Jam is fun. It's the best way to introduce yourself to canning, because it's quick, easy, and almost fool-proof. Of course, the problem with traditional jam is that you literally use more sugar than fruit. When I told my mother-in-law that, she said, "Next time you make me jam, just use less sugar," but it's not that easy. Jam and jelly making is an exact science. You have to have the right amount of acidity so it gets properly preserved, the right amount of fruit and pectin, and the exact amount of sugar or else you don't get a proper jell. If I just left out some of the sugar in a traditional jam recipe, chances are it would turn out pretty badly.
The good news is that they make low- or no-sugar needed pectin these days, that will jell nicely without the need for large quantities of sugar. Here's two very good brands to try out:
Both brands of pectin come with their own instructions. Always follow the instructions on the pectin you're using! This walkthrough is here just to show you what you need before you start and the basic steps taken in jam making so you can see how easy it is.
So let's get started!
The first step you should take is to buy any items you need for canning. Fruit, of course, is an important ingredient. You'll also need 8 oz jelly jars, metal lids and bands for the jars, pectin, a jar lifter, a ladle, a wooden spoon, a large pot to cook the jam, a water bath canner to can the jars of jam (a large stock pot will work well, too, as long as you have 1 inch of water above the tops of the jars), and a rack to put at the bottom of the canner (if you're using a stock pot, you can make your own rack out of extra jar bands).
Those are the essential items you need. There are some nonessential things that just make the job easier. Those include a lid wand, a jar measure, a canning funnel, a small pot to boil the lids in, and a good potato masher.
Don't feel overwhelmed by that long list of stuff you need. Most kitchens already have everything needed, and the things you don't have are very inexpensive, and can generally be found in Walmart, Kmart, and most hardware stores (I don't really understand why, but hardware stores usually have the best selection of canning supplies).
You should decide before hand how much jam you want to make. The kind of pectin I used (Ball Low or No-Sugar Needed) said you should never make more than 10 jars of jam at once, or the jam may not set a proper jell. I've actually experienced this before; it's not very fun to have your hard work turn out runny. Here's the recipe on the Ball pectin:
For 2 (8 oz) half pints of jam, you will need:
2 cups prepared fruit (usually crushed or finely chopped)
1/3 cup unsweetened fruit juice, thawed fruit juice concentrate, or water
3 tsp bottled* lemon juice (use only with blueberries, peaches, and sweet cherries)
1-1/2 tbsp Ball No Sugar Needed Pectin
*Never use fresh lemon juice, even though it tastes better. The reason? You need a certain level of acidity, or you risk harboring really nasty bacteria in your jam. Bottled lemon juice is the same acidity all the time, but fresh lemon juice varies a lot.
For my blueberry jam, I decided I wanted to make six 8oz jars of jam. That means I needed 6 cups of crush fruit. Ball has a decent produce buying guide PDF that gives you the amount of prepared fruit you get per pound. My suggestion is to always buy extra, though, because it's better to have too much than too little.
Since I needed 6 cups of prepared fruit, that means I needed to buy about 3.5 pounds of fruit. I ended up buying 4.5 pounds, and had 12 oz left when I was done.
You don't have to be so scientific about it, either. With the peaches, I just started with a huge box of peaches and peeled and chopped them until I had 8 cups of fruit (to make 8 jars). Then I froze the leftover peaches to make peach applesauce later in the year.
Alright. So now you have the fruit. You have the jars, lids, bands, canner, and everything else you need to start canning. Let's get canning!
The first thing you want to do is wash the jars, lids, and bands. The easiest way to can is to stick your jars in the dishwasher and put it through a full cycle. This gives you enough time to prepare everything and get everything set up, and it fully sanitizes the jars and keeps them hot for when you fill them with jam.
You don't need a dishwasher, of course, and you should hand wash the bands and lids anyway. If you don't have a dishwasher, that just means you have to hand wash the jars and follow an extra step later.
Once the jars are in the dishwasher, the next thing I do is I start cleaning.
My kitchen is usually a mess, but I can only can when the kitchen is spotless.
Canning is a very messy job, and dishes start stacking up quickly, so if your sink is already full, you'll run out of room in no time. So it's better to start off clean.
Next, lay out your supplies.
My kitchen is small, but I'm grateful for the small counter next to the stove. If you don't have a piece of counter next to your stove, setting up a table nearby to hold your supplies might be helpful.
I use three pots in my operation: water bath canner (black pot on the right), large pot to make the jam in (bottom left), and very small pot to boil the lids in (top left). Only the first two are really necessary.
I always lay down large rags on my counter before canning. It makes the clean up easier, and also, the counter is a butcher block and dark fruit stains it pretty easily. It's helpful to get all your tools out before hand, so you're not scrambling around looking for them later. Pictured are (from left to right) several rags, jar bands, jar lifter, jar measure, canning funnel, lid lifter, wooden spoon with a spoon rest, ladle, and extra jar for measuring water depth in the water bath canner.
