Chickens pecking around the backyard, kombucha fermenting on the shelf, beer brewing in the closet: there’s been a lot of interest in DIY urban homesteading lately. For months now, I’ve been meaning to get into the slow-process stuff, like curing my own olives and making my own vinegar.

Then again, my homestead is a wee share house in Bernal, already stuffed with other people’s tchotchkes. I’ve commandeered the tiny back patio with my buckets of tomato and potato plants; adding an olive crock and a vinegar barrel might be pushing it.

And honestly, I’m still wedded to the easy delights of jam. Like pie, it’s a little bit of a production, but just like pie, no matter what you do, fruit+sugar=sweet fruity goodness. And like homemade pie, homemade jam is better than anything you can buy. Why? Because anywhere this side of Smuckers, you’re using more fruit and less sugar when you make your jam at home.

Ah yes, the sugar issue. First off: most cookbooks call for way too much sugar. Why? The more sugar you put in, the easier it is to get a firm and reliable set. Sugar is also a preservative, and jam with a lot of sugar will last longer in your fridge. But capturing the essence of beautiful fruit is the whole point of jam, rounded out with just enough sweetness to bring a smile to your toast. Halve the amount of sugar in most recipes, and you’ll do just fine.

For the same reason, I never use commercial pectins, like Sure-Jel. There’s nothing wrong with pectin itself; it’s a natural compound found in varying levels in all fruits. However, commercial pectin requires a lot of sugar to jump-start that jelling reaction, and the precise formulas turn canning into chemistry, with no adjustments for personal taste.

But with less sugar and no added pectin, won’t your jam be a runny mess? Nope! There’s an easy, just about foolproof way to get good jam every time, and all you need is sugar, lemon juice, and time.

strawberriesTake a look at this bowl.

That’s 4 pints of strawberries, sliced, mixed with sugar and left to sit overnight until they’ve shrunken into little berry quarters bobbing in a sea of juice. All that liquid was originally trapped in the berries themselves, and you’d be boiling it mightily for a long time if you just threw the fruit and sugar together and tossed them on the stove.

But separate the liquid from the fruit, add a little lemon juice (which is rich in pectin), and–here’s the trick– cook down the liquid, not the fruit. By cooking the liquid by itself first, you can evaporate any excess water without exhausting the fruit’s delicate flavors. There’s also less risk of burning and sticking when you’re just simmering juice.

This is a technique I first picked up from Helen Witty’s invaluable, library-available collection, The Good Stuff Cookbook. In my copy, the jam chapter is wrinkled and spattered on every page, with annotations, additions, and comments in pen and pencil from years of messing around. I use a lot less sugar than Witty does, but her method (streamlined here) still works like a charm to produce delicious jams just thick enough to cling to your biscuit, redolent of ripe, sunwarmed summer fruit.

Since strawberries are ripe and wonderful this week, now’s the time to grab a case of jars, a flat of fruit, and get your birthday-and-holiday gifts nailed down. I love Albion berries in particular, but Seascapes, Tristars and Chandlers, all varieties that do well in our cool coastal climate, won’t do you wrong, either.

If you want your sealed jars to be able to sit around in the pantry, you need real canning jars topped with two-part lids. Otherwise, if you’re just going to stick your jam in the fridge immediately and eat it soon, you can reuse any clean, cute glass jar you have. For best results, sterilize any jar in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes before using.

Strawberry Jam

4 pint boxes whole strawberries (2 1/2 lbs)
1 1/2-2 cups granulated sugar, depending on sweetness of berries
juice of 1 lemon, about 2 tablespoons

1. Rinse, drain, and hull strawberries. Slice in halves or quarters. In a nonreactive bowl, toss berries with sugar and lemon juice. Cover and let stand for 3-4 hours at room temperature or 6 hours to overnight in the refrigerator. Stir occasionally, scraping the bottom of the bowl to distribute and dissolve the sugar.

2. When sugar is dissolved and berries are floating in a bright-red syrup, pour into a large nonreactive pot. Bring to a frothy simmer, stirring frequently. Let simmer for 2 minutes, then pour back into bowl. Let cool. Cover and let stand for 2-3 hours at room temperature, or in the refrigerator for 6 hours or overnight.

3. Meanwhile, sterilize your jars, lids, and rings. Set a colander or strainer over a wide, large, and heavy stainless steel or enameled cast-iron pot. Pour berries into colander, letting all the syrup drip into the pot. Remove colander full of berries and set aside.

4. Bring syrup to a boil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Once syrup comes to a boil, stir and watch: it will move from what looks like a pot full of Kool-Aid to a seething, deep-garnet mass of thick, glossy bubbles. Dip a metal spoon into the syrup and let syrup drip off the side of the spoon; it’s ready when the last few drops are fairly thick and sticky.

