There are few activities more soulful than staining your lips with berry juice and giggling with friends in the berry patch while sweat tickles your brow beneath a relentless summer sun. Or, jammin’ and cannin’ with a gaggle of aproned girls in a modest kitchen, as pots of jam seethe with Regina Spektor on the speakers and dollops of near-finished preserves land in our cocktails. This is summer, this is life, this is bliss. As each lid pops open in the winter, these memories rush into the kitchen with such vitality, inspiring sheer and utter gratitude for our hard work, foresight and the gift of good food.

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Preserving fruit was a seasonal staple in our family. As soon as the strawberries blushed, we knew we were in for several months of u-pick! Mamma would load my three siblings and me into the Suburban, and we’d head to the nearest fields for a harvesting extravaganza. We were her worker bees, repaid in fruit and finger-lickin’ pots of jam.

Take a few minutes to read this rich and useful guide to making your own preserves. My goal is to help debunk myths about the complexity of preserving fruit, and bring joy and awareness to a time-honored practice that pleases our taste buds, nourishes our bodies, builds community, and yes, even creates Christmas gifts in a pinch. Though preserving food requires a generous time commitment (at least half a day – or seemingly less with friends), the rewards are priceless.

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Step 1: Berry-picking!

The simple art of making jam begins with a quintessential tradition: harvesting ripe fruit from the earth – dripping with sweet, seasonal nectar. More hands make light work – with four friends we picked twenty-five pounds of strawberries in less than an hour at Silver Queen FarmPickYourOwn.org and localharvest.org offer copious databases to help you find a u-pick farm near you. If you can’t make it to the fields for every fruit, or at all, stop by a u-pick farm stand and buy ready-picked fruit in bulk. It will cost a bit more than sweating in the field, but will be more affordable than the same quantity at the grocery store with a fresher, tastier zing!

If you can’t make jam right away, you can freeze your fruit and make jam later (see below for freezing instructions).

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Step 2: Prepare your canning equipment

Jam-making kit

I like to begin by laying out the equipment I need. I’ve put together a list of canning essentials for you, linked to my favorite brands. You will reuse this equipment throughout the summer and fall, and year after year. I like to use an assortment of small, medium and large jars so that I have easy, delicious gifts on hand as well as sufficient stock for the winter. It is affordable and well worth the investment!

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Step 3: Wash and hull the strawberries

 
It’s fruit fly season, so work quickly! Many hands make light work – with four beautiful ladies hulling strawberry stems, we prepared about 25 pounds of fruit in less than half an hour. I like to set up a station outside so the fruit flies don’t swarm my kitchen, but if you work quickly and diligently, you can beat them to the chase too!
  1. Rinse the fruit.
  2. Using a small, sharp knife, slice off the strawberry stem (and toss it into your compost).
  3. Chop the strawberries coarsely and put them in a large bowl.
  4. Put the prepared strawberries in the refrigerator while you prepare the jars and lids.

Step 4: Sanitize the jars and lids

Sanitizing your jars and lids is essential to storing jam in a clean, bacteria-free environment so that it will last through the snowy depths of winter. The jars will be sanitized twice: when they are empty and when they are filled and sealed. Once you have sanitized your jars, you will want to keep them hot to prevent them from cracking or breaking when they’re filled with hot jam. There are two ways to sanitize your jars and lids and keep them hot.
  1. If you have a dishwasher, load the jars and lids onto the racks and run the “sanitize” cycle. When the cycle is complete, keep the jars and lids in the dishwasher on the “heated dry” until they are ready to use.
  2. Fill the water bath canner with water, and bring the water to a boil. Preheat the oven to 175. Meanwhile, use hot, soapy water to thoroughly wash and sanitize your jars and lids. When the water is boiling, place the jars and lids in the water bath and boil them for 10 minutes. Once sanitized, use the jar lifter to transfer the jars to a baking sheet and place the jars in the oven until ready to use.  (Repeat for all of your jars and lids).
  3. Keep the lids in the water bath or another bowl or pot of very hot water.
  4. You will also want to wash your funnel and ladle with hot, soapy water and have a pot of very hot water to dip it into right before you begin canning.

