On a wet, gloomy summer day when you have a couple of hours to kill, what could be more fitting that taking that most ephemeral of summer joys, the ripe strawberry, and making jam? Then you can enjoy the flavour and colour throughout autumn and into the chilly days of winter.
Plus, the home-made stuff tends to knock the socks off anything you can buy.
So, should you find yourself tempted to engage in a bit of austerity fun, try to go for smaller fruit – I find they tend to have more flavour, and it also means you can leave some of the fruit whole during cooking. This means when you come to spread jam on a crumpet some time in October, you’ll get the occasional whole strawberry, which allows you to feel very pleased with yourself indeed. It’s a bit like striking gold. Some people like to have smooth jam, even going to far as to sieve it to remove the pips. I, on the other hand, like lumps and pips. It’s fibre, after all.
Now, when making jam, what texture are we after?
I’m not a prescriptive sort of person, so make what you prefer, but I like jam that is a little bit stiff, but not like glue. It all has to do with the pectin and the amount of sugar you use. Strawberries are low in pectin, so if you just boil them with sugar, it will eventually become a very thick syrup, and there is a danger that the sugar end up caramelising. The pectin changes that, so that it will set much earlier in the process (so less boiling, and probably a fresher fruit flavour).
To add more pectin, you can either add liquid or powdered pectin (which I think is a bit odd), or add a fruit that has more pectin. So with most jams, this means a good dash of lemon juice. I find this works particularly well with strawberries, leaving just a little bit of tartness that works very well with the sweet strawberries.
The issue of how long you boil also matters, as the longer you boil, the less “fresh” the fruit flavour will be. If you’ve got robust fruit like oranges, then that’s less of an issue, but with strawberries, you want to keep boiling time as short as possible. Some people like jam that has a very firm “set”, so lots of boiling or lots of pectin will get you there. However, if you like to add it to yoghurt (as I do) you will probably prefer something that is looser, so it’s thick but still soft. In that case, adding the lemon (rather than the fake pectin) seems to make it set quickly, but keep the softness.
Now, I realise that some people also like to add some extra flavours. As I mentioned, lemon adds a welcome kick. Other options are to add a vanilla pod (but you need to like vanilla) or a dash of port (which works very well indeed).
If you want the proper English feeling, team the scones and jam with a little whipped cream, or if you can get hold of it, some Cornish clotted cream.
To make strawberry jam (makes 5-6 small jars):
• 1kg strawberries
• 750g white sugar
• juice of 1 lemon
• small knob unsalted butter
Remove the stalks from the strawberries and cut off any “bad bits”. Keep a quarter the smaller berries to one side, and lightly crush the rest.
Throw everything into a large saucepan, mix well and leave to stand for 10-15 minutes until the strawberries release their juice.
In the meantime, sterilise some jam jars(*), and put a plate into the freezer – you’ll need this to test when the jam is set.
Place the pan on a medium heat. Bring to the boil, then keep on a rolling boil for 15 minutes. Once the jam has boiled for 10 minutes, start to check for a set every minute or so(**). Remember – the thicker you want the jam, the longer you need to boil it.
Once the jam is ready, ladle into the prepared jars, seal, label and hide it somewhere to enjoy later.
(*) To sterilise jam jars: wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well. Place upside-down in a cold oven, and heat to 90°C for 15 minutes. Leave in the oven to cool down while you are making the jam . To sterilise the lids, wash with hot, soapy water, then rinse well, place in a saucepan with boiling water for 5 minutes.
(**) To test for the setting point, put a spoonful of the mixture on the icy-cold saucer. Let it cool, then tilt the saucer – if the jam wrinkles, the setting point has been reached.
Worth making? Strawberry jam is super-easy to make, and you can go from a bowl of fruit to enjoying the stuff spread on toast within a couple of hours. The taste is rich and fruity, and if you’re unsure, I would really urge you to give it a try.