Mulberries for Jam

I’ve been curious about mulberries ever since I visited Dave Holderread’s waterfowl farm, about 25 years ago, and saw them planted in his duck pens. Dave explained that the trees would not only provide shade for the birds but would feed them without his intervention.

I wondered at this. Blackberries that grew on trees! Why didn’t more people plant mulberries? Why didn’t I plant a mulberry tree?

But I never identified a good place on the farm for a mulberry tree, and I certainly couldn’t make room for one when we moved to town. So I was delighted when my sister told me that my father’s mulberry tree. only a few years old, was producing heavily. That was in early July. A month later she told me that the tree was still producing loads of ripe fruit.

The other day I paid my father a visit. He, like Dave Holderread, had planted his mulberry tree to feed birds. But my father doesn’t keep ducks, or even chickens; he wanted to feed wild birds. He remembered a mulberry tree in the yard of a childhood home that had attracted all kinds of birds, whole flocks of birds. He had loved watching the birds eat the mulberries, and in his old age he wanted to repeat the experience.

The birds must have already had their fill for the day, because I didn’t notice any as I picked a pound and a half of mulberries for myself. I drove home with fingers stained deep purple.

The stains weren’t only on my fingers. Carrying the bag of mulberries into the house without removing my shoes, I noticed that my shoes were sticking to the floor, which now bore purple stains. The soles, I saw, were covered with mulberry gunk. I tried to rinse them in the kitchen sink, rubbing off the gunk with my fingers, but the water kept running purple. I scrubbed the soles with a sturdy brush to get the gunk out of the crevices. But immediately my shirt became covered with tiny purple-black dots. I felt like the Cat in the Hat with his pink bathtub ring. The water in which I was rinsing my shoes simply would not run clear, so I wrapped the shoes in a rag and set them outdoors to dry. Then I dropped my shirt in the sink and poured three kettlefuls of boiling water through the cloth. Sadly, the dots were much more stubborn than wine or blackberry stains. I gave up on the shirt, defeated by anthocyanins.

Black fruits from the species Morus nigra are considered the tastiest mulberries, but not all mulberries are black. M. rubra, native to the eastern states, is named for its red or purple fruit. M. alba, named not for its fruit but for its pale buds, can produce white or lavender as well as black berries. M. alba is the mulberry of East Asia, the original silkworm food (the caterpillars can also eat the leaves of other mulberry species). Although the West has long given up sericulture in favor of nylon and other synthetics, Europe and North America both had silk industries once, and for this reason the white mulberry is now a weed tree in Europe, much of Canada, and every U.S. state except Nevada (although, strangely, I have never seen one). M. alba is a promiscuous thing, crossing so often with the native M. rubra that some fear the red mulberry will soon no longer exist in its pure form. The heat-loving M. nigra, meanwhile, keeps to itself, not hybridizing with the other two at all. It will bear temperatures no lower than 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

There are other mulberry species, and many interesting cultivars within the species. One Green World Nursery sells a contorted mulberry, a weeping mulberry, a dwarf mulberry, and a mulberry from Pakistan with fruits as long as six inches.  Jim Gilbert, the nursery’s founder, has said he particularly likes ‘Illinois Everbearing,’ which although black-fruited is an alba-rubra cross. I suspect this is the cultivar my father has. It performs well not only in the Willamette Valley but throughout much of the country, to USDA zone 4. And the fruit is intensely tasty. Some compare the taste to blackberry and blueberry combined.

I stored my berries in the fridge overnight and, in the morning, clipped off their stems with kitchen shears. This is the only tedious part of processing mulberries, whose fine but tough stems are hard to pull out, easier to cut. Then I made the berries into jam in the usual way, by mashing the fruit and adding sugar and a little lemon juice. They need no added pectin.

Mulberry Jam

1½ pounds stemmed mulberries, rinsed
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice

First, put on an apron or, better yet, your painting clothes. Then put the mulberries into a preserving pan. Cook them over medium-low heat, crushing them with a potato masher, until they are tender. Remove the pan from the heat.

Add the sugar and lemon juice. Return the pan to the heat, and cook the mixture over medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat to medium high, and cook the jam to 218 degrees F, until a drop mounds in a chilled dish. This will take about 5
minutes.

Ladle the jam into sterilized pint or half-pint mason jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water or steam canner for 5 minutes.

Makes 1 ½ pints

This jam turns out distinct from blackberry jam, although the color and flavor are similar. The big difference is the seeds. Mulberries have more. Thankfully, mulberry seeds are small—too small to stick between the teeth—and they are pleasantly crunchy, like sesame seeds.

Mulberries are good for more than jam. The fresh ones are a treat. The fruit can be dried and—no surprise—used to make a dye. Both the leaves and the root bark are used medicinally.

Judging from the red and white immature fruits on my father’s tree, it will probably keep producing fruits for another two weeks or more. Who can resist a tree that produces huge quantities of fruit over such a long period, that brings birds to the garden, that grows to maturity quickly, that usually stays fairly small (‘Illinois Everbearing’ grows no taller than 20 feet), and that can take the form of a shrub, an espalier, and a contorted or weeping ornamental as well as an ordinary tree?

One warning, though: You should not plant a black-fruited mulberry near a walkway or in an area where children play, unless they are better trained than I to remove and clean their shoes before coming into the house.

Today I cleaned gobs of mulberry gunk off my car mat. Somehow, even the driver’s seat had acquired a few deep purple stains. They will probably be there forever.

A New Fruit for Cooler Climates

haskaps on bushIf you’ve come upon fruiting blue honeysuckle bushes in your local garden center this year, you can thank two fruit-loving Oregonians, Jim Gilbert and Maxine Thompson.

