Opening a jar of jam in the middle of winter is like unleashing a ray of summer sun while snowflakes fall outside. But to experience that little moment of joy, one must have a generous friend or make jam themselves in the summer.
When I was growing up in the wet Pacific Northwest, berries were a summertime staple, and making jam was an absolute joy. It began with pulling out the jars, buying new lids, and gearing up for the farmers market to buy the berries. We would get there first thing when the market opened, hand cart in tow, and load up on whichever berries were our target for that day. My parents and I would debate the merits of each type of strawberry and discuss which variety we should use for our jam.
Other market-goers would often stare as we wheeled our cart through the market, with at least two flats of berries, a bouquet or two, veggies galore and some baked goods along with some local eggs or bacon. It probably didn’t make it less conspicuous that my dad added an old license plate to the back of the bright turquoise cart and joked that it was street-legal.
We’d get home and get to work washing, cutting if necessary and measuring out everything for the jam. My family likes to use half sugar, half honey to sweeten the jam. We don’t use pectin, which means we use the “long boil” method. Tart fruits such as apples, cranberries, gooseberries and sour blackberries have considerable amounts of natural pectin. By omitting the commercial pectin, we use less sugar and a longer boiling time. Boiling for a long time concentrates the natural pectin and evaporates moisture out of the fruit.
I like the depth and richness the honey adds to the jam. It doesn’t taste like a sugar-only jam. The long boil method compliments this nicely as it adds a caramelized flavor. I adjust the ratio of sweeteners to berries based on how the berries taste. Some years the strawberries are especially sweet and using a 2:3 ratio would make for overly sweet jam. I like the jam to retain some of the tartness of the actual berry.
With the long boil method the yield is smaller and we have to constantly monitor and stir the jam. Once you throw the berries, honey and sugar together, cook almost to the jellying point. This is the hardest part for me.
One: I’m impatient when it comes to food I like. I want it to be done — now. Two: my spatial reasoning when it comes to jam is, in a word, awful — one of the traits I inherited from my mom.
My most recent attempt at huckleberry jam led to an explosion on my stovetop as the pot rapidly boiled over and spilled bright pinkish-purple goo all over the white surface. I’d recommend using the biggest pot you have and making sure there is a ton of extra room because, especially with the long boil method, the jam will expand even more than you think it will.
The third issue I run into is I always waver as to whether the jam is thick enough. I’ve over-thickened the jam to the point it must be heated before each use to make it spreadable. I’ve also made my fair share of berry syrup, because I didn’t let the mixture thicken enough. The good thing is that it tastes delicious regardless.
I think jam makes a wonderful gift, whether for a host or hostess, or for small gifts at the holidays. In that spirit I decided to venture into huckleberry jam this past weekend. I got a big bag at the farmers' market, marveling at how much bigger Montana huckleberries are compared to the tiny, tart coastal huckleberries I grew up with.
It wasn’t quite like the jam-making at home. I couldn’t hear the dogs wrestling over a toy or my brother’s music playing upstairs. My dad wasn’t tiptoeing in the background trying to swipe a taste of jam. I didn’t have my mom singing along to John Prine or Tom Petty. But I did process a slice of summer sun into a multitude of little jars to savor when the snow flies again.
Makes 3-4 pints
9 cups crushed berries
2-3 cups honey
2-3 cups sugar
Depending on the berry, you may have to crush them before throwing them in the stockpot. Raspberries mush nicely as they cook, so don’t worry about crushing them. If you prefer more texture in your jam, don’t worry about crushing huckleberries or blueberries, either. For strawberry jam I opt to cut and then mash.
Combine the berries, honey and sugar in a pot, and cook rapidly. Keep stirring and stirring and stirring, especially as the mixture thickens. When making huckleberry jam this weekend, I used just over 2 cups each of honey and sugar. I also added a little nutmeg at the end as well, because I think nutmeg and huckleberries are a delicious combo.
Pour mixture into hot, sterilized jars, leaving ¼-inch head space. Carefully affix lids and rings. I frequently burn myself during this step.
If you’re at sea level, process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath. Add 5 minutes processing time if you live up to 3,000 feet above sea level. Add 10 to the original processing time if you live between 3,000-6,000 feet. Between 6,000-8,000 feet, add 15 minutes to the original processing time. When in doubt, go for a little longer. You’ll be disappointed if you put in all the time and sweat, and the jars don’t seal.
Carefully — really carefully — remove the jars from the water bath. I usually burn myself here, too. Set them on a countertop with a towel underneath to catch drips. Enjoy a small sense of satisfaction for the rest of the day as you hear the seals pop.