5. Pour in reserved berries. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. If you’d like a thicker jam, mash berries lightly with a potato masher. Simmer for 5-8 minutes, until berries are translucent and mixture has thickened slightly. Scoop into jars and seal.

6. Set jars on a clean towel and do not touch or move them until they are completely cool. If you’re using canning jars, listen for the slurpy sucking pop of the jars vacuum-sealing. Sealed jars will keep up to 1 year in a cool, dry place. If jar isn’t sealed, store in fridge and eat within 2-3 weeks.

Strawberry Jam 13 June,2009Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen

  • Haggie

    If you are in the Bay Area, I highly recommend driving to Swanton Berry Farms u-pick fields on the coast between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. I was there on Saturday for opening day. Big, fat, juicy, perfectly ripe, ORGANIC strawberries at only $2.50/lb. Plus you get the joy and satisfaction of picking them yourself.

    Canning 32lbs of strawberries today! Thanks for the advice on reducing the juice. It will help since these perfectly ripe strawberries need very little added sugar.

    Also, Swanton will have olalaberries in a couple of weeks and blackberries in July for u-pick.

  • I also found this technique years and years ago, in one of Lee Bailey’s cookbooks. He does refrigerator strawberry jam like this..and it is truly wonderful.

  • sara

    I am going to try this right now. I have been waiting for good berries and finally they are here! I agree, the Albions, (at least this week) are delicious! Thanks for sharing this technique.

  • Renee

    Can you substitute other berries? Or mix and match berries? Do you have to alter the lemon juice and sugar? Thanks in advance

  • Glenn

    Lemon juice contains very little pectin, but the acidity works with the sugar to gel the pectin. Strawberries are low in acidity, so the added lemon juice will help increase the acidity. The membranes and peel of the lemon are high in pectin and will help to raise the pectin concentration. Too much pectin will make the spread too hard. Too much sugar will make the spread too sticky. The greater the acidity the lower amount of sugar required to form a gel.

  • Vanessa

    I made jam for the first time, and used this recipe. I was looking for one that used less sugar than ‘normal’ recipes. My jam turned out really well! The consistency was very good – quite thick, but nicely spreadable. I think I might have reduced the syrup a bit much (it took a long time), mostly because I wasn’t sure about id’ing ‘thick and sticky’ drops. I think I might use the gelling technique (put a plate in the freezer and put a dab of jam on it – look to see if it firms up) next time. I mashed the strawberries a bit (kept some chunks) because a thicker jam sounded good, and I also thought my 2 young daughters might not like huge chunks of strawberry. I also processed the jam in a hot water bath at the end, just because I’m a paranoid first-time jam maker. Thanks for the recipe!

  • Early

    Great, looks like a great recipe. I just canned 20 llbs of strawberries. For the first time, I used “SureGel”. I wanted to see what the results would be. Less cooking time, finshed jam rather fast. Set real nice. Taste, well…… I felt every filling in my mouth scream from the ton of sugar required.
    I am getting more strawberries next week, and will try this recipe.
    Thanks Stephanie for pointing out, that, it’s all about the fruit, not the sugar. Lesson learned.

    Early (de-throned jam queen)

  • Shannon

    Love this recipe – will try it this weekend. Quick question though – about how much jam does this make? Would like to have the right aize/quantity of jars ready. Thanks!

  • Renee

    LOVED THE JAM! We tried it and it made roughly six 8 ounce jars….do not double the recipe to make more. Instead make two small batches. We are currently trying it mixing strawberries, blackberries and black raspberries….I hope it turns out half as good as the plain strawberries! This is well worth the extra effort and wait….and who could argue about using so much less sugar! Enjoy


Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen

Stephanie Rosenbaum Klassen is a longtime local food writer, author, and cook. Her books include The Art of Vintage Cocktails (Egg & Dart Press), World of Doughnuts (Egg & Dart Press); Kids in the Kitchen: Fun Food (Williams Sonoma); Honey from Flower to Table (Chronicle Books) and The Astrology Cookbook: A Cosmic Guide to Feasts of Love (Manic D Press). She has studied organic farming at UCSC and holds a certificate in Ecological Horticulture from the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. She does frequent cooking demonstrations at local farmers’ markets and has taught food writing at Media Alliance in San Francisco and the Continuing Education program at Stanford University. She has been the lead restaurant critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian as well as for San Francisco magazine. She has been an assistant chef at the Headlands Center for the Arts, an artists’ residency program located in the Marin Headlands, and a production cook at the Marin Sun Farms Cafe in Pt Reyes Station. After some 20 years in San Francisco interspersed with stints in Oakland, Santa Cruz, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, she recently moved to Sonoma county but still writes in San Francisco several days a week.

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