After one of his fruit-gathering trips to Russia in the 1990s, Jim introduced American gardeners to Lonicera caerulea, or the honeyberry, as he called it, through his mail-order nursery, One Green World. Later Maxine, a professor emeritus in horticulture at Oregon State University, began breeding the Japanese subspecies, from the northern island of Hokkaido. Maxine called the berries haskap, their Ainu name. She has sold plants of numbered selections to people who wanted to test them and, subsequently, propagation rights to nurseries all over the world.

haskaps in handIf you get the right variety for your region, these plants may be worth a try in your garden. Dark-skinned, with a bloom, the fruits look like elongated blueberries. They are high in vitamin C and richer in antioxidants than even black currants. The berries are not particularly aromatic, but they are mildly sweet and pleasantly tart. Their many seeds are hardly noticeable on the tongue, and the berries makes a luscious jam with no need for added pectin and none of the graininess of blueberry jam.

I planted two of Jim’s honeyberry varieties on our farm about ten years ago. One never produced berries; the other produced a few, but only once or twice. I admit that I probably didn’t water the plants often enough, but Maxine, when I visited her homestead in wooded hills north of Corvallis, explained to me the bigger problem: The two Russian subspecies, L. caerulea edulis and L. caerulea kamtschatica, are adapted to extremely cold winters. Here in the Willamette Valley, they break dormancy too early and as a result bloom too early. The Japanese subspecies, L. caerulea edulis, blooms about a month later. And yet haskaps are the earliest berries of the year, ripening even before strawberries.

The three plants Maxine sold me, each of a different numbered variety, grew into little vase-shaped shrubs beside our farmhouse. They looked very different from the sprawling honeyberry plants I’d bought from One Green World. One of those was entirely prostrate and the other a little taller, but both seemed unsure whether they were vine or bush.

Upon selling the farm I said goodbye to Jim’s honeyberries, dug up Maxine’s plants, and set the haskaps in our little city garden, where they are thriving. Now four years old, they are three to four feet tall and maintaining their handsome vase-shape. And this year, for the first time, they provided me a substantial crop.

As Maxine must have intended, the three selections together exemplify the diversity of the haskap subspecies. One’s fruits are long and torpedo-shaped, extra-tart and least numerous. The more productive, medium-size plant has thick, blunt-ended, sweeter berries. The smallest plant has the shortest berries, and their tendency to hold on to their blossoms makes for a bit of fuss in the kitchen.

The L. caerulea plants you find in your garden center will have names, not numbers. Yezberries (Yez is an old name for Hokkaido) are Maxine’s selections, released in 2016 and 2017. Yezberries Maxie, Solo, Keiko, Tanna, and Sugar Pie all bloom late and are suitable for warmer climates, like mine and Maxine’s. Also late-blooming are some of the varieties bred by Bob Bors, of the University of Saskatchewan, who has crossed Maxine’s Japanese selections with Russian honeyberries. Bob’s releases include the late-blooming Boreal Blizzard, Boreal Beauty, and Boreal Beast, and, for colder regions, the earlier-blooming Indigo series, Tundra, Borealis, Aurora, and Honey Bee. Other early bloomers are Berry Smart and Sugar Mountain Blue, both bred in the Czech Republic. You’ll find information on all of these at Honeyberry USA.*

None of these haskap or honeyberry varieties is self-fruitful, so plan to buy at least two plants, of different, compatible varieties. Plant them five to six feet apart in a sunny place. Give them some mulch, and water them now and then, but don’t worry—haskaps aren’t nearly so thirsty as blueberries. L. caerulea doesn’t need acidic soil, either.

Most varieties will grow to about six feet tall. After four or five years you’ll probably want to prune the bushes lightly, by removing weak growth and the oldest wood; this will make harvest easier. You’ll probably be harvesting more than once each season, because the berries generally don’t all ripen at once (some varieties hold on to their fruits better than others, making it possible to delay picking). You’ll likely deal with no pests but birds.

After about five years the average haskap or honeyberry plant is said to produce 8 to 10 pounds fruit. From my three plants I got only about two pounds this year, but my plants are set a bit close to one other and to other shrubs in my edible landscape, and, after all, they suffered a move after their first two years. I expect a bigger harvest next year.

Haskaps are easy to prepare and store. Maxine, an octogenarian fireball when I met her (she is now in her nineties), was freezing most of her berries and sending each buyer home with a bag of frozen fruit and a recipe for haskap crisp: Mix 6 cups berries with 1½ cups sugar and 2 tablespoons tapioca; top the sugared berries with a mix of 1½ cups each brown sugar, oatmeal, and whole-wheat flour, 1 cup chopped roasted hazelnuts and ½ cup melted butter; and bake about ½ hour at 350 degrees F.

Drying haskaps may be trickier. When I dried some in a small dehydrator that lacks a thermostat, it was difficult to keep the berries from turning hard and crisp. Like cranberries, they might dry to a more appealing, tender, chewy texture after a soak in syrup. Without added sugar, I suspect, haskaps should be dried slowly, at a low temperature.

I had to try making haskap jam. This couldn’t have been easier. Here is my small-batch, low-sugar recipe.

haskap jam 1Quick Haskap Jam

To ensure good gelling, I nearly always add lemon juice to my jams. My haskap jam, however, turned out quite tart, so next year I’ll try the recipe without added lemon.

 1 pound haskaps, rinsed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup sugar

Put the haskaps into a 12-inch nonreactive skillet. Mash them coarsely (I use a potato masher). Heat them over medium heat to a gentle boil.     

Turn off the heat, and add the lemon juice and sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring, until a drop of jam mounds slightly in a chilled dish. This should take no more than 5 minutes.

Ladle the jam into pint jar or two half-pint jars. Process the jars, if you like, or else store them in the refrigerator.

