Strawberry Jam

Old Ritual Signals Sweet Start of the Season

Strawberry jam was always the beginning. Each lazy summer of my childhood, the litany of preserving the season’s bounty always began with strawberry jam. I was reminded by my mother in early June that strawberries would certainly be ripe for my grandfather’s birthday (June 15) and that we would be heading out to a nearby farm to pick as soon as they were ready.

Strawberries were soon followed by sweet cherries, sour cherries, raspberries, plums, currants, apricots, pears, peaches and apples. In the middle, of course, came cucumbers for sweet, dill and bread-and-butter pickles. And later, canned tomatoes, chutney, corn relish, even sauerkraut. Our basement cellar shelves, fi lled with empty glass canning jars by spring, soon gleamed again with the reds and yellows and greens of the preserved harvest.

My mother did most of the work, so for me it was fun— picking, pitting, stirring, licking the spoon. For many years after I married and moved away, much of Mother’s summer labor found its way into my pantry. But at some point I realized that I needed to learn how to make the preserves my family had come to love. It began with strawberry jam.

For several years after moving to Cleveland, I would time one of my visits to my mother in Michigan so that I could bring back a haul of ripe strawberries from the farmers’ market to make my jam. It slowly began to dawn on me that driving from Cleveland to Ann Arbor for sweet, ripe strawberries was crazy. And so it was that my involvement in the startup of the North Union Farmers Market began with strawberry jam. Mother made three completely diff erent kinds of strawberry jam, including one that “baked” in the sun for about a week until the juice was a thick, deep sangria red and the berries were fi rm and intense with strawberry sweetness. But our favorite, and the easiest to make, is this simple cooked jam.

For one batch, here’s what you need: Start with about 3 quarts of fresh, ripe strawberries. (Strawberries do not ripen after they have been picked so be sure you get ripe berries to begin with, either by picking them yourself or buying them from a farmer.)

You will need 7 cups of cane sugar (I know it’s a lot, but that’s jam for you).

And you will need 8 half-pint jelly jars with lids and screw tops. I put my jelly jars in the dishwasher and wash them when I start the jamming process.

Gather ’round your helpers to begin hulling the berries. Cut off the green caps (called calyxes) and crush with a knife or potato masher. (I have an ancient aluminum measuring cup that cuts through the berries nicely.)

Measure 5 cups of crushed berries in an 8-quart heavy enamel cook pot and begin to heat to a boil. If you like added citrus fl avor, this is when you can add ¼ cup of lemon juice. Gradually stir in one 3-ounce pouch of liquid pectin (available under brand names like Certo at most grocery stores in their canning supply aisles). Continue cooking to bring the mixture to a full rolling boil. You can add a bit of butter to reduce the foam.

At this point, you should have a shallow saucepan slowly boiling in which to sterilize the lids and soften the rubber on the seal. Put the lids into the boiling water.

After the berries and pectin have come to a full boil, add the sugar and stir constantly until the mixture returns to a full rolling boil again and boil for 1 minute.

Remove the jam from the heat and retrieve the hot jars from the dishwasher. Spoon the hot jam into the jars, leaving about ¼ inch of space at the top. Wipe the top of the jar clean and dry of any slopped jam. Use tongs to take the hot lid out of the boiling water, set it onto the jar of jam and screw down the lid. Repeat the process until you have fi lled the jam jars. Any leftover jam can be eaten immediately or saved for toast in the morning. When your jars are fi lled and cooling on the counter, listen for the gentle “pop” as the cooling jam creates a vacuum in the top of the jar.

Jam can be stored in the pantry until next strawberry season, if it lasts that long.