I've done this before. In fact, I've done this a number of times. You'd think I would have learned my lesson by now, but no. When it comes to fresh produce at the peak of its season, especially when I pick it myself, I have absolutely no control. When we lived in Concord, New Hampshire, I took advantage of the abundant local farms that were just a few miles from my house. I picked strawberries and blueberries in the summer and apples in the fall. One year I picked seven pounds of blueberries and made delicious blueberry jam, a perfect blueberry pie and put a big bag of blueberries in the freezer. The following year I picked eight pounds of strawberries and made jam, trifle and pie. I also picked an obscene amount of apples every year. I'd usually pick apples a couple times during the season, which lasts from around Labor Day to early November. Different varieties of apples ripen at different times, which allow you to replenish your supply throughout the season. The early varieties like macoun, honey crisp and macintosh are ready to pick in September. By the time we'd eaten the first batch, I was ready to pick the later varieties like mutzu, empire and northern spy. One year I picked sixteen pounds of apples and I had to get someone to help me carry the bag to my car. I made apple butter that year along with pies and crisps. For three months out of the year, we'd have hand-picked apples in our fridge. They also store well in cool places like the garage.
Here in Pittsburgh, the pick-your-own culture is not as prevalent as it was in New England, but we have found a few nice places for produce that aren't too far away. Its strawberry season and we had a free weekend, so we decided to go pick some fresh berries. When we got to Triple B farms just outside Monongahela, PA, we discovered that they were picking raspberries, blackberries and blueberries as well as strawberries. In fact, it was their final weekend for strawberry picking. We grabbed two baskets for strawberries and one for blueberries. The high bush raspberries and blueberries were closest to the farm stand and tractor took us up into the fields and people got off at their desired destination. The strawberries were the farthest away, up on top of a steep hill overlooking the rest of the farm. It was a hot, sunny June morning and as midday approached, the sun beat down on us as we picked our strawberries. It might seem like a charming pastime but strawberries grow low to the ground and it requires a lot of stooping, bending and crouching to fill a basket. It had rained quite a bit that week and while the fields had a good bed of straw that kept the ground from being too muddy, it was still a little treacherous walking up and down that hill and through the rows of plants. After about an hour in the heat and sun, I was starting to feel a little woozy. The cold bottle of water I'd started out with was warm and almost gone. My husband had disappeared to the far side of the strawberry field and my basket was just about full. I made my way back to the tractor pick-up and rode back to the farm to rest in the shade and wait for my husband to join me.
The thing about berries as opposed to something like apples or vegetables is that they are extremely perishable. If you don't do something with your fresh berries right away, they begin to break down in about 48 hours and after four or five days, you have mush. Later that afternoon, I washed all the berries and put them in bowls so I could refrigerate them. Wow, I had a LOT of berries!!
The next day I made strawberry jam. I'd like to be able to tell you that making jam is difficult, but it's really not. If you've never made strawberry jam before, the best advice I can give you is to follow the instructions on the box of fruit pectin. Every time I've made jam, it comes out perfect for one simple reason - I FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS. Every time I've made jam and it doesn't set well or gets moldy, it's because I didn't follow the directions. You can find all your canning supplies at the grocery store, usually in the spice or baking aisle. Here is what you'll need:
Jars - I like to use small jars, the 8 ounce size. Small jars of jam make great gifts and store easily.
Lids and rings - DO NOT REUSE THE LIDS!! They are hard to sterilize so I always buy fresh lids.
Wide mouth funnel - I can't imagine making jam without this tool. Believe me, you need this
Ladle - to pour the jam from the pot into the jars.
Pot - you need a big pot
Now, I have a system for canning that works really well and it works well because I have a very deep double porcelain sink. I use one side of my sink for sterilizing all my equipment and processing my finished jam. If you don't have the luxury of a double sink or a sink that is deep enough to submerge the jars with at least two inches of water above them, you will need a canning pot and a rack. More on that in a moment
Fruit - You'll need 5 cups of crushed strawberries, which is about 8 cups of whole berries
Sugar - It's a lot, 7 cups, but the sugar helps the jam to set properly. Nobody wants runny jam.