Makes about 1 pint

 

*Another good source of information about L. caerulea is the website of the Haskap Canada Association.

Finally: A Good Thermometer for Home Preserving

 

javelin-proWhen home preservers have asked me what sort of thermometer they should use, I’ve never had good advice for them. I teach people to assess the readiness of their jams, jellies, and preserves by various tests: Does the liquid “sheet” off the spoon? Does the jam mound in a chilled dish or show wrinkles when you disturb its cooling surface? Does the syrup “spin a thread” in a glass of cold water?

Yet I often specify temperature goals for verifying these visual tests. Knowing the temperature really helps, for example, in the case of fruits whose juices gel slowly and so fail to “sheet” when they have reached gelling temperature. But how can you know that your boiling liquid has reached gelling temperature when your thermometer simply does not work?

Thermometers fail us in many ways. The glass capillary tube of an old-fashioned candy thermometer slips up or down in relation to the scale. The paint wears off the scale. Thermometers that must be left in the pot get in the way of the spoon and fall in the jam. Dial thermometers must be calibrated when you buy them and frequently thereafter. For an “instant-read” thermometer, the “instant” may last ten seconds or more—long enough to burn your fingers. Digital thermometers often flip out a few degrees beyond boiling. My husband bought an expensive, long-probed thermometer that measured some 30 degrees off and could not be calibrated. He bought another that showed wildly fluctuating temperatures over about 215 degrees F. Even my little digital CDN, the most reliable thermometer I ever had until now, goes blank when the temperature nears 220 degrees; when I remove the thermometer from the heat, the display reappears in Celsius instead of Fahrenheit. And thermometers of all kinds fog up and become unreadable.

So I am extremely happy with my Christmas present: a little digital thermometer called the Javelin Pro. It’s made in the style of the expensive Thermapen: With the probe folded against the handle, these thermometers are small enough to fit in a breast pocket, but when the probe is fully extended the thermometer is long enough—10.5 inches, in the case of the Javelin Pro—to keep your hand well away from the heat. I like to extend the probe just 90 to 120 degrees, so my hand is outside the rim of the pot while I take the temperature of my jam.

Many manufacturers are now making Thermapen-type thermometers, which start at about twenty dollars. All have large, easy-to-read screens, and some of the screens, including mine, have backlighting, which enhances readability even when you’re not working in the dark. And these thermometers tend to be fast and accurate. My Javelin Pro responds in only 3 to 4 seconds, and it’s accurate to 0.9 degrees F. You can’t calibrate these thermometers, but you shouldn’t need to; the Javelin Pro is supposed to retain its accuracy through the three-year warranty period. High temperatures don’t upset my thermometer; I’ve used it successfully for jams and jellies already, and the manufacturer claims that it is accurate all the way to 482 degrees F. The big display does not fog up.

I see only two general disadvantages to Thermapen-type thermometers. First, you can’t switch the readout between Fahrenheit and Celsius. Instead you must buy either a Fahrenheit or a Celsius thermometer, although you may be able to change the setting by fiddling with the thermometer’s insides. Second, you must replace the battery when it wears out—but fortunately that battery is likely to be long-lived. My Javelin Pro takes a CR2032 battery that is expected to last 3,500 hours.

The Javelin Pro has a couple of special features that made me choose it over similar models for my Christmas list. A hidden magnet lets it magically stick to the refrigerator. If you have a non-magnetic refrigerator, no problem: The Javelin Pro also has a hole at the handle end through which you can loop a cord, to hang on a hook or around your neck. No more fishing through a drawer every time you need a thermometer.

If you’re feeling wealthy, however, you might want to bypass the Javelin Pro for a genuine Thermapen. All the competition from imitators has pushed its maker, Thermoworks, to continually improve its thermometer. The latest model, the Super-Fast Thermapen, responds in only 2 to 3 seconds and is accurate to 0.7 degrees F. You can set the thermometer to show you tenths of a degree, if you prefer, instead of whole degrees, and the display will turn among four directions depending on how you hold the instrument. The battery is an AAA, so it’s easy to find a replacement. Best of all, this newest Thermapen is not just water-resistant; it is waterproof.

The Thermapen is on sale now for $87 at www.thermoworks.com. The Javelin Pro costs $58 at lavatools.co.

 

Another Use for Angelica

blooming angelica Blooming exactly in accordance with European folk tradition is this Angelica archangelica, whose flowers burst forth in my garden on May 8, the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel. When you see flowering angelica you may have missed your chance to cut stems for preserving—unless you also find some first-year plants, which will wait until next year to blossom. Happily, I have a bed crowded with both first- and second-year angelica.

Upon seeing the blooms I hurried to cut a few young, all-green stems (the flowering ones turn red), because I remembered that I’d wanted to make a traditional northern European preserve that combines stalks of both angelica and rhubarb. I thank Laura Content, of Portland, for telling me about—

rhubarb-angelica preservesRhubarb-Angelica Preserves

2/3 cup water
2 cups sugar
1 pound rhubarb stalks
½ pound angelica stalks

In a preserving pan, slowly dissolve the sugar in the water, and bring the syrup to a boil.

As the syrup heats, cut the rhubarb into 1-inch pieces. Peel the angelica stalks, and cut them it into slender rings. Add the angelica and rhubarb to the hot syrup, stir, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer it very gently for an hour or longer, stirring very little if at all, until the rhubarb is quite tender and the syrup is somewhat thickened. Keep in mind that the preserves will thicken more as they cool.

Ladle the preserves into four half-pint sterilized jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Add lids and rings, and process the jars for 5 minutes.

The recipe to which Laura referred me was actually one for rhubarb-angelica jam. If you want a jammy texture, you can simply stir the preserves during or after cooking. But I think that preserves are prettier, especially if your rhubarb is the red-skinned kind.

