Preserving the Taste of Fresh Summer Berries
Ah, the jewels of summer! In my yard, the strawberries come first, followed by blueberries and blackberries. Then Autumn-bearing raspberries take me all the way through September. I can't resist popping at least a few into my mouths as I harvest, but there are still bowls of them to bring inside. Those of you who have devoted a corner of the yard to berries know how prolific they can be. As impossible as it seems, there are always more than I can eat fresh. What to do with the rest?
I have given them to friends, and put them in pies, and of course there are many ways to "put them by" in jams and jellies. My favorite preservation method is to make instant, no-cook refrigerator/freezer jams. Using so-called instant pectin, fresh berries and other fruit can be made into jams that last up to two weeks in the refrigerator or up to a year in the freezer.
The process is simple and involves little in the way of equipment: Mash the berries. Mix the mash with instant pectin and sugar. Stir for 3 minutes. Ladle into clean screw-cap jars. Allow to set for 30 minutes. Freeze or refrigerate, and enjoy!
Pectin is a natural carbohydrate that comes from the cell walls of plants. Citrus fruits and apples are the most common sources for commercial pectin preparations. To make refrigerator/freezer jams, be sure to use the correct pectin. Some require cooking so read the label carefully to be sure it is specifically for non-cook freezer jams. My neighbor introduced me to Ball Realfruit Instant Pectin, but there are other brands on the market, including Mrs Wages Fruit Pectin for Freezer Jam, and Pomona's Universal Pectin. Each of these comes with detailed instructions and suggested recipes on the label.
Freezing does not destroy the microbes that cause spoilage, but growth is stopped as long as the jars are frozen. This eliminates the need for sterilized jars and vacuum-sealed lids. Keeping the thawed jars in the fridge will slow spoilage for up to two weeks. Cover the jars with tight lids, such as screw caps, both in the freezer and in the refrigerator. Select fruit with no mold, discoloration or signs of spoilage for the best results, and process the fruit as soon after harvesting as possible. Once you have thawed the jams, do not put them back in the freezer. Use them before the two week time limit, and then discard any leftovers.
Because I am not relying on the process to destroy microbes, I can try out various recipes including additions of spices, or increase or decrease the sugar without worrying about safety. I have added nutmeg to blueberries, ginger to peaches, and cinnamon to raspberries with excellent results.
Ball recommends 2 tablespoons of instant pectin for 1 2/3 cup of mashed berries. I find this produces more of a compote than a spreadable jam. There are times when this is perfect, as a topping for ice cream or French toast, for example. But to achieve the firmness of conventional jam, I need to add 3 or 4 tablespoons of pectin. Adding additional sugar or a dash of lemon juice will also increase firmness. Under-ripe fruit has more pectin than ripe fruit so you can increase firmness by adding fruit that is not quite at peak ripeness. And smaller jars (pint or half-pint) will set better than larger jars.
Fruits high in pectin include tart apples, concord grapes, citrus fruit, cranberries, quince, gooseberries, and loganberries. Lower pectin concentration is found in blueberries, cherries, peaches, pineapple, rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries, and figs.
It's a great way to get the most out of summer. I can make a jar or two at a time as fruit comes along. I don't need to heat up the house or crank up the air conditioning on a hot day. And I'm back out in the garden in a jiffy. Then in the middle of a dreary winter day, I can thaw the taste of summer and start making plans for next year's bounty.
--I have included information from the Oregon, Montana, and Illinois Extension Services, and from Ball's Fresh Preserving web site to prepare this piece.