Strawberry Picking & Preserves!

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There are few things I enjoy more on a Saturday morning than visiting a U-Pick farm.

Seriously. I’m not kidding.

I love to pick stuff. Berries, leaves, mushrooms – whatever. Harvesting food is awesome.

It probably comes from when I was a little kid, and would go hiking all over southeast Michigan with my mom. My parents owned property near an area filled with wild raspberries and blackberries, and every time my mom saw any, she would get excited, and we would have to stop and pick them. Even if we were in a hurry. Or if it was raining. Or if the berries were down in a ravine filled with poison ivy.

Well, it rubbed off on me, because I’ve learned to forage for all kinds of things when I’m in the woods. But when I’m not in the woods…I visit U-Pick farms.

Why You Should Go to U-Pick Farms

…It’s fun. Duh.

But besides that, it’s generally way cheaper to buy stuff from U-Pick farms. For example, the strawberries at the farm I go to are $2 when you pick them yourself, and $4/qt when you buy already picked berries. The reason is simple: if you do the work, the farm doesn’t have to pay employees to do the work.

U-pick farms can also be a great place to try different varieties of the produce in question. You can taste the berries that you are picking, and in my experience, the farmer(s) will be happy to explain the different varieties to you. You can find out what you like best, and which ones grow well in you area, which can be helpful if you plan on buying plants and planting your own.

Also, did I mention that it’s fun?

4th of July Strawberries

Well anyway, my sister and I went to a strawberry U-pick farm for the 4th of July this year. Strawberry season in our area is normally over by the 4th, but we had a late spring and everything seems delayed…so we were able to use the holiday weekend to catch one more round of berries. This was good, because I had failed to can jam when I went strawberry picking the first time, and I like strawberry jam…especially in the winter when all the supermarket fruit (except citrus) tastes like cardboard.

We picked oodles of berries for ourselves and our family before heading over to my parents house for more traditional 4th of July activities, like boating and picnics. I ended up taking home 6 quarts of berries, for the low price of $12. I used approximately 4 qts for canning, 1 qt for eating immediately, and 1 qt for drying (dried strawberries are delightful).

My “Jam”…or Should I Say Syrup?

The Sugar question

As you may know if you have read this blog, I don’t like super sweet things. Most cake? Nah, I’ll make my own with dark chocolate. Sugar in my coffee?

Strawberry pres

No, black please. Cotton candy? Eeew, why would you do that?

Well, jellies and jams are no exception. I’ve never cared for them. They are just too gosh darn sweet. Traditional jelly recipes often call for a 1:1 sugar to fruit ratio…or even higher!

Lucky for me, I figured out a couple of years ago that if you make your own “jam” you can add as little sugar as you want – or none at all. Personally, I prefer “preserves” which is a jam-like substance that just involves mashing up whole fruit, adding sweetener if you want to (I don’t), and eating it.

I am sure you have heard that it’s bad to make your own canning recipes because of safety, and may be wondering if it’s safe to cut back on – or eliminate – the sugar in a canning recipe.

Sugar does not increase the safety of fruit jams or preserves while on the shelf

It does, however, help the jam retain it’s color while on the shelf. Strawberry preserves with sugar will remain bright red. Strawberry preserves without sugar (so…the ones in my basement…) will slowly darken over time. This is purely aesthetic, and I don’t really care what color my food is as long as it’s safe and tastes good, but it’s something to be aware of.

Sugar also will help keep the jam fresh longer after the jar is opened. I can in small jars, so it’s no problem to eat the preserves quickly before the spoil, but I wouldn’t can sugar-free jam in large quart sized jars, because the jam is really only good for about 3 weeks in the refrigerator.

(Disclaimer: I’ve totally eaten strawberry preserves that were two months old because I ran out of small jars last year and had to use big ones. But I can’t recommend doing that because, theoretically, it could be unsafe. Do as I say, not as I do!)

The question of ‘gel’

The biggest problem with no-sugar preserves, is that sugar is the ingredient that helps jellies to “gel” and become semi-solid so that you can spread them with a knife. And you need lots of sugar to achieve the gelling effect. Most low-sugar or no-sugar jam recipes call for pectin, which is an additive that makes stuff gel. It’s perfectly safe and is derived from fruit.

