The Davis Food Co-op, a local food cooperative that I do most of my food shopping at, holds cooking classes which always look fun. I finally signed up for the jam-making class, lined up some last-minute babysitting, and went off for a fun experience!
I arrived at the teaching kitchen, which was a residential house across the street from the Co-op converted into a demo-type kitchen (imagine a cooking show set-up with a wall of sinks and appliances and an island with stove and counter space with a large area for chairs or tables). There was a row of chairs set up facing the island and I joined the other six women who were there.
The teacher, Dennis, showed us an easy, quick technique for making jam by using six cups of chopped apricots, two cups of sugar, and an envelope of pectin (although he pointed out that there was a no-sugar pectin available now if you wanted sugar-free jam). Here are the photos that I took during the session…
We did not use the sugar-free pectin, but he passed around a box for us to look at: Correction: We DID use a sugar-free pectin recipe but added 2 cups of sugar for taste.
First step – heating up a big pot of water with the jars inside — the water should be 1-2 inches over the top of the jars. Dennis forgot a rack to put inside the pot so he improvised with cookie cutters! This photo was taken before we put the jars in. I forgot to take a photo of the lids (the flat metal disc that seals in the jam, not to be confused with the “ring” that screws onto the jar), but they were in a small pan on low heat. You want to heat the lids so that the rubber seals get flexible but you don’t want to boil the lids and have the rubber come off. (Another person in the class suggested taking boiling water and pouring them over the lids in a bowl, then letting them sit. She seemed to have experience with canning so I’m not sure why she was taking the class!)
As a side note, I learned that you cannot reuse lids — you have to buy new ones each time.
While the water was heating up, we all helped to slice up the apricots (approximately 6 lbs of fruit ,I think). Even slightly brown apricots were okay to use — we threw out the obviously rotton or moldy ones.
Pits and yucky apricots went into a bowl to be composted later:
Dennis measured out the apricots, using the amount specified on the package of pectin — in this case, 6 cups of fruit.
The fruit was cooked and mashed with a potato masher until nice and smooshy. Because the fruit wasn’t very juicy, we added a cup of water (grape juice or apple juice are typically suggested, but water is fine, too). Dennis warned that fruit expands when boiling — especially strawberries, which get really foamy and can more than double in size — so you want to use a really big pot.
When the fruit started bubbling and boiling, we added the sugar.
More stirring and mashing. When the stuff came to a hard boil — i.e., you can’t stir down the bubbles — Dennis slowly added in the pectin. He’d sprinkle some, stir and talk, sprinkle more, stir and talk, so it took longer than I thought it would.
While the fruit was heating up again to get to a boil, Dennis explained the gear.
Sample jar (the ones we were using were in the pot boiling) and rings. The actual lid is the flat metal part that actually seals to the jar — the rings are to keep the lid in place while you boil the filled jars.
This thing here is what you use to lift the jar out of the boiling water. You can also see the plastic wand (laying down beside cutting board) with has a magnet on the end – handy for getting the lid out of the warm water.
By this time, the fruit had come back to a boil so we cooked it at a boil for one or two minutes. Then we turned down the heat and it was time to can!
Pull out a jar (empty out the water)… The jars were boiling in a special canning pressure cooker (very expensive) which is used for canning veggies (to get them cooking at a higher heat). For acidic food — i.e., fruit and tomatoes — you don’t need a pressure cooker. Dennis just used it because it’s a nice big pot and he wanted to show us what it looked like.
Put the jar on a wooden cutting board or towel — NOT directly on a cold counter surface which might crack the jar. Fill it up to the first “line” – you want about 1/2″ of “headspace” between the jam and lid. Note — if you have extra fruit left over that won’t fill a jar all the way, don’t try to can it, just eat it with ice cream later that day! It’s important to fill a jar to the right amount because that ensures that the jam gets properly sterilized.
Slide the handle of a wooden spoon gently around the sides of the jar to get out air bubbles that might be trapped against the sides of the jar. (Don’t stir it vigorously like one woman did, which may create air bubbles.)
Wipe the edges clean with a damp paper towel or clean rag.
Using the magnetic wand, pull a lid out of the warm water and gently place it on top, then put the ring over and screw it on. You want to screw it to a point just past when you begin to feel it tighten — but not all the way tight, because the jar might crack.
Lift the jar with the jar tongs and keeping it level, put it back into the boiling water.
Some of us asked questions and found out that: The jars heat up in the water mainly to warm them so that they don’t crack when you add the hot jam mixture. Getting them to a boil helps sterilize them, too, but for this particular recipe, it’s actually not necessary to fully sterilize them by boiling them for 10 minutes because the recipe itself calls for “processing” the canned fruit (boiling them after they are filled) for ten minutes, which is enough to sterilize the jars from the inside out. Other recipes might call for a processing less than ten minutes (like five minutes) in which case you WILL want to boil the jars for ten minutes first to sterilize them.
As the boiling water heats up the jars and the jam inside, the jam and the insides of the bottle get sterilized and air escapes from the jar.
But you have to make sure the water is at a ROLLING boil before starting your ten-minute count. And though you might be tempted to turn the heat down — don’t.
After the ten minutes, pull the jars out with the jar tongs. With the air pressure outside now greater than what’s inside the jar, the floating lids are sealed tightly to the jar. If you’re lucky, you might hear a “ping” sound as the lid indentation gets pushed down by the outside air pressure. Dennis assured us that we might not hear a ping immediately but it was okay — basically you only really know if you have a good seal after 24 hours of letting it cool all the way down and then testing it.
Some ways to test it — AFTER the jar is completely cooled (about 24 hours), push on the top of it where the indentation is. If it’s not sealed, you can push it in and it will pop back out. If it is sealed, the lid will feel completely solid. Or, you can thunk the top with a metal spoon. Sealed jars will “thunk.” Unsealed jars will sound different (try it out on an unsealed jar first). Finally, remove the ring (clean and dry well to avoid rusting). Dennis said that he stores all his jams without the ring — just the lid — so that he can easily see if one has a lid that comes off.
For those worried about botulism, Dennis assured that fruit preserves are very safe because if there’s something wrong, you’ll smell it or see it! Not so with veggies, which is why you want to can them at a higher temperature to be safe.
We walked away with a small jar of apricot jam and an informative handout that included some recipe notes, lists of gear and resources, specific steps to remember, and tips.
Overall, this was quite a fun and informative beginning jam-making class and took out a lot of the mystery and intimidation factor for me. I’m going to shoot to find cheap jam-making gear over the next year and be ready for canning my own stuff next summer!