Angelica has a strong aroma that mystifies and even scares people unfamiliar with it. If you’d prefer to tone down the angelica, at least the first time that you try this recipe, simply increase the weight of rhubarb in relation to the angelica. Try, say, 1¼ pounds rhubarb to ¼ pound angelica.

If you really love angelica, you might use proportionally more than called for here. One reader of this blog wrote that Icelanders use equal parts rhubarb and angelica in their preserves. That might take some getting used to, but I already like angelica in this more modest role.

Experiment with Specialty Pectins

As many readers of this blog already know, I almost never use packaged pectin. After writing a whole book about old-fashioned fruit preserves, made as they were before packaged pectin was invented, I’ve felt no need for Sure-Jell or MCP or any such stuff. But recently Nadia Hassani, who wrote about her own experiment with pectins in her blog “Spoonfuls of Germany,” told me how much she liked Dr. Oetker’s Gelfix, a pectin mix from her native Germany, and offered to send me some. Gelfix seems to be sold all over Europe, but in the United States it can only be ordered through the Internet. I said I’d try it.

I decided to compare the Gelfix with a new product from Ball, a pectin mix that comes in a small plastic jar instead of a box, with flexible instructions that allow you to vary both the batch size and the sugar content. And then I saw a box of Pomona pectin at Nichols Garden Nursery and decided to include it in the test, too. Available mainly from special sources like Nichols and food co-ops (though some supermarkets are beginning to carry it), Pomona also offers flexible recipes, which allow the use of little sugar or even none at all.

I pulled bags and bags of frozen raspberries out of the freezer. I was accustomed to making raspberry jam with nothing but sugar and a little lemon juice added. My raspberry jam took a few minutes of boiling to set, but it always set to a pleasant, soft gel, and never turned out stiff or sticky or syrupy. How would I like raspberry jam made with these specialty pectins?

I started by examining the packages.

GelfixGelfix. Nadia had sent me Gelfix Extra, which requires only one part sugar for two parts fruit, by weight. Dr. Oetker also makes Gelfix Classic, which requires one part sugar for one part fruit, and Gelfix Super, which call for only one part sugar for three parts fruit. Nadia finds jam made with Gelfix Classic too sweet. Gelfix Super contains fructose—to boost the sweetness of the jam, apparently, while keeping the calories low. (In case your jam doesn’t set, Dr. Oetker sells packets of citric acid, too. Lemon juice works as well.)

Gelfix pectins are made from both apple pomace and citrus peels. The Classic and Extra versions contain dextrose, a form of sugar that’s included in Sure-Jell and Ball pectins as well and that’s replaced by the fructose in Gelfix Super. Gelfix Extra and Gelfix Super contain sorbic acid, a preservative, apparently to retard the fermentation and mold growth to which low-sugar jams are prone. All three Gelfix versions contain citric acid, which takes the place of the lemon juice traditionally added to jam to aid in gelling. All three also contain hydrogenated vegetable oil, which I imagine is meant to replace the traditional pat of butter that helps keep the jam pot from boiling over. The fat must be in a very small amount and somehow granulated, because the Gelfix pectin mixture is a powder, not a paste.

The Gelfix box contains two packets, each of which makes at least two and a half pints of jam. On the Internet I found prices for Gelfix ranging from $4.65 to $5.95 per box. At $5.00 per box, probably about the best you could do with shipping included, Gelfix would add about a dollar per pint to the cost of your jam.

Keep in mind that the Gelfix instructions are in German. Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

Ball pectinBall. I turned to the Ball product, called RealFruit [sic] Classic Pectin. Again that word classic. I began to understand that this is a code word for old-fashioned high-methoxyl pectin, the kind that requires a high sugar content for good gelling.1 Only two other ingredients are listed on the label, pectin (from citrus, apple, or both, the label doesn’t say) and citric acid. Ball’s Classic Pectin, in other words, has the same ingredients as Gelfix Classic except for the vegetable fat.

Had I chosen the wrong product for a fair comparison? I’d found a Ball pectin for low-sugar jams on the shelf at Bi-Mart, but on peeling back the label I’d learned that this Instant Pectin was intended only for freezer jam. Now I wondered if Ball made a pectin mix more like Gelfix Extra–a product Bi-Mart hadn’t stocked. A quick Internet search told me this was so. I should have bought Ball’s Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin instead of the Classic Pectin.2

I couldn’t have known this without checking the Web. Here in Oregon, Ball’s new products, unlike the company’s mason jars and lids, are only slowly gaining acceptance in supermarkets and other stores. Ball’s Pickle Crisp is another product that none of the stores in my area have stocked. I’d never seen Ball pectin of any kind until I found it at Bi-Mart, a low-cost dry-goods store that caters to rural folk here in the Northwest. Now my raspberries were thawed and waiting. I decided to carry on my experiment with Ball’s Classic Pectin.

Ball inner label
Ball’s sturdy peel-back label reseals against the jar time after time.

The instructions inside the Ball pectin label surprised me. There were two recipes, one for “Traditional Jam” and one for “Reduced Sugar Jam,” identical except for the amounts of sugar called for. Packages of old-fashioned high-methoxyl pectin are full of warnings: You must never alter the quantity of sugar, or your jam will fail! The Ball pectin, I figured, must be all or partially amidated, or subjected to a treatment with ammonia that makes high-methoxyl pectin behave more like low-methoxyl pectin, the kind that requires little or no sugar but gels in reaction with calcium. Normally, low-methoxyl pectins require added calcium for making jam. Amidated pectins do not; they are much less fussy about calcium levels. Jams and jellies made with amidated pectins are unusual, too, in that they will regel after you melt them. The Ball pectin isn’t so old-fashioned after all.