I usually have a little time between setting up and needing to start the canning process. This is a perfect time to figure out how much of each ingredient you need. Since I was making 6 cups of jam, according to the recipe above, I would need 6 cups fruit, 1 cup water, 3 tbsp lemon juice, and 4.5 tbsp pectin. It also helps to measure it out before hand so it's ready when you need it.
When there's about 45 minutes left on the dishwasher, that's when I start working. First, I fill up the water bath canner. It's easiest to put it on the burner you want and use another pot to bring water to it. When it's full, it's very heavy. Use the extra jar to determine how much water you need. When all the jars are in the canner, there needs to be 1 inch of water above the tops of the jars. I usually fill the canner up until it reaches the edge of my extra jar, because the filled jars will displace more water and usually bring it up to the level needed. You don't want too much water, or it'll take forever to boil. If you have hard water like I do, add about 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar to the water to keep it from leaving white deposits on your jars.
Once full, put the lid on the canner and turn the heat on to HIGH. By the time the dishwasher is done and the jam is ready, the canner should be at a full boil.
If you don't have a dishwasher, there is an extra step you need to take at this point. Put the rack in the bottom of the canner and add the empty jars. When you're jam making with a water bath canner, your jars do not need to be sanitized, but they do need to be very hot when you add hot jam to them or you risk damaging the glass. I've never had a problem with using cold jars in the past, but these days, I'd rather play it safe.
Next, it's time to wash and prepare the fruit. This can take different amounts of time depending on what kind of fruit you're preparing.
Blueberries were pretty easy. The part that takes the most time is sorting out the bad ones and any stems.
The peaches, on the other hand, took forever. Peaches are involved; you have to remove the pits, then dip them in boiling water to remove the skins, and then finely chop them. I think it took me two hours to fully process all the peaches, and my hands were in agony by the time I finished. Which I think is why I like working with berries better.
With berries, you always crush them. You can use a fork or a wooden spoon, but the easiest way is with a potato masher. Never put them through a food processor or the consistency isn't right. You end up with more of a berry butter instead of a jam. And it's easiest to crush them one layer at a time. This way you know that every berry is being crushed.
After crushing each layer, pour it into a measuring cup so you can keep track of how much processed fruit you have.
I like to put the lemon juice in the pot, so that every time I fill up my measuring cup, I can empty the fruit into the pot and mix it with the lemon juice. That way, the lemon juice keeps the fruit from browning while I prepare the rest of it.
When there's about 10-20 minutes left on the dishwasher, I like to get the jam started. First, I put my lids in the small pot and turn the burner on to medium low. The water doesn't need to boil, it just needs to get hot. The point is to soften the sealant on the lids so they create a better seal when you put them on the jars. If you don't have room for a third pot, you can also put the lids in a large glass bowl and add boiling water to them. By the time the jam is done, the sealant should be softened.
Now it's time to get jammin'. Slowly add the pectin to the fruit, water, and lemon juice mixture, making sure to stir it in well.
Once incorporated, turn the heat on to HIGH, and start stirring! This process takes a while, but you need to be there to make sure the fruit doesn't scorch.
So keep stirring! Eventually, you may notice the fruit is getting more syrupy.
That's my spoon rest. The juice on the left is from when I started, and the fruit on the right is from right before it started boiling.
Keep stirring and heating the fruit until it comes to a full rolling boil. This is important. A full rolling boil is a boil that you cannot stir down with your spoon. You may see bubbles when you stop stirring, but if you can stir them down, it's not ready yet.
Usually for me, I can tell it's about to boil when I start seeing some foam around the edges of the fruit.
Once you reach a full rolling boil, this is the time to add any sugar you want in it. I know you don't want sugar; neither do I, but for most fruit, you need a little bit to make it taste good. DO NOT add artificial sweeteners; they don't stand up to the high heat of the canning process. Some people say they've had success with Splenda, and some people have had good results with stevia. However, the only sweeteners I would recommend are sugar, xylitol, and erythritol.
I always start out with a 1/2 cup of sugar. Add it to your jam, stir it in well, and then taste it.
It's best to put a little bit on the spoon rest and get a little on your finger in order to taste it. Putting a spoon directly into the pot and then directly into your mouth is a good way to burn yourself.
If it tastes too sour, another 1/2 cup of sugar. But honestly, 1 cup of sugar would be my limit. Remember that you're not trying to recreate the jam you buy in the store; you're trying to make something that's fresher, more fruity, less sugar-bomby. The recipe also says you can use fruit juice instead of water, to naturally sweeten your jam if you so desire. I plan on trying it sometime to see how it works.
For my blueberry jam, I added 1/2 cup of sugar and 1/2 cup of xylitol.
Once you have the sweetness to your liking, it's time to start stirring again. The goal is to bring it up to a full rolling boil again, which shouldn't take as long as last time. Remember to watch for the foam starting to foam around the edges, and don't stop stirring until you can't stir the bubbles down anymore.
Once you reach a full rolling boil, set a kitchen clock to 1 minute, and stop stirring. Let it fully boil on it's own for exactly 1 minute.
After the minute is up, turn the heat off for the jam. Let it rest for a minute or so, and if you see any foam on top, skim it off (save the foam, though; it's still delicious, it's just not good for the canning process). I don't usually get much foam with my low sugar jam though, thankfully.
