Straightforward Preserving: Tomato Jam!

I know, you might be looking at that title all skeptically, thinking “I like tomatoes, sure, but JAM? What are you even talking about?” This might be one you have to just take on trust. Tomatoes make some amazing jam. It’s great on toast, but especially tasty along with eggs and/or sausage. I think it’s the closest you can come in mid-winter to the taste of a fresh, flavorful tomato picked right off the plant. It’s not savory, but it’s not as sweet as other jams, and definitely not as tart and fruity. And if it’s your first canning experience, the acidic content (tomato plus added lemon) makes it a safer one.

There are a lot of recipes out there if you google a little, but I really like this trio. The first time I made tomato jam, I split my tomato haul into three pots (because I couldn’t pick!), and made a small batch of all three recipes. After that, I’ve only ever made the sweet & spicy.

I make it pretty much as it’s written, using regular light brown sugar, cloves, cinnamon, red wine vinegar and lime juice. If you’re having trouble imagining sweet jam with the flavor of tomatoes, note that the fruit:sugar ratio is much lower on the sugar end than other fruit jams: 455g tomatoes to 45g sugar in this recipe, or 10:1 by weight.

The other sweet-but-not-too-sweet tomato preserves that I’ve really enjoyed is the New York Times recipe for preserved tomatoes with lemon. They call for small pear-shaped tomatoes, but anything smaller than a golf ball will work just fine. And I don’t bother with peeling them anymore – just check that the tomatoes you’re using don’t have particularly thick skins. With most small tomatoes, you won’t even notice them in the preserves. The NYT recipe is interesting in that it has you put the tomatoes, sugar, and lemon slices in a saucepan overnight — with no heat, just room temperature over time. The next day, you add the spices and gently cook until the tomatoes start to go clear. You can remove them and the lemons and boil the syrup that remains, so that it thickens a bit. But the idea is to leave the tomatoes intact (which is why smaller is better). If you want to keep them throughout the winter, sterilize the jars first (leave in boiling water for 15 minutes), then fill and process according to the recipe.

Canning/Processing:

“Processing” canned goods requires boiling the (nearly-full) jars, with 2-part lids (shown at right).

How full you fill your jars will depend on the food you’re canning (generally 1/8″ to 1/4″ from the top of the jar).

How long you boil the jars will also depend on the food you’re canning (10 minutes up to multiple hours).

When you’re canning acid foods (fruits, jams, and pickles, for the most part), boiling water and a large stock pot are sufficient. When you’re canning low-acid foods (vegetables and meats), you have to use a pressure cooker — a boiling water bath doesn’t get hot enough to destroy potentially harmful bacteria.

Our advice when canning is to always use a recipe that’s been tested, and follow the instructions in the USDA and Ball guides. 

You don’t have to process your jam if you’re just going to store it in the refrigerator, of course. Processing is necessary for safe room-temperature storage, which gives you more time to use it (and/or more flexibility to give your canned goods as gifts to friends). But you may find it makes sense to try a recipe first — keeping the results refrigerated — and make it again w/ the processing steps added in, if you like it enough to add those steps.

Resources:

The National Center for Home Food Preservation has many guides available online for free, in pdf. They’re the source for USDA standards and guidance on food safety.

The Ball Blue Book is magazine-sized, and available most places that keep a canning display (jars, lids, equipment) from Ball. For now, this means the larger stores; Common Ground and Green Top don’t carry jars and lids at this time.

Food in Jars is a blog devoted to canning and preserving, and they have a great Canning 101 page with resources for getting started.

Sadly, one of my favorite go-to blogs (Tigress in a Jam) for jam ideas seems to have been abandoned and taken over by advertising bots, but you can find images and recipes from the participants in her jam challenges over the years on her Flickr group.

Aronia Berries!

I paid a visit to our local Food Forest yesterday, and was so blown away by how much everything has grown over the last month!! Left-behind asparagus has grown 5′ high and more, developing feathery ferns, which will help to transfer energy to the roots for next year’s spears. Giant golden, black, and red raspberries are just on the edge of ripeness, and I spied a few tiny green apples and peaches, but what’s really exciting my “I love a challenge” side at the moment is the Aronia!

Aronia, or chokeberry, is a strange little thick-skinned black berry that you may even find you have growing in yours or a neighbor’s yard. They’re native to the U.S., and grow well with little maintenance. The berries are not very tasty to eat right off the vine, but they have an unusually dry red wine flavor, that develops with the addition of some sweetness and something acid. They’re also packed with nutrients like antioxidants and Vitamin C. If you use well-tested recipes and draw on some good tips for bringing out the best of the berry, you can create some very tasty final products: syrups, jams and jellies, and baked goods.

I plan to make some jam this weekend, and will post to Facebook. Share yours!

Easy Preserving: Freezer Jams!

photo by Michelle Tylman-Sleevar @ Braffet Berry Farm

So… you’re sitting on a few quarts of strawberries that you excitedly picked, or blueberries that someone returning from a long weekend in Michigan gifted to you. Now what? You could freeze them (berries freeze well!) But if you’ve ever wanted to try making jam, this is a great time to start — and you don’t even have to deal with the canning part, if you don’t want to!

I grew up having my grandmother’s strawberry freezer jam on toast every time we went to her house. I never knew there was any other kind, really; I mean, doesn’t everyone keep a freezer in the basement full of homemade strawberry jam? No? Just my Gram?

Well, the best thing about freezer jam is that it’s just jam without the canning process. No boiling water bath, no measuring headspace to the millimeter, no following a recipe to the dot, no special jars with special lids and special rings that you have to sterilize and keep hot while you ladle hot lava into them, trying not to get burned. No checking the lids to make sure they’ve all “popped” in. Freezer jam is considerably faster than canning, and requires far less time over a hot stove (if any).

Suggested Equipment:

If I were going to suggest just one purchase before making jam (even freezer jam) it would be a canning funnel. They’re inexpensive (under $5), and they’ll save you a lot of mess. Most canning funnels are made to fit small and wide-mouth canning jars, but check against the jars you plan to use, just in case.

You’ll find that recipes for jam, vary considerably in their proportions of fruit to sugar. Even among recipes for strawberry freezer jam, you’ll find anything from 1:1 to 3:1 (berries:sugar, by volume). The Ball Blue Book has a Triple Berry Freezer Jam calls for 4 c. crushed berries and 1.5 c. sugar (2.67 : 1). The Betty Crocker recipe for Strawberry Freezer Jam calls for 4 c. strawberries and 4 c. sugar (1:1)!! Alton Brown’s recipe uses weights for both ingredients, and calls for 2# of strawberries and 11.5 oz sugar (about 3::1 by weight). There is no one “right” recipe here.

Before making your jam, sort through your berries and toss any that are bruised, green, or look like they’re breaking down. Clean the remaining fruit well.  Then pick your recipe! I’ve made Alton Brown’s before, and it’s delicious. And the Ball Blue Book has never steered me wrong. But here are a few more:

Now, go enjoy your jam-making! (and jam-eating!)