Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Power of Pectin

Last Sunday, my internal clock went off screaming at about 6:30 in the morning.  A constant routine, coupled with a lingering obligation, made sleeping in impossible.  You have strawberries in the fridge!  Every second off the mother vine is a second dying, dying, dying off into decay!

I couldn't argue with that.  I slid out of bed, into some ratty pajamas, and started gathering my supplies.  Ball Official Book of Canning.  Pint jars.  Fresh rings and lids.  Funnel.  Magnet wand.  Huge, black pot with the flecks that screams "Grandmas & Hipster Chicks." 

I wanted to learn to can, ever since I started getting serious about being serious about food.  What's more beautiful than those jewel-toned jars of suspended produce, defying time in a natural, chemical-free way that's been practiced since our grandmother's grandmother had a grandmother? 

However, I'm not someone that can just read a book, or look at some diagrams on a website, and be able to figure out an intricate process.  I have to see it, live, so I can touch and interact with it.  So, two (omg two!?  Christ...) years ago, my friend Kristine and I paid $100 each for a full day of canning class with the curator of Portland Preserve.  An earthy, eternal grad school type woman with a Northeast Portland culinary forest garden and raw milk connections, she showed us how to make strawberry jam, dill pickles, tomatoes and sauerkraut.  I had to bail after we reached the last lesson (sauerkraut); I had an insanely powerful sinus headache drumming behind my eyeball.  They always seem to pop up when I've made an investment in a memorable day away: the last one I remember that bad was when my dad was taking me to the Seattle Opera's production of Madame Butterfly.  But when I researched sauerkraut-making some months later, I discovered that I would never attempt making it--you have to keep a big crock of curing cabbage in your house for over a month, skimming crap off the top as it slowly pickles.  Uhhhh... I'm all for real food, but I draw the line at shit rotting in my house.

What I learned were the little lessons for safety and quality that stick in my mind and keep me successful every time.  Wipe every top with a clean towel before and after filling.  Never let the jars touch the bottom of the water bath pot; use towels at the bottom if you have to (this totally saved my last batch of pickles).  Always use fresh lids.  Keep lids and rings boiling until the moment you twist them onto the jars... and don't twist too tight.  Just until they stop turning freely.

After washing the gorgeous vintage Ball jars that my parents got me at the Pike Place Market last year, I stemmed the strawberries and started pulping them up with my immersion blender.  The immersion blender is a godsend for canning, souping, general mushing... otherwise, you have to mash them with, like, a potato masher or something.  Bad, sore-arms times. 

This is where things started getting a little sketchy.  I flipped the Ball jar cookbook open to the jam section, and started following the directions.  I was dumping sugar direct into the strawberry soup when I realized, hey.  This recipe doesn't have any pectin in it.

Pectin is a chemical derived from fruits, which is a natural thickening agent.  Powdered pectin, in those little yellow boxes, is the easiest way to make jam.  But some people (like Professor Canning) oppose it, since it requires more sugar in the recipe.  It's so much easier though, so I just always follow the recipe on the pectin packet.  Which requires you add the powdered pectin first, and then stir in the sugar after it's been brought to a boil.

Oops.  Looks like I'm rolling au-natural this time around.

Cooking without powdered pectin took a LOT longer.  We're talking 45-60 minutes of cooking down jam to the 'gelling phase' (when it starts sliding off a spoon in little sheets) versus 10-20 minutes.  It cooks down much lower, so you get a lot less out of a flat of berries as well. 

When I finally figured whatever was sliding off the spoon kind of looked like sheets and seemed thick enough to spread on toast.  Also, by this time Matt was already awake too and I was sick of stirring a pot of pulp.

Only three and a half pretty jars were needed to hold the jam, and needed only 15 minutes of low-maintenance boiling processing until they were complete.  Here, in the finest photography ever, funneling jam into pint jars leaving 1/4" head-space:

The next morning, Matt and I test-drove the experimental jam on Dave's Killer Bread toast.  Wow.  Without the extra 3-4 cups of sugar per batch, you can really taste the fruit.  I had read that pectin-free jams can sometimes have a 'cooked' taste, but I didn't find this present at all.  It was a much clearer sensation of spreading fresh fruit on bread, versus a sugary fascimile.  I'll just have to see how ambitious I'm feeling when raspberry season rolls back around.

A little raffia and farmer's market lavender, and I feel like a true artist; a guild rising once again in revolt against Stouffer's and Rice a Roni and Smucker's.  Maybe someday I'll be charging surrogate grandchildren $100 to sit in my yard and watch me can.  Until then, I'll just make my blog readers endure it.


  1. My mom's going to teach me to can tomatoes this year. I'm so excited! I grew up on tomato preserves, and I HATE buying it in the tin cans at the grocery store!

  2. Wow, you are so ambitious! Loved reading about this. Hope you're having a great semester! Miss you, roomie! :)

  3. I'm going to try this method next time. I'll be anxious to try it!