Fruit pectin - You can find this with all the canning supplies. Don't use old pectin, buy a fresh supply
Lemon - I like to use the zest of one whole large lemon and the juice from half of it.
A pat of butter - It's only about a teaspoon, but it keeps the jam from forming foam as it cooks.
Like I said, making your own jam is not difficult, but there are a lot of little things that can go wrong. If you cut down on the sugar or your pectin is old, your jam will not set up properly and will end up gooey instead of jiggly. If you don't boil it enough, your jam will be too liquidy. If everything isn't completely sterile, your jam can form mold and while I've had people tell me you can just scrape off the mold and eat the jam anyway, I don't want to make anyone sick. Following the directions is critical.
canning pot, which is a gigantic pot with a rack that fits inside it. The jars go on the rack and the rack gets lowered into the pot which is filled with simmering water. This sterlizes the jars and lids, heats them up so they won't crack when you pour the hot jam into them and allows you to heat-process the finished product. It keeps the jars from touching the bottom of the pot, which creates too much contact with the direct heat source and could cause your jars to break. If you are planning to make your own jam, pickles or other jarred items every year, this might be a good investment for you. I am comfortable with my own method, but you have to do what works for you.
A sterile environment is of the utmost importance. I start by scrubbing my porcelain sink with a cleanser with bleach. Once the sink is clean, I wash all my jars really well, making sure to scrub the rim of each jar, which is where bacteria can creep into your finished jam. I fill the sink with boiling water and submerge the jars, lids, screw tops, funnel and ladle. Keeping everything in hot water will reduce the chances of contamination. If you are using a canning pot, you can use it to heat the jars and lids in simmering water. No need to boil the jars at this time, just keep them hot while you make the jam. It's best to have everything ready before you start cooking anything.
Once you have your jars and lids sitting in hot water, you can start making jam. I like to measure the sugar into a bowl and have it sitting by the stove so it's ready when I need it. Put the strawberries in a big bowl and use a potato masher to crush them. You can leave a few big chunks but not too many. Measure exactly the amount of crushed berries into a big pot, zest the lemon into it and add the lemon juice and butter, add the pectin and turn the burner on high. You are going to bring this mixture to a full rolling boil, stirring the mixture constantly so it doesn't scorch. I think this is why most people assume it's challenging or time consuming to make jam. It does take a while for the mixture to come to a full rolling boil, but anything worth doing is worth the effort. Just be patient and wait for the right moment. As soon as the jam is boiling rapidly and it doesn't stop when you stir it, dump in all the sugar and mix to incorporate. If there are clumps of sugar, don't worry, the heat will melt it. Let the mixture come back to a full rolling boil, stirring the whole time. Once its boiling as vigorously as it was before you added the sugar, let it boil for ONE MINUTE, then remove it from the heat.
If you are using a canning pot, place the jars in the rack and lower them into the full pot of water. The water needs to come up at least two inches over the top of the jars. Bring the water to a very low simmer, submerge the rack into the water and let the jars sit for about half an hour. Your water should not be boiling, but it should have some little bubbles at the bottom of the pot that rise gently to the surface. Of course, if you are employing the deep sink technique, you have to pour the boiling water over the top of your jars. I will fill the sink with boiling water, then place the jars into it, then pour more boiling water over them. I have a tea kettle and will add more boiling water every 10 minutes, just to make sure the water doesn't cool down too much as the jars process. You may hear the jars pop, you may not. The way to tell if your jars are sealed properly is to press on the lid. If it stays down when you press it and it doesn't pop back up, your jars are pressurized and will store correctly.
I had some different size jars and ended up with nine jars of jam. There was a small bit left in the bottom of the pot, which I poured into a tiny jar and put it in the fridge. This was my test jar, just to make sure the jam set up properly and tasted great. An hour later, I pulled out the test jar and took a taste. WOW, it is scrummy!! Fresh strawberries from the farm really do make the absolute best jam. Making jam is not as hard as you think - give it a whirl and I guarantee you won't be disappointed.