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Self Preservation: The Jam Session + a Strawberry Rhubarb Jam Recipe

Strawberry, rhubarb, sugar, and lemon juice hit the jam pot.

Felicia FriesemaStrawberry, rhubarb, sugar, and lemon juice hit the jam pot.

We spent the first part of the 2011 Master Food Preserver class at the UC Cooperative Extension getting our heads enmeshed in food safety issues finishing off two days of lectures with a simple safe canning demo: tangerines in syrup. It was a nice reminder that food preservation can be a very simple affair. But when people think canning and preserving, the first thing that generally comes to mind is jam.

Kevin West, food blogger at Saving the Season and author of the book of same name (coming out from Knopf next spring) was our guest instructor for class three. For four hours, his steady lecture covered the different types of fruit spreads -- btw: he hates the word spread; alternative suggestions welcome -- and the difference between them. Jam, jelly, preserves, conserves, and marmalades. With a giant copper jam pot on the stove, he talked fast, cramming years of preservation experience into one long, but tidy address.

Kevin West stirs the pot at the third session of the 2011 Master Food Preservers class at the UC Cooperative Extension.

Felicia FriesemaKevin West stirs the pot at the third session of the 2011 Master Food Preservers class at the UC Cooperative Extension.

West is no stranger to the food preservation classroom. He's taught many classes on food preservation over the years, including a few at Surfas and others in and around the Los Angeles area.

Making preserves hasn't been a lifelong pursuit for West, though he has nostalgic childhood memories of eating his grandmother's preserves on their farm in Tennessee. A few years ago, an all too familiar situation prompted him to look into the practicalities of preservation. "I got a little carried away at the farmers market one day and bought a whole flat of strawberries," he said. "I realized I could not use them up before they went to waste. So I made jam."

Those first results were apparently less than stellar. West followed a recipe on the back of a box of Sure-Jell and ended up hating the result, so like any good kitchen arts enthusiast would, he made it a project to unravel the mystery of a good homemade jam. The project became a hobby. And now the hobby is his full-time work. He stepped away from his 14-year career at W Magazine when he sold Saving the Season to Knopf, and now spends his days fine tuning recipes, writing, editing, and teaching.

"My objective in teaching is to lower the bar for entry," said West. "A lot of people have misconceptions about home canning. One is they're going to kill off their friends and family with botulism. Another is that it is an exhausting laborious project that delivers dozens of preserves at a time. I want to show people how easy it is to incorporate preservation into their weekly kitchen life." He equates it to any well-honed kitchen skill. In essence, it's a kitchen art well worth acquiring for both practical and artistic reasons.

As West constantly stirred his proto-jam (a must in jam making, as it can burn easily), he talked about the various stages the fruit and sugar go through as the heat of the jam pot works on the natural pectins in the fruit. There was angry foam, a reason for using a deep pot since a shallow one could over boil. There was skimming of said foam. There was the rolling boil, undeterred by the constant rotation of the spoon. And then finally, there was jam. West taste-tested the batch at each stage and made suggestions for additions (herbs and spices don't change the acidity of the final product) like rose geranium or some alcohols and spirits, added at the end to help the jam retain the intended flavor.

The room filled with the sweet and sticky aroma of jelled fruit and sugar while we asked questions. This put a small hiccup in some of the process, but safe canning techniques were honored, even if only in spirit (the ongoing conversation kept West from properly heating the jars and lids, though water bath times were on the mark.)

The final result was a deep red and gorgeously glutinous preserve. West, and the USDA, recommend working in small batches and to never double recipes (the prolonged heat required for the extra volume essentially kills the jelling process). As such, not enough to go around. But a small taste was available, leading everyone to big plans for their weekend "homework".

Here's West's recipe from class and a plea: do not use substandard fruit to make jams and preserves. There are several reasons for this, but most especially is that if you intend to can it and put it in the cupboard, you want to ensure that what you're storing there is unblemished and without any signs of mold or decay that could come back to haunt you later. Plus to make good food, use good food. The flavors will last longer and will be more potent and bright.

Strawberry Rhubarb Jam

From: Kevin West, Master Food Preserver, author of Saving the Season.

Makes: 2 pints + some extra for your morning toast.

