Jamming with pectin

Flash in the Pan

The other day I brought home 30 pounds of strawberries from a local U-pick farm. For those who are unaware of these sorely under-exploited resources, U-pick’s are farms that allow the customers to pick the produce themselves at a discount price. With foodstuffs that are labor-intensive but easy and fun to harvest, like berries and fruit, U-pick works great.

I was the only one in the strawberry patch that day. Everyone else was after raspberries, which are coming on strong. But no berry improves my quality of life like a strawberry, so there I was, pushing the limits of strawberry season to the sweet end.

When I got home I poured the berries into a large pot full of water and began pulling them out one at a time, tearing off the crowns with my bare hands and placing the berries on drying racks, all the while employing the time-honored quality-control method of “eating the suspects” (not the disgusting ones, mind you, just the suspects). Eating the suspects helps you keep tabs on the effectiveness of your selection process. Most of the suspects I ate tasted delicious, indicating that I was erring on the side of caution.

Then I raided my stash of rhubarb, collected in spring when it was perfect, then cleaned, chopped and frozen, and now ready to costar in my strawberry/rhubarb jam.

There isn’t space here for me to walk you through the whole process, but that’s okay, because the wisest thing I could possibly tell you about jamming is that you should simply follow the instructions that come with your pectin.

Pectin, a plant fiber commonly found in the cell walls of certain fruits, is what gives jam its thickness. Each brand of pectin has the potential to act differently, which is why I recommend using the instructions included in whichever pectin you get. You’ll have to be a bit anal about following these directions, or it won’t work. It may still taste good, mind you, but you just might not call it jam.

Most pectin requires massive amounts of sugar in order to thicken, which is a bummer for people, like me, who don’t like their jam super-sweet. Luckily, for those of us who prefer to taste the natural sweetness of the fruit or berry we have jammed, there is a product called “low-methoxyl” pectin. This variety of pectin gels by reacting to a calcium solution that you mix up separately and add to the jam. If this is giving you flashbacks to chemistry lab, don’t worry. It’s actually pretty easy, and it allows you to add as much or as little sugar as tastes right to you. Many stores carry Pomona’s-brand low-methoxyl pectin alongside the other kinds. Or you can order it online at pomonapectin.com.

When I jam, I like the fruit to be as unaltered as possible. So I don’t cut or mash my berries—which makes them difficult to measure—and I cook them as briefly as I think I can get away with. This approach can be problematic when making low-sugar jam, because sugar acts as a preservative as well as a sweetener, and I don’t want problems with undermashed, undercooked, undersweetened berries going bad in the jars.

Determined but clearly in need of guidance, I called the telephone number printed on the jamming instructions that came with my Pomona’s pectin. The number was called the “JAMLINE.”

Alas, it was Saturday and I could only leave a message. But the berries could not wait, so I jammed on. Following the instructions for no-sugar jam, I blended the pectin in hot juice—frozen apple cider from last year—and added it to my berries, which I brought barely to a boil. I added calcium solution, lemon juice and a little sugar to taste, and then processed the jars in a water bath for about half the instructed time.

The next day as I was eating some of my excellent jam on French toast, the phone rang.

It was Connie Sumberg, the JAMLINE operator and, to my surprise, owner of the company—which makes her the first company owner who has ever called me on a Sunday to talk about strawberry/rhubarb jam. She spoke with the slow drawl of someone with a lot of common sense, and I desperately wanted her to approve of my unorthodox and undercooked methods.

After listening to my story, she said “If you see mold in a few months, and the seal on the jar is still good, then you know that live mold spores were sealed inside because you didn’t boil it long enough.”

Can you just scrape off the mold and eat the rest of the jam?

“That’s up to you, it’s a personal decision. In the old days that’s what they did, because they couldn’t afford to throw it away—unless the whole thing tasted moldy. Then you know the tendrils of mold have permeated the batch.”

But when pressed, Sumberg couldn’t recall a single instance of poisoning from undercooked low-sugar strawberry/rhubarb jam. That’s good enough for me, but you should stay firmly in your comfort zone. I push the limits of jam, so you don’t have to.