Ball’s “Traditional” recipe calls for 1 2/3 cups sugar to 1 1/3 cups chopped or mashed fruit. A weight measurement would be more precise, and also more useful for comparison with the Gelfix proportions. But the old saw “A pint is a pound the whole world round” proves more or less accurate for both mashed raspberries and granulated sugar. So the recipe calls for at least as much sugar as fruit, by weight. Truly traditional jam making, without packaged pectin, typically calls for three parts sugar to every four parts fruit, by weight, though you’d use less sugar with low-pectin fruits and more with high-pectin, high-acid fruits. Ball’s recipe is typical not for no-pectin-added jams but for jams made from high-methoxyl pectins, the only kind sold before the 1980s.

Ball’s “Reduced Sugar” recipe calls for much less sugar, only 1 cup for 1 1/3 cups chopped or mashed fruit. This is more in line with traditional jams. Still, I balked at the either-or choice. The label seemed to be telling me that the pectin could make good jam with a standard amount of sugar or a very high amount of sugar, but not with some amount in between. Why couldn’t there be a single recipe with the sugar amount specified as a range? Most likely, I figured, the marketing people at Ball think consumers can’t handle choices that aren’t black and white.

But the Ball instructions offer cooks another, more flexible choice: that of batch size. Here’s another command you may remember from boxes of high-methoxyl pectin: Never alter the batch size! If you don’t have quite enough berries, go pick some more! If you have too many, leave them out!

Actually, traditional jam makers have to be careful about batch size, too. If your batch is too big for your pot, for one thing, your jam will boil over. For another thing, evaporation is part of the process of reaching the gel point. A bigger batch has proportionately less surface area and so will gel more slowly. Also, natural pectin reacts best when both heating and cooling are rapid.

The Ball label invites multiplying the recipes but warns against exceeding ten jars per batch. You have to do a little figuring to understand out what this means: If the basic recipe makes two half-pints, the ten jars referred to must be half-pint jars. So you can multiply the recipe by five, but no more.

The Ball jar contains enough pectin, according to the label, to make up to 22 half-pints. You’d fill fewer jars with less added sugar, but even with the reduced-sugar recipe you should be able to fill 18 half-pint jars. The 4.7-ounce pectin container costs about five dollars, so using the low-sugar recipe with Ball Classic Pectin would add about 27 cents per pint to the cost of your jam making. At least in the United States, the Ball product is considerably cheaper than the Gelfix product.

Pomona package & instruxPomona. The last brand in my study contains no added sugar at all.3 The list of ingredients on a box of Pomona’s Universal Pectin is brief and precise: “1 packet low methoxyl citrus pectin and 1 packet monocalcium phosphate.” Low-methoxyl pectins need calcium to form a gel, but they can gel with less sugar and less acid than can high-methoxyl pectins. So no citric acid is included in the Pomona package, and with higher-acid fruits adding lemon juice is optional.

The monocalcium phosphate, the Pomona instructions say, is to be combined with water. You mix ½ teaspoon of the powder with ½ cup water, and you store this “calcium water” in the refrigerator, where it will keep for months. Although the Pomona instructions call for adding calcium water to every kind of fruit, too much calcium can interfere with gelling. So the amount of calcium water called for varies from 2 to 4 teaspoons per four cups fruit or juice. You shake the jar just before you measure some out.

Inside the Pomona package are recipes for low-sugar jams and jellies, no-sugar-added jams, and uncooked freezer jams. My favorites are the all-purpose recipes for cooked jam and jelly sweetened with a little sugar (1/4 to ½ cup per 1 cup fruit) or honey (1/8 to 1/3 cup per 1 cup fruit). For jam, you use ½ to ¾ teaspoons pectin for 1 cup fruit; for jelly, you use a little more pectin, ¾ to 1 teaspoon per 1 cup fruit. Otherwise the two recipes are the same. You refine these basic recipes according to the amount of fruit you want to use and how sweet your jam or jelly to be. These recipes are much more flexible than Ball’s.

The price of a box of Pomona pectin varies from about four to six dollars per box. A box contains 8 to 9 teaspoons pectin. This makes four batches of berry jam, if you use 4 cups of prepared berries per batch. Depending on how much sugar you add, your output will be 18 to 20 half-pint jars of jam. At $5.00 per box, the pectin would add 25 to 28 cents to your costs per jar, about the same as for the Ball pectin.

Making the Jam

I had thawed enough berries to make four batches of jam with about 2 pounds of fruit per batch. I used Ball’s “Reduced Sugar” recipe (1 cup sugar per 1 1/3 cups prepared fruit) for the best comparison with the Gelfix recipe (1 pound sugar per 2 pounds fruit). With the Pomona pectin, I made two batches of jam, one with 1 cup sugar per 2 cups fruit, and another with ½ cup sugar per 2 cups fruit.

The process differed slightly among the brands. With Gelfix, you boil the fruit, sugar, and pectin together for 3 minutes before testing a drop of jam on a chilled dish. With Ball, you bring the fruit and pectin to a full boil, stir in the sugar, and boil hard for 1 minute. With Pomona, you stir the pectin into the sugar, bring the fruit and calcium water to a boil, add the pectin-sugar mix, and boil hard for 1 to 2 minutes. Since I like a softer set, I chose a 1-minute boiling time with the Pomona pectin.

In all cases, the boiling was brief enough to produce a pinkish rather than dark red jam. In all cases, too, the jam set up quickly. As soon as I would take the pot off the heat, the surface of the jam would wrinkle with any disturbance; this is a sure sign of gelling. With the Ball pectin, the jam was clumping as I filled the last jar.

Although the Gelfix instructions say nothing about boiling-water processing, which isn’t normally done in Europe, I processed all the jars the same way. I sterilized them first in the canner, and after filling and closing them I gave them a 5-minute boiling-water bath.

