I keep a pantry shelf full of jams/jellies/preserves that last me to the next year . On a dreary cold day in the middle of winter it is a real luxury to be able to open a jar full of wild flavors. We love to spread a layer of sumac jelly on a roast turkey sandwich, or fill a dish with wild mountain mint jelly to spread on cheese and crackers.
I had long avoided making jams because I imagined spending long hours stirring pots over a hot stove to produce an overboiled oversweet product…..but after much experimenting and reading numerous books on preserving, I have decided that the secret to making great wild jams is to pick the freshest ingredients and make them in small batches. The flavor is amazing and you need only take 30 to 45 minutes total. In some cases where you want to macerate (marinate) the herb or the fruit to enhance the flavor, just let it sit for a while in a jelly bag and come back to it later.
Quick how tos on preserving:
Equipment. Buy a canning kit (1-3 below) which are made up of the basic tools:
1) big pot (like a lobster pot).
2) jar holder tongs. This IS really important as it has rubber holders to grip the hot jars so you can lift them out of the pot
3) heavy duty 2-3 quart pot for cooking the jam (copper pot works beautifully but again not necessary, stainless steel will do fine)
4) canning jars. Most supermarkets carry the Ball brand jars for home canning. I use the half cup, half pint sizes. Small sizes mean you can open for just one sitting, otherwise we end up with half eaten jars in the back of the refrigerator .
5) pectin. I always keep a pack of all natural ball brand pectin in the drawer. Many wild plants do not have enough natural pectin, or the batch is variable and you need to add for consistency. That being said, we do not like to make the kind of jam that you can stick a knife in and it stands straight up. It should be a bit runny, so that it can meander a bit off the side of a hunk of cheese.
6) Sugar. Although we reduce the amount of sugar compared to many recipes, some sugar is a necessary component of the preserving process. However the sugar does not overwhelm the tartness, bittersweet, wild complexity of the flavors.
7) Jelly bag. Where needed, you can use cheesecloth to strain out the fruit. Many berries have seeds that are tannic or bitter and so straining out the fruit extracts the great wild flavor but leaves out the mealy texture or tannicness of the seed. I prefer the jelly bags (can order online) with the elastic tops and can be reused many times.
We use the hot water bath canning process to sterilize (the more complicated pressure cooking process is not required).
Make sure to use sterilized jars and lids (run through the dishwasher before) and once you fill the jars leaving ½ inch or more or head room, emerse the jars in boiling water that covers the jars. Boil for 8 minutes. Remove with the tongs. You should hear a “pop” when the jar seals and if you press on the lid, it will not sink down. This means the jar has sealed and will keep about a year in a cool, dark pantry. Once opened, keep in the refrigerator for up to a week.
HELP: I made a batch and somehow it didn’t gel at all.
You can resurrect a batch by doing the following: 1) seal it anyway in small ½ cup jars. Before you want to serve, open the jar and leave it in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight. The cold dry air takes out some of the extra liquid. 2) pour the unjelled mixture into a glass bowl and measure. for every cup of jam or jelly that you wish to set, a) set aside one teaspoon lemon juice and b) mix in a separate small bowl: ½ teaspoon pectin powder with whisked in 2 tablespoons hot water. Add the pectin mix back in to the unjelled mixture and pour in to a large pot. Boil.
Add in the multiple of one teaspoon lemon juice that you set aside above .
Stir on high heat for 3 to 5 minutes and refrigerate or can as usual. This method works most of the time but NOT all of the time.