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Step 5: Jammin’

Every opportunity to cook is a sensory adventure! Be bold and artistic – put your dreams in a jar. Shoshi and I hatched luscious and intriguing strawberry flavor combinations, ultimately deciding to nix temptations like strawberry-wasabi-sesame for two seasonal staples and one deluxe special.

Note: The majority of the recipes you will find for jam include the use of pectin. Pectin is a naturally-occurring sugar in fruit, with higher concentrations in some fruits than others (pectin concentrations in fruit). I substitute sugar for pectin, since I prefer to use good ole’ pantry staples, and make a preserve that celebrates the fruit without adulteration as much as possible. This is a preference, not a suggestion. If omitting pectin, your jam will not “set” or solidify as well – this is a sacrifice I’m willing to make since I love the taste of preserved fruit, thick or thin! Also of note, many recipes for strawberry jam advise making small batches to help the fruit set more quickly (too much fruit inhibits the process). It did take quite a while for the jam to reduce and become viscous, but I was eager to make a bigger batch that I could share with my kitchen mates. The jam turned out wonderfully, despite the potloads we boiled! 

Step 6: Cannin’

  1. Fill your water bath with water. If you used your water bath for sterilizing your jar and lids, you can reuse the water. (Transfer any lids or other equipment that is in the water bath to another pot or bowl of hot water). Bring the water to a boil while you transfer the jam to the jars.
  2. Line up your warm jars on a clean surface near your pot(s) of jam.
  3. Dip your funnel and ladle into a pot of very hot water to sterilize it before transferring the jam into the jars.
  4. Place the funnel in the mouth of a jar. Using the ladle, transfer the jam into each jar, leaving 1/4 inch of “headspace” between the surface of the jam and the top of the jar.
  5. Wipe the rim of the jars with a clean dish towel or paper towel. Using your lid lifter or tongs, place a lid on each jar and tightly twist a band around the mouth of the jar.
  6. The water bath should now be boiling. Using the jar lifter, lower the jars into the water bath, covering the jars with about two inches of water. Boil the jars for 10 minutes. Repeat with remaining jars.
  7. After 10 minutes, lift the jars from the water bath with the jar lifter, and place them on top of a dish towel or bath towel on a flat surface. If the temperature is cold out (uncanny for the summer), drape a few towels over the jars to keep them from cooling too quickly – which may break the jars. Let the jars cool completely at room temperature without touching or bumping them.
  8. Now is the best part: listen for the “pop” as the jar lids seal!
  9. Once cooled, press the center of the jar lids to see if the jars are completely sealed. If the center of the lid is flexible and pops up and down (making a popping noise) it has not sealed. If the lid is popped, or sucked, down and does not release back up, it is sealed. There will always be a few that don’t seal, but that means you get to eat them immediately! Store unsealed jars in the refrigerator and devour quickly.
  10. You can remove or loosen the rings from the sealed jars to release any moisture that might cause rusting (though I rarely remember to do this, and all is well).
  11. Store sealed jars for up to 12 months, but they are best eaten up to 6 months.

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Freezing Berries

It’s best to freeze fruit as soon as possible after harvest. You can always make jam with frozen fruit at a later point in time. Follow this surefire method for preventing clumps and freezer burn. 
  1. Hull and wash your fruit (remove stems and seeds).
  2. Pat the fruit dry or let it air dry in a colander.
  3. Line the fruit on a baking sheet and place it in the freezer. Let the fruit freeze for 1 hour.
  4. Transfer the fruit to a ziplock bag. Suck out as much air as possible, even with a straw through a small opening in the seal. Double bag the fruit to prevent further freezer burn.

Dehydrating Berries

I tried this for the first time this year, and while I wouldn’t do this again with strawberries, it was a fun and tasty experiment. Strawberries are just so darn good defrosted or made into preserves, that it doesn’t seem worth shriveling pounds of beautiful berries into a meager pile or dried fruit that might spread over four granola bowls. Anyhow, here’s how:
  1. Cut the strawberries into 1/4 slices.
  2. Line the strawberries on your dehydrator rack so that there is space between then.
  3. Switch the dehydrator onto the “fruit / berries” setting.
  4. Let them dry between 5-10 hours (mine took around 8) until they have no moisture.
  5. Store the dehydrated berries in an airtight jar for snacking, tossing into granola and baking.

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