The Taste Test

While my son Ben and his wife were visiting, we held a blind jam tasting with warm biscuits. We had to work at identifying differences among the jams—except in the case of the very-low-sugar Pomona, which lacked the sheen of the others and tasted more tart. To me, this stuff looked and tasted like cooked puréed fruit, not jam, but my husband, Robert, actually preferred its fruitier, less sugary flavor. The other, sweeter Pomona jam was a bit softer than the rest, probably because I’d given it the minimal boiling time. The Gelfix jam, which turned out slightly softer than the Ball, was Robert’s favorite. Deanna preferred the Ball, and Ben was torn between the not-so-low-sugar Pomona and the Ball jam. Most interesting to me was this: No one could tell that the Ball jam had more sugar.

Conclusions

Gelfix works well if you can get it, if you can read or translate the German instructions, and if the price and the addition of vegetable fat don’t put you off.

Ball’s RealFruit Classic Pectin is cheaper than Gelfix but requires more sugar. If you want to make your jam with less sugar, look for Ball’s Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin. Be sure you don’t buy Ball’s Instant Pectin by mistake; it’s intended only for freezer jam.

Pomona pectin costs no more than the Ball mix and is the clear choice among the three if you want to add pectin but not dextrose to your jam. Pomona also allows more flexibility in the amount of sugar you add to your jam than does either of the other products I tested. The necessity of adding calcium water is little bother. The only problem I see with Pomona is its limited availability. To encourage your local store to carry it, send your name and your store’s name and address to info@pomonapectin.com.

One final suggestion: For truly traditional jam, try making it without added pectin. Use three parts sugar to four parts mashed raspberries, and add a squirt of juice from a fresh lemon. The process is simple and quick, and the result is delicious. For more information, see The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.

 

Notes

1. The main component of pectin is something called galacturonic acid. Molecules of this acid have groups of atoms called carboxyl groups. In nature, about 80 percent of these carboxyl groups are esterified with methane—in other words, turned to esters, groups of atoms that give fruits their fruity aromas. Methoxyl refers to a methane group, CH3, that is attached to a larger organic molecule through an oxygen atom. This arrangement is commonly described as R-O-CH3, with R representing the larger molecule. The linkage by way of an oxygen atom is also called an ester linkage.

When pectin is extracted, the proportion of esters decreases, to a varying degree. The ratio of esterified to non-esterified galacturonic acid determines the behavior of pectin in making jam and jelly. So pectins are classified as high-methoxyl (or HM, or high-ester) or low-methoxyl (or LM, or low-ester), depending on whether more or less than half of the galacturonic acid is esterified. As far as I know, Pomona is the only pectin packaged for home preservers that is identified on the package as low- or high-methoxyl.

2. Ball’s Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin contains dextrose, pectin, citric acid, and calcium ascorbate. The last ingredient helps preserve color while presumably providing the calcium needed for low-methoxyl jams to gel.

3. When figuring how much sugar you’re adding to your jam, you must account for how much sugar is in your pectin package. Nadia had informed me that, for a given weight of fruit to be prepared, Sure-Jell is heavier than Gelfix. The weight is mainly in sugar, in the form of dextrose. I compared the Ball mix with the other two in this way: If 1 kilo fruit makes 6 cups “Reduced Sugar” jam with the Ball pectin, and the 133-gram jar contains enough pectin to make 18 cups of this jam, then we can figure that the Ball mix would add 44 grams per kilo of fruit, compared with 32 grams per kilo for Sure-Jell and 25 grams per kilo for Gelfix. These differences, to me, are minor. But I appreciate that Pomona leaves the addition of sugar entirely up to the jam maker.

Win Canning Jars, Lids, and The Joy of Jams!

Fillmore jars
Fruits of the season in Fillmore Container jars

Today marks the start of a contest for a set of gifts from Fillmore Container: a dozen  straight-sided, slightly tapered, unembossed half-pint jelly jars; a dozen one-piece caps in the winner’s choice of color; and a copy of The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves, my guide to making all kinds of traditional sweet preserves in traditional ways, without added pectin.

The canning jars are just like half-pint Ball and Kerr jars except that there are no lumpy parts to avoid when affixing a label. Unlike Ball and Kerr jars, these jars come in a box with top flaps, which you can fold down to protect your preserves from dust and light when you store and transport them.

Fillmore jar lidsThe caps come in three colors: gold, silver, and white (black ones aren’t currently available but will be later this year). The raised center of each cap makes the vacuum seal easy to see. The sealing ring is white, as is the rest of the cap’s underside. Called Plastisol, the sealing compound is appropriate for both boiling-water canning and pressure-canning. The lids should be briefly soaked in hot water to soften the Plastisol before they are screwed on to the jars.

Because people who don’t do their own canning are often flummoxed by flat jar lids, one-piece caps are nice to have when you’re planning to sell your preserves or give them to friends or relatives. And I’m especially pleased that I can place a 2 ½-inch round label on top of one of these caps without some of the type ending up covered by a ring.

Only U.S. residents are eligible for this contest. To enter, simply append a comment to this post by June 3. A winner will be chosen at random the next day.

By the way, you can probably tell from the top photo that it’s rhubarb season in my garden. The recipes for Rhubarb-Rose Jam and Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam are from The Joy of Jams, except that for this batch of Rhubarb-Rose I increased the quantity of rose petals (from pink-flowered rugosas) to 4 ounces, with a beautifully colorful result. For another idea about what to do with all that rhubarb, see my recipe for Blueberry-Rhubarb Jam, in my guest blog post on the Fillmore Container site.

