I made jam today. Seriously. Made. Jam. Myself! I know!
For some bizarre reason, there is a whole host of knowledge out there that I was raised to believe was a) arcane (why know how to make jam when you can buy any kind you want in the store, at any time of year?), b) somehow beneath the well-educated career woman that I would surely turn out to be. Just like, why on earth would you bother?
So there's a great deal of attitude adjustment required, as I become more and more interested in reclaiming some of these tasks. Okay, I still can't really muster up a whole lot of enthusiasm for cleaning -- vacuuming just isn't one of those homey arts I like to take pride in -- but I now can see the true value in cooking, baking, and making things (clothes, toys, etc.) for my family from scratch.
As I've learned from my recent research, one of the key ingredients to being able to eat locally (whether that's just buying food grown within a 100 mile radius, or actually growing your own food) is preserving the harvest for the long months when there *isn't* any local produce. There are myriad ways to do this, of course, from freezing to pickling to smoking, but I decided to start simple. Jam. What could be simpler than jam?
Well, truly, it is surprisingly and amazingly simple, but for some reason it has this aura of something that only grandmothers with centuries of kitchen folklore behind them could possibly get right. And of course, looming over the head of the would-be novice is the possibility of, oh, poisoning your family with improperly processed jam. But, hey, no pressure.
First, I found this extremely helpful how-to (oh, thank you, internet). And then I pored over the instructions on the inside of a box of pectin from the supermarket, and after a few days of thinking it over, decided I was ready (gulp).
Step 1: Acquire fruit. For the true preserving-the-harvest experience, we went to a pick-your-own farm and, well, picked our own. Thankfully, they had thornless blackberries, so the experience was painless and... well, quite delightful, actually. We filled a basket with blackberries, and then I had to ask the cashier to repeat himself twice because I couldn't believe how little they cost. Let's just say that those tiny little containers of blackberries you get at the grocery store are roughly ten times more expensive than the ones we had such fun picking. And, I have never, ever tasted a berry so good. It took superhuman restraint not to eat all the berries before we made it home, let alone got ready to make jam.
Step 2: Acquire other supplies, namely jars, pectin, and sugar. I got jars at the grocery store that were, in retrospect, way too big. I should have bought the adorable little half-pint jars, but instead I got 12 ounce jelly jars because they looked so retro and quaint. Oh well, lesson learned. Pectin comes in a box and costs like $2. And then I got a 5-lb bag of sugar just in case I didn't have enough in the house (turns out I didn't need it, but it won't go to waste).
Step 3: Find a really tall pot. I happen to have a stock pot that is really tall -- it may have been a lobster pot at some point, not that I've ever cooked lobster. Set that on the stove with a whole lot of hot water in it, and bring to a boil.
Step 4: Put the jars and lids in the boiling water to sterilize and to get them hot enough so the hot jam won't crack them.
Step 5: Mash the berries up. This part was quite fun and messy, and of course required assistance from my four-year-old sous chef. We ended up with not quite enough blackberries to make a half recipe of jam (hmm, I guess we nibbled a few more than I thought), so I mushed up some raspberries too. Yum.
Step 6: Cook the jam. I poured the precisely-measured crushed berries into a big saucepan and stirred in the pectin. Turned the heat to high and brought it to a "rolling boil," which happened surprisingly fast. Stirred in an insane amount of sugar -- in my case, it was 2 1/2 cups of crushed berries to 3 1/2 cups of sugar. Day-um. Anyhow, I brought it back to a rolling boil for precisely one minute, per the "Sure-Jell" instructions, and took it off the heat.
Step 7: Fish the jars out of the pot of boiling water without burning yourself (success! tongs are a lifesaver with this part), and pour the hot jam into the hot jars. Fill to within an 1/8 inch of the top, and secure the lids. I should have had the exact correct amount to fill 3 12-ounce jars, and I almost made it... my third jar had a good 3/4 of an inch of space at the top. I sealed it anyway, hoping it would still work.
Step 8: Gently lower the jars into that huge pot of boiling water you've still got going. My instructions said something about a canning rack and blah blah blah, but I just popped them into my good ole lobster pot. Boiled for precisely 10 minutes (again, per the "Sure-Jell" directions), and fished them back out with those handy tongs. Apparently one can buy "jar tongs" that are specially designed for this task, and I can see the usefulness if you were doing a lot of canning. But seriously, regular tongs and a dishtowel worked just fine.
Step 9: Allow the jars to cool, and check the tops to make sure they're sealed. Verdict: all three of mine are sealed, even the not-quite-full one! Woohoo!
The total kitchen time was maybe 45 minutes, start to finish. I wish someone had told me it was that easy! So now that I know that this is completely do-able for someone of my level of kitchen prowess, I'm eager to experiment with other kinds of preserves. It seems ridiculous to buy $5 tiny boxes of berries at the supermarket for the purposes of canning them -- the whole point is to preserve the things you have way too many of to eat. I have a lot of cucumbers coming along right now, so maybe pickles? Who knows. But the point is, I have penetrated the veil of mystery.
Tomorrow, I will spread some on some of my own home-baked bread, and contemplate just how rarely I get to eat something that I have been so fully involved in creating.