Pump Up the Jam

I’ve never been a huge fan of strawberry jam. Mostly because I’ve always found it too sweet. But this year I thought I’d make some anyway, maybe using a recipe that wasn’t quite as sweet as normal.

Because jam-making can be scary, what with all of that getting a proper seal and ensuring the jam sets, I was at first inclined to a freezer jam. Now, any jam can be stored in the freezer, and if the jars don’t get a good seal, cooked or not, the freezer is the best place to store them. But all of the recipes I came across for freezer jam reminded me of why I never cared much for strawberry jam in the first place. With a 2 to 1 ratio of sugar to fruit, my teeth hurt just reading the recipe. Switching to a search for cooked jam recipes, that same high sugar ratio popped up, but many of the recipes were based on an opposite ratio; 2 to 1, fruit to sugar. That’s more like it. Except some of them called for added pectin while others called for none at all. This jam thing would be a lot less intimidating and confusing if all you people who post recipes on the Internet would form some consensus.

Finally I settled on a recipe that called for the 2 to 1 fruit to sugar ratio, plus a splash of lemon juice and pectin, although I added only half the pectin called for.

My plan wasn’t just to make plain old strawberry jam, though. I wanted an additional blast of flavour beyond the strawberries. As the pot of cooking jam thickened up to the point where it was ready to can, I poured half of the hot jam into another pot and added the seeds from about half a vanilla bean pod, as well as ground cardamom and about a teaspoon of dried lavender flowers.

To the other half of the jam mixture I added a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, about a teaspoon of ground black pepper and a couple of tablespoons of cropped fresh tarragon.

Both “pumped up” versions include flavour elements known to complement strawberries. The balsamic jam is less sweet and slightly more acidic than the flowery version, and both variations still feature the strawberry flavour first and foremost.

I was incredibly happy with how these turned out, both in terms of flavour and how the jam set up. I was a bit heavy with the lavender flowers so the sweeter jam might be a bit too flowery for some (will likely do it with rose petals next year), but the balsamic-pepper-tarragon version is definitely a keeper.

Note – if you decide to pump up your jam flavours, use a light hand, as the flavours will intensify over time. Use just enough extra flavourings so that you can barely taste it while the jam is still hot. Lavender, in particular, can have a “soapy” impression if the flavour is too intense.

Strawberry Jam
3 lb fresh strawberries (about 9 cups), washed and hulled
4.5 – 5 cups sugar
1/3 cup lemon juice
1 tbsp unsalted butter (optional)
1 pkg pectin crystals

Extra flavourings for balsamic jam (for a full batch):
2 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 -3 Tbsp freshly chopped tarragon

Extra flavourings for vanilla lavender jam (for a full batch):
seeds of one vanilla bean pod
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1 – 2 tsp dried lavender flowers

In a large pot, mash strawberries slightly, then bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Add sugar and lemon juice, stir, and  simmer for 2 minutes. Add pectin crystals and bring to a vigorous boil, stirring often. Allow to cook for 10 to 20 minutes until the mixture thickens.

Periodically measure the viscosity of the jam by dripping a small spoonful onto a clean plate. The jam should thicken quickly and form a skin on the top. At this point, add the butter, and any additional flavourings as per above.

While the jam is cooking, wash and sterilize jars and then keep them in a warm oven until they are ready to be filled. Fill jars to about 1/4-inch from the top, then fasten lids securely and boil jars in a pot of hot water for 15 minutes. Remove jars with tongs and let cool, standing upright. Jars are sealed when the centre of the lids does not spring back (or pop) when pressed. Store jars in a cool dry place. Store any unsealed jars in the refrigerator or freezer.