The jam is done now. Technically, you could stop right here if you wanted to. You could store the jam in the refrigerator, or in the freezer with proper containers. The problem is that this jam doesn't have any preservatives, so it will only last about a week in the fridge, and if you make a large batch, it will take up a lot of room in the freezer. That's why water bath canning is awesome. You can can it and it will be shelf stable for 1 year.
Now it's time to fill the jars. Always work with only one jar at a time. If you have a dishwasher, get out one jar and then close the dishwasher again to keep the heat in.
If you don't have a dishwasher and you put your jars in the canner, remove one jar at a time with your jar lifter and then return the lid.
If you have a water bath canner with a canning rack, at this point you should raise the rack up so that it's attached to the sides of the canner and the bottom is near the top of the water. That's confusing. The only picture I have is near the end of the process.
As you fill each jar, you'll put it on th. rack and then put the lid back on. This way, the jars stay warm as you work, and by not being in the water, the fruit won't get over cooked. If you have empty jars in the canner because you don't have a dishwasher, don't worry; they'll stay warm enough until you need them as long as the lid is on the pot.
Ok, now, time to fill those jars. Start by putting the canning funnel into your jar if you have one. This cuts down on a lot of mess.
Now ladle jam into the jar. For jam, you want to fill it up to within 1/4 of an inch from the top. That's where the jar measure comes in handy.
Now wipe the rim of the jar with a damp rag. Make sure it's squeaky clean, or you may not get a proper seal.
Lift a lid out of the hot water and put it on top of the jar, then add a band over top of that. The band should be finger tip tight on the jar. I'm not sure what that means exactly, so I usually take it literally by tightening only as tight as my finger tips can tighten it. Don't over tighten the band, or the jar may not vent properly while it's in the canner (it needs to release oxygen from the jar as it boils so that it seals properly).
Now lift the jar with your jar lifter and put it on the rack.
Continue working until all the jars are filled. If you have left over jam, but not enough to completely fill another jar, you can stick it in the fridge and it will keep well for a week or so.
Once the canner is full, carefully lower the rack into the water. Make sure to stand up any jars that may have fallen over. Put the lid back on and wait for it to begin boiling again. It usually only takes a couple of minutes for me. You'll know it's boiling when a little steam is escaping from the lid. You can safely take quick peeks once in a while without ruining the boil. Once it's fully boiling again, start a kitchen timer for 10 minutes.
If you live at higher altitudes, you'll need to adjust that time a little bit. Here's a chart for adjusting the time. So for where I live, I need to add 5 minutes to the processing time, and set my timer for 15 minutes.
At this point, it's a good time to clean up a little. I like to throw all the sticky utensils into the jam pot and fill it with hot soapy water.
If you get it when it's fresh, jam is easy to clean. If you let it dry out, it can be a pain in the butt.
When your timer beeps, turn the heat off from under your canner. Take the lid off, and set the timer for another 5 minutes. This is to let the cans cool a little bit before removing them from the water.
When the timer goes off again, remove each jar from the canner and put it on a towel in a nondrafty area. Don't tilt the jar, even to remove the water on top. You may ruin the seal if you do that.
Yes, I did two batches of jam that day; one low sugar for me, and one half sugar for my mother-in-law. She loves jam, so I make it for her once in a while. But when she found out that it's mostly sugar, she told me to make it with low sugar like I make for myself. Well, I know my MIL well. She's a carbaholic. I sent her over some of my low sugar jam to try first, and as predicted, she said it was too tart. So we decided the best option for her was a recipe that uses about half as much sugar as a normal recipe would. She hasn't tried it yet, but I'm sure she'll like it.
Once the jam is all done, let it sit in a nondrafty area for 24 hours before moving it. If you're using metal lids, check each one for a seal by pressing the top. If it flexes inward, it isn't sealed and should be refrigerated. If it doesn't move any when you press it, congrats! You have a sealed jar of jam.
At this point, you can remove the bands if you want (they tend to rust if you leave them on) and store the jars in a cool, dark place. They will stay good for 1 year, but usually can still be eaten after that point. Just make sure to smell every jar after you open it. If it smells yucky or sour, throw it away.
So what do I use my jam for? I don't eat bread anymore (except the occasional coconut biscuit), so what could I put it on? Well, one of my favorite ways to use it is in plain full fat yogurt.
And when I get ambitious and make coconut pancakes, we use jam instead of syrup.
(Yes, that's a hamburger. With my pancakes. It was delicious.)
I think that concludes my jammin' post. Did I cover everything? I sure hope so, 'cause this post took forever to write! Making jam isn't very hard. If you do it in summer, when fruit is plentiful and cheap, it can really save you a lot of money. I think it cost me about $1 a jar for the blueberry jam, whereas if you buy sugar free jam in the store, it can cost upwards of $5 a jar. And if you grow your own fruit? Then the jam is nearly free.
But there's more to it than just money. Knowing exactly what's in your food is so empowering. Fruit, pectin, lemon juice, and a little sugar and/or xylitol. You probably can't find that in the store.