The Kreibich Nectarine Revisited


When I wrote about my first little crop of Kreibich nectarines, about this time last year, my daughter had cut up all the fruits for a tart before I had a chance to play with them. This year the crop of small, white-fleshed fruits was much bigger, and I was able to make both lumpy and puréed nectarine jams, a nectarine-fig jam, and pickled nectarines. I’d like to pass on a few things I learned about this new cultivar.

First, the thin, bitter skins don’t slide off easily with a brief dip in boiling water, as peach skins normally do. I ended up peeling the fruits with a paring knife. For pickled nectarines, I wouldn’t bother with peeling at all next time. This would not only save time and trouble, but the hint of bitterness might pleasantly balance the sweetness and tartness of the pickles.

I made the puréed jam when I got fed up with peeling. After slicing the fruits and cooking them until they were tender, I passed them through the fine screen of a food mill before reheating it with sugar. This worked to eliminate the skins, but the puréed nectarine jam, like my beloved puréed pear jam, spattered furiously as I cooked it.

Fortunately, jam made from these nectarines, even when they’re puréed, becomes quite thick with just a minute or two of boiling. Are other nectarines so dense-fleshed? I’ve always assumed nectarines were as juicy as peaches. Because the Kreibich fruit was so sweet and dense, I reduced the amount of sugar in both the lumpy and puréed jams.

Something else remarkable about these nectarines is their color when cooked—neither  white like the nectarine’s flesh nor peachy orange, but rosy. The color comes from the red pigment that’s around the freestone pit and just under as well as in the skins.

There’s one more thing gardeners should know about this leaf-curl-resistant cultivar: It can get leaf curl. My tree did, during this year’s wet spring. I will have to spray with lime-sulfur this coming fall and winter if I’m to ensure the tree’s good health. And maybe I’ll try neem in early summer to ward off the cucumber beetles, who once again marred the nectarines’ skins.

Here’s my recipe for—

Lumpy Nectarine Jam

 2½ pounds peeled, pitted, and sliced Kreibich nectarines (see instructions)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
½ cup water
3¼ cups sugar

To keep the nectarines from browning, mix them with the lemon juice as you peel and slice them. I do this in a bowl, checking the weight occasionally with a kitchen scale. Stop cutting nectarines when you have 2½ pounds.

In a preserving pan, combine the nectarines and water. Cover the pan, and simmer the nectarines for 5 minutes. Crush them a bit with a potato masher or other tool, and then cover the pan again and simmer them a bit more, until they are quite tender. Remove the pan from the heat.

Add the sugar to the pan, place the pan over medium heat, and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Raise the heat to medium high, and briefly boil the jam, stirring, until it mounds in a chilled bowl.

Ladle the jam into three pint or six half-pint jars, and process them as usual.

You could make a fancier jam by flavoring it with, say, ginger, cinnamon, or rum, but the heavenly aroma of Kreibich nectarines needs no adornment.

Triple Crown Blackberry Jam

“Rip out those plants, Mom!” my daughter told me. “They’ll totally take over!”

She meant the alien-looking blackberry canes towering over one of my Marionberry rows. The monstrous canes don’t sprawl over the ground like the Marions but stand erect, as tall as fifteen feet. Each cane is as thick as a sapling, and thornless. The leaves aren’t blotched with rust like those of the Marions but solid green, the picture of health.

The fruit is different, too. Whereas Marionberries are long, slender, and soft, these other blackberries are big, round, firm, and glossy. They lack the sour, bitter, winy notes of Marionberry; their taste is frank Himalaya, with a little less acid. They ripen with the wild Himalaya, too, starting at the end of the Marions’ season.

It’s the resemblance to the Himalaya that scares my daughter. We love this most common wild blackberry, but it’s so invasive that we rip out every start except along the irrigation ditch and at the far edges of the wheat field. The new blackberry plants in the row with the Marions aren’t spreading, though, at least not yet. They stay in two tidy clumps, lightly attached to wires just to be sure the plants won’t topple over in the wind (they’re technically considered “semi-erect”).

These plants are the Triple Crown blackberry, a variety jointly developed by USDA breeders in Oregon and Maryland. Released for sale in 1996, the variety is starting to get popular both in and beyond the Pacific Northwest and the mid-Atlantic states. Triple Crown is named for its three “crowning attributes”: flavor, productivity, and vigor. But the variety has two other wonderful attributes, and they’re the ones that will keep me from ripping out the plants: disease-resistance and thornlessness. With western Oregon’s long, cool wet season, disease-resistance is all-important. And I never miss the pain of tiny blackberry thorns in my fingers.

Still, my daughter has a complaint unmentioned in the berry trial reports: “The seeds are too big. They stick in my teeth.” So I decide to make the Triple Crowns into one of her favorite jams, seedless blackberry.

Triple Crown Blackberry Jam
Makes about 3 pints

Although you could use a different blackberry variety in this recipe, I’ve written it especially for Triple Crowns. These berries are relatively low in acid, so I use a little more lemon juice than usual. And because the berries are so large and firm, I cook them before putting them through the food mill.

3 pounds Triple Crown blackberries
3 2/3 cups sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice

In a broad, heavy-bottomed, nonreactive pot, simmer the berries, covered, until they are tender and most of their juice is rendered, about 10 minutes. Then put the berries through the fine screen of a food mill.

In the pot, combine the berry purée with the sugar and lemon juice. Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Turn the heat to medium-high, and boil the jam until a drop mounds in a chilled bowl. (The spoon test will work with this jam, too; when the jam is ready, two drops will run together off the side of a spoon.)

Remove the pot from the heat. Ladle the jam into sterilized jars, and process them in a boiling-water bath for 5 minutes.

Once my daughter has tasted this luscious, dark jam, I hope, she’ll never again complain about my monster blackberry plants. In the next year or two, I may be ripping out Marions to make room for more Triple Crowns.

