoiding the use of commercial pectin. I macerated, boiled, and chilled the berries two times over. I carefully drained the syrup, added unfiltered apple juice and lemon pips to boost the natural pectin content. I cooked the syrup to an exacting 220F before adding the berries for a brief 5 minutes cooking time. Despite all that thoughts and efforts I poured into the cooking process, my strawberry jam refuse to gel.
I cleaned up my kitchen and stared at my jars in defeat. Some of the runny jam found a second life as patriotic popsicles that beat the taste of any popsicles I ever had. But I don’t want a whole year’s supply of popsicles. Jam is what I want and jam is what I will get. Last night, I examined what I did differently between success and failure. I think the key difference is the lack of cooking time for the berries themselves. Silly me, forgetting my science in the thick of things! Pectin is released when the cell walls break down. Without adequate cooking time for the berries, of course the measly amount of pectin remains intact inside the fruit. I will try again tonight and I hope all this frustration will come to a satisfyingly jammy conclusion. (Edit 07/07/2011: It gels! Jam success is mine!)
Learning from my mistake is great but I also crave guidance from the more experienced. This Saturday, I will attend a strawberry jam workshop hosted by a fellow member of my CSA. She is a certified master preserver and I hope to gain lots of knowledge from the class. One of the most intriguing topic that she’ll cover is the use of honey in lieu of sugar. Honey has a distinctive taste depending on the type of blossoms and of course the terroir. However, cooking this natural sweetener also destroys the delicate taste easily. I can’t wait until Saturday for many of my questions to be answered!