Have you ever read the children’s book, “If You Give a Moose a Muffin” by Laura Numeroff? It’s about the silly calamities that happen when a moose comes to visit. “If you give a moose a muffin, he’ll want some jam to go with it. So you’ll bring out some of your mother’s homemade blackberry jam.” And on and on it goes.
This summer, I lived out my own moose-and-muffin story: If you give Nancy a bunch of fruit, she’ll turn it into jam. And not just one batch of jam; she’ll make jam week after week all summer long. Each day started with five to six pounds of fruit I bought from local Virginia farmers and foragers—strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, peaches, wineberries, and grapes. Using whatever else I had around in the kitchen, I created jam flavors like strawberry and lemon, peach and chilis, salted blackberry basil, and my favorite, salted concord grape jam. It was velvety, intensely flavorful and surprisingly salty. One bite and I thought about all the yummy things I’d serve it with, like sourdough toast, cheddar cheese, roasted duck, on a snack board, and of course, peanut butter!
My house is still littered with over a hundred small jars of homemade jam. But, here’s a funny factoid: In my 20-plus years of being a food editor for a major magazine, I never made jam. I edited dozens of jam, jelly, and preserve recipes, but I’ve never experienced the hand’s-on process of making jam on my own. So this summer, I learned so much about making jam at home—and I'm here to share four takeaways.
1. You Don’t Need to Add Pectin
My favorite jam is made without pectin—the store-bought kind that comes in powdered or liquid form. I prefer to make jam with just fresh fruit, lemon, and sugar. Jam made without pectin is a little softer and looser than jam made with it. Instead, adding a finely chopped granny smith apple could be a helpful thickener. Underripe green apples supposedly have the highest natural pectin levels. When you aren’t adding pectin, you need time—a slow boil that may take 20 to 30 minutes—for the moisture in the fruit to evaporate and the jam to thicken.
2. Think Before Cutting Down on Sugar
You may be tempted to cut down on the sugar in a recipe. But sugar is tricky! You must be careful because sugar helps the jam thicken and it naturally deters bacteria from growing—it's great for a longer shelf life.
3. Have You Tried Freezer Jam?
I prefer making freezer jam! It is easier—less intimidating than going through the process of water bath canning. After the jam cools, I simply transfer it into clear freezer jam jars. I use five-ounce glass baby food jars. Freezer jam can be kept in the freezer for up to 12 months. It’s not shelf stable and must be frozen or refrigerated. To serve, thaw the frozen jam in the refrigerator. Once opened, it can be stored in the refrigerator for about three weeks.
4. If You Can, Support Local
I purchase organic fruits and try to honor local Virginia farmers and foragers that grow and find heritage fruits whenever I can. I know I'm more likely to get better quality fruit that tastes better. For example, I make jam with wine berries that grow in the Appalachian Mountains nearby from Thor Mountain Bristol. They are tiny, but can do big things! I am also working on a version using tart green “June” apples from an old roadside apple tree.