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Jammin' with summer fruit

(post, Cindy Burke)

Transforming summer fruits into jeweled jars of preserves and jams feels like alchemy to me — a magical chemistry that turns the fleeting pleasure of fresh berries, peaches, and apricots into a long-lasting treat. It's also wonderful to open up your pantry during the winter holidays and take out a few of these gems to give as gifts for friends.

With fruits at the peak of ripeness and flavor right now, it's a great time to make jam and preserves, and it's very easy. Really! With only three ingredients — ripe fruit, sugar, and lemon juice — you can distill the tastes of summer into luscious jams. The better the quality of the fruit that you use, the better your jams will be.


h1.Featured recipes

Since I'm sticking to a lower-sugar diet, I've been experimenting this year with substituting stevia (a natural sugar substitute) for a portion of the sugar in jam. I strongly dislike the flavor of such sugar substitutes as Splenda and Equal, and even though stevia doesn't have that "artificial sugar" taste, I was hesitant to muck up a whole batch of jam by using fake sugar. I needn't have worried, though, because I've been very happy with the results, and no one else has even noticed that they are eating low-sugar jam.

[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Jam-jar jewels."] 

Over the years, I've tried many recipes and techniques for making jam, and I've found that the simplest method works best for me. I don't use commercial pectin (a gelling agent for jam and jelly) at all. I don't like the flavor of pectin, and I have found that most fruits have enough natural pectin to gel adequately. Pectin requires a specific range of sugar and pH to set up properly. When you skip the pectin, you simplify the whole process significantly.

I generally use about one flat of berries for a batch of jam, or about 25 to 30 ripe peaches, apricots, nectarines, or plums. I give the fruit a good rinse and pick through it for any moldy or wizened bits, discarding them. (A few soft spots or imperfections are fine.) Using my kitchen scale, I weigh the prepared fruit — typically, I have about four pounds, which will make around two quarts of jam or preserves.  

For each pound of fruit, I add one tablespoon of lemon juice and one cup of sugar. I place everything in a large pot, add a splash of water (about a quarter-cup), and cook it over medium-low heat for about two hours, stirring occasionally. 

When it starts to look like jam, I drop a small spoonful on a plate and place it in the refrigerator for a few minutes. If it looks gelled, then the jam is ready to place in sterilized jelly jars. If it's still soupy, the jam needs to cook a little longer. The consistency should be similar to ketchup — soft, but not liquid. If the consistency is not right, simmer for another 30 minutes and retest. 

Place the jam in sterilized jars. You can refrigerate the unopened jars indefinitely. I often can the jams using a water-bath method. When canned properly, jam can be stored in a cool place for a year or more.

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