Frozen Blueberries Love Fresh Rhubarb

In jams, pies, cobblers, and other sweet treats, rhubarb routinely gets paired with strawberries, for good reasons: Rhubarb and strawberries tend to reach the peak of their seasons together, and strawberries disguise the often lackluster color of rhubarb (although all-green rhubarb can be attractive on its own; see my recipe for Green Rhubarb Jam).

But in a spring as cool the one we’re experiencing in thePacific Northwestnow, local strawberries lag behind the rhubarb. There’s hardly a spot of red in the berry patches yet, and nobody wants to substitute hard, green-centered strawberries from California for sweet, tender red fruits from the garden or farm stand. This is a good time, though, to clean out the freezer, to make room for the abundance that will come (it will, really). And amid the pork chops and pesto may lurk bags and bags of last year’s fruit. My friend Sally hauls all out all her frozen fruit this time of year to make a batch of mixed-fruit wine. I make jam.

I decided to make jam from the last of last summer’s blueberries combined with the first of this year’s rhubarb. The pairing worked: The rhubarb took on the deep-blue color of the berries, lent an interesting texture, and balanced the berries’ high pectin content so I could use minimal sugar and yet avoid a tough jell. To eliminate the unpleasant fibrousness of cooked blueberries, I first heated the berries separately and then pressed them through a food mill. The result is a lusciously soft, dark jam that seems the essence of blueberry until you notice the tart yet subtle background note of rhubarb.

Supposing no blueberries turn up in your freezer, wait a few weeks. With adequate watering, your rhubarb will still be going strong when the first blueberries ripen. Then you can mix the two deliciously in jam—or in a pie, a tart. a crisp, or a cobbler.

Blueberry-Rhubarb Jam

1 1/2 pounds blueberries
1 pound trimmed rhubarb (leaves and tough bases cut off), cut into small pieces
3 1/3 cups sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice

If the berries are frozen, let them thaw.

In a broad, heavy-bottomed pan, simmer the blueberries, covered, for about 5 minutes. Press them though the fine disk of a food mill.

Combine the berry puree in the pan with the rhubarb, sugar, and lemon juice. Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the mixture, while still stirring frequently, until the rhubarb breaks down and a bit of the jam mounds in a chilled bowl, or until the temperature of the mixture reaches 221 degrees F. This should take no more than 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.

Skim the foam from the jam, and ladle the jam into sterilized half-pint mason jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Close the jars, and process them for 5 minutes in a boiling-water bath.

Remove the jars to a rack or pad, and let them stand undisturbed for 24 hours, after which time the jam should be well set. Store the jars in a cool, dry, dark place.

Makes about 6 half-pints

June in a Jar

Alexandria strawberry

This year’s long, wet spring in western Oregon pleased my Alexandria strawberries, which I planted last year under the arching canes of an old climbing rose. The pale pink roses, white from a distance, are just beginning to bloom, and breathing in their fragrance while tasting the just-ripe berries made me dream of my jam pot.

Introduced by Park Seed in 1964, Alexandria is one of several seed-propagated varieties of Fragaria vesca, the European woodland or alpine strawberry. Although the fruits of Alexandria are bigger than those of other F. vesca cultivars, the longest of my berries measure less than an inch. The fruits ripen over a long period, so you have to plant a lot of starts if you want to collect enough berries for jam. For these reasons, many gardeners treat the Alexandria strawberry as an ornamental ground cover rather than a food source. But eating one of the perfectly ripe berries produces a shocking rush of flavor. However jaded you are from crunching gigantic green-picked strawberries from California, you will recognize Alexandria’s flavor as the essence of strawberry.

I collected a couple of handfuls of berries and then looked up at the rose bower. I hadn’t yet made rose preserves this year, and I’d missed the peak bloom of both the rugosas and the delicate pink wild roses. But I knew I could find roses enough to combine with the strawberries. The flowers overhead were too pale for a red jam, sadly. For better color and an equally delicious aroma, I collected some pink moss roses, pulling the blossoms away from each calyx with one hand and, with the other, clipping off each petal’s pale, slightly bitter base with the tiny scissors of my pocket knife.

Then I remembered the rhubarb stalks I’d harvested a few hours earlier. Rhubarb can be problematic for preservers and bakers because it is typically ambivalent about color. The varieties that are red inside and out tend to lack vigor, and all-green varieties are hard to find. Most rhubarb in home gardens has red or red-speckled  skin but green flesh, and even red rhubarb skin may lose much of its color in the wrong growing conditions. The color problem is one reason that rhubarb is so often combined with strawberries. The happy marriage of flavors is another reason; the tartness of the rhubarb complements the sweet perfume of the strawberries. But full-scented roses marry well with rhubarb and strawberry both, so why not a ménage-a trois? This I had to try.

Rhubarb–Rose–Alpine Strawberry Jam

1 pound rhubarb, cut crosswise ½ inch thick
3 ounces Alexandria strawberries (about ¾ cup)
2 ½ ounces fragrant unsprayed rose petals (about 1½ cups, well packed)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 cups sugar

In a bowl, gently mix the ingredients. Cover the bowl, and leave it at room temperature for about 8 hours, until the sugar has mostly dissolved.

Pour the mixture into a preserving pan, and set the pan over medium heat. Stir gently. When the sugar is completely dissolved, raise the heat to medium-high. Boil, stirring occasionally.
 
The mixture will thicken in just a few minutes as the rhubarb fibers separate. When the mixture has reached a jam-like consistency, remove the pan from the heat. Ladle the jam into jars, and close them. You should have about 3 cups.

You can process the jars in a boiling-water bath, if you like, for 5 minutes if you have sterilized them or 10 minutes if you haven’t.

To smell and to eat, this jam is fantastic. I have captured June in a jar.