2½ pounds fresh strawberries, small and sweet

½ pound of rhubarb, cut into 2" matchsticks

3 cups sugar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1. Wash and trim the strawberries, halving or quartering depending on the size of the berry (you want generally uniform pieces).

2. Add the rhubarb and toss with the lemon juice and sugar. Macerate the fruit mixture a little (West used a potato masher in class), releasing some of the juices into the sugar. Let sit for at least 15 minutes to allow the sugar time to extract the fruit juice. (West notes you can also let this sit overnight in the fridge.)

3. Cook on high heat in a deep, wide bottomed pan. Bring to a rolling boil and stir the whole time. (West adds, "Don't answer the phone. Let the postman leave the package at the door. Don't step away from the pot. Ever. Otherwise the jam will burn." ) During the first stage you'll notice a light colored foam accumulating. Skim it off with a spoon as you make the jam. As the water starts to evaporate off, you'll be able to see the pan bottom as you stir. From this point, the jamming happens pretty quickly. There are a few ways to test it to see if it's done. The National Center for Home Food Preservation details them as follows:

Temperature Test - Take the temperature of the jelly with a candy or jelly thermometer. When done, the temperature of the jelly should be 220°F, 8°F above the boiling point of water, if you are at sea level. NOTE: For each 1000 feet of altitude above sea level, subtract 2 degrees F. For instance, at 1,000 feet of altitude, the jelly is done at 218°F; at 2,000 feet, 216°F, etc.

For an accurate thermometer reading, place the thermometer in a vertical position and read at eye level. The bulb of the thermometer must be completely covered with the jelly but must not touch the bottom of the pot. (Remember to test the accuracy of the thermometer by placing it in boiling water.)

Spoon or Sheet Test - Dip a cool metal spoon into the boiling jelly mixture and lift the spoon out of the steam so the syrup runs off the side. When the mixture first starts to boil, the drops will be light and syrupy. As the syrup continues to boil, the drops will become heavier and will drop off the spoon two at a time. When the two drops form together and "sheet" off the spoon, the jellying point has been reached.

Refrigerator/Freezer Test - Pour a small amount of boiling jelly on a plate, and put it in the freezing compartment of a refrigerator for a few minutes. If the mixture gels, it should be done. During this test, the rest of the jelly mixture should be removed from the heat.

To can your jam (because that is what all of this is presumably about):

1. Ladle the still hot jam into clean, hot jars, leaving about a 1/4" of headspace (very important as the jam expands during processing).

2. Wipe any potential spills off the rim with a hot, wet paper towel. Top with clean and new (never used), hot lids and rings. Close to "fingertip tightness". Do NOT over tighten. (West recommends tightening with the jar on the counter and fingertips on the ring. Turn until you feel resistance and then stop. Do not grip the ring and tighten it like you're wringing out a towel. Too tight means you won't get a good seal.)

3. Submerge into a boiling water bath (the water should be an inch over the tops of the jars). Start the timer when the water comes back up to a boil. Boil the jars for a full five minutes (add another five minutes if you're processing at a location at over 1000 feet in elevation).

4. Remove the jars from the water bath, keeping the jars vertical. Don't tip them to get water off the lids or to examine your jam. Place onto a raised rack or towel on your counter - important to prevent the jars from cracking due to temperature differences. Do not disturb or press on the vacuum indicator on the lid. Allow to sit, unmolested for at least 12 hours. Patience, here, is a definite virtue. Just walk away. It'll still be there when you get back.

5. Remove the rings, check your seals (the lids shouldn't pop off when you lift the jar from the lid), clean off your jars, label (always label with a date) and store.

Properly processed and stored, your strawberry jam will have a shelf life of about one year. But we seriously doubt it will last that long. We tasted the dregs left in the pot. Homework has never been so sweet.

For a Jams an Jellies FAQ list, go here.

Ladling into the jars.  Use a canning funnel.  It prevents much mess.

Felicia FriesemaLadling into the jars. Use a canning funnel. It prevents much mess.

Jars in the water bath.

Felicia FriesemaJars in the water bath.

The dregs.  The tasty tasty dregs.

Felicia FriesemaThe dregs. The tasty tasty dregs.