Summer in a jar

Too many strawberries.

It’s a balancing act, really. Keeping enough fresh food on hand to satisfy the appetite, but not so much that it spoils before you can eat it. Put summer’s bounty of berries into the mix, and you may find yourself challenged to eat blueberries in every meal of the day just to keep up. (On granola for breakfast, in a smoothie for lunch, and in a green salad for dinner are strategies that work for me.) I’m as guilty as the next person of throwing out extra, spoiled food, but I’m trying harder than ever to prevent it. And I absolutely refuse to throw out berries. Period.

Preserving fruit as jam.

A generous gift of two buckets of very ripe strawberries required the development of a new berry protocol. With far more strawberries than could be eaten before their bruises grew mold, and a serious shortage of freezer space, it was necessary to find another way to save this beautiful fruit for future eating. What can be done with ripe fruit? Jam, of course.

I’ve only made jam once before, and it was the freezer variety. Without freezer space, it was time to make the preserved kind, and this meant canning. Research was in order, and I dutifully uncovered the pots, utensils, jars, lids, ingredients, and process to turn fruit into jam and prevent jam eaters from getting sick. I’ve never questioned the integrity of any home-canned foodstuffs I’ve received, but the idea of undertaking the process myself and giving the products to friends and family really gave me pause. Botulism seems like too high a price to pay for saving some strawberries from the compost, so I had to get this right.

If necessary, borrow a pot from a friend who agrees that two stock pots just aren’t enough.

The two critical components to preserving fruit as jam are the canning process and sugar. I find the first an act of faith, but the second is the real eyebrow raiser. How much sugar is needed? The quantity surprised me. It seems sugar must make up approximately 55 percent of the total weight to successfully act in its role as a preservative. Sugar draws water out of bacteria and other microorganisms (via osmosis—Grade 10 science class, anyone?), thereby killing them or preventing their growth. Sugar is considered a “natural” preservative, which I suppose it is in purer forms, though the processing of sugar cane into our ubiquitous white sugar could make this a debatable designation. Either way, the ingredient list for this batch of strawberry jam included only five things, all of which I could pronounce.

Boiling water bath canner, with kettle for topping up.

Why hot summer weather coincides with infernally inspired kitchen techniques is beyond me. The boiling water bath canner (a converted stock pot) maintains a roiling boil, while another large pot holds jars and lids in a state of simmering readiness, and a third contains the bubbling, spattering fruit. Bare arms take cover, and open some windows.

Eight jars of jam later, followed by soft tinny popping sounds from the lids during an undisturbed twenty-four hours to set, I had entered a new arena of food preservation: the kind that did not rely on heavy refrigeration, nor even post-production proximity to the kitchen. A good thing, since I now need a pantry and all I have is a half-empty shelf beside kitchen linens and a box of comics.

Well, one challenge at a time.

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