But safe and healthy or not, my brain did something like this when I went to make my first batch of strawberry preserves:

I need pectin.

But I don’t have pectin

I have to go to the store to get pectin.

I REALLY HATE going to the store. 

Driving…people…waiting in line…spending money…Ick.

So what if I make jam WITHOUT the pectin and it just doesn’t gel?

Wait. Why does it need to gel????

So I made jam/preserves without pectin or sugar. And it didn’t gel.

And it was AWESOME.

You’ll hear me say this over and over but…Just because “they” always do something a certain way, it doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be done.

The only reason we make jams/jellies gel is so that they are spreadable with a knife. It’s a texture thing. Without pectin, the mashed up fruit stuff is more like a syrup. It’s liquidy.

Things you can make with traditional jam:

  • Peanut butter and Jelly
  • Toast.

Things you can make with fruit syrup:

  • Pancakes
  • Waffles
  • French Toast
  • Toast (it just might be a bit messy to eat)
  • Ice cream
  • Cheesecake
  • Sauces
  • Salad dressings
  • Flavored beverages
  • Eat it with a spoon

….so, I concluded, why ON EARTH would I make my jams gel??? Syrup is way more versatile! Also, if you cook the fruit for awhile, it does gradually get thicker – you can end up with a pretty thick, viscous liquid, kind of like maple syrup, with chunks of fruit. It doesn’t get better than that, seriously.

That being said, if you want normal, spreadable jam, you can use pectin. You need to specifically use pectin that works with low-sugar recipes – like this stuff.

Some Notes on Canning

Strawberry jam is safe to water bath can (the type of canning that literally just involves boiling jars in water). Because most fruit – including strawberries – is super acidic, it is safe to water bath can without the addition of an acid.

If you don’t want to can your own strawberry preserves, you can still make this recipe – just don’t make too much, because you will have to use it up in the time that it takes to spoil in the refrigerator (about 3 weeks).

If you would LIKE to can the preserves but aren’t sure where to start…well, keep reading. I’m including a detailed recipe that shows the canning process in easy-to-follow stages. This is a great recipe for a beginner! Don’t be intimidated – it’s not hard, I promise. It’s just a lot of steps…but most of those steps involve mostly waiting (hi, Netflix).

If you have experience canning, feel free to scroll down to the shortened recipe.

Strawberry Preserves/Syrup Recipe – Water Bath Canner

I’m hesitant to even call this a recipe because if you know how to can already, it’s incredibly simple. My “weird” syrupy version only makes it easier…but nevertheless, here you go!

Materials
  • Strawberries. 4 qts makes about 6 jars of strawberry preserves (if you use 8 oz jelly jars).
  • A Dutch oven or medium sized pot.
  • Potato masher or blender
  • Mason jars & jar rings. I use 8oz jars for jam/preserves like these. You can re-use old jars as long as they are not chipped or cracked.
  • Canning lids. Make sure you aways buy new lids – do not NOT reuse them!
  • Water bath canner (i.e. a really big pot)
  • Rack for the bottom of your pot. If you buy a specialized canner, it will probably come with a rack. If you just use a bit pot you already have, you’ll have to get a rack of your own. I have definitely canned things without a rack before, but in the interest of safety, I have to tell you that you’re not supposed to…and they’re cheap. Buy a rack. Or use the one that came with your Instant Pot, if you have one of those.
  • Kitchen tongs (or a fancy canning set. I use tongs. Tongs do, however, tend to drip water on the floor, so consider yourself warned.)
  • Clean dish towels
  • Optional ingredients: sugar (or honey or sucanat or whatever) and/or low-sugar pectin.
Procedure
  1. Hull your strawberries and rinse the berries to remove any dirt or debris. This is definitely the longest part of the process; I usually do it while watching TV or listening to a podcast.

    A good time to watch Netflix…
  2. Dump the berries in a Dutch oven, and heat over low heat, stirring occasionally until berries are warm and soft – about 10 minutes.
  3. Mash the berries with a potato masher, until the preserves are your desired level of “chunkiness”. You can also puree the mixture with an immersion blender, but if you do that it will be smooth – and very liquid-y. If you go this route, I would definitely make sure to use the pectin. I like my preserves pretty chunky.
  4. Simmer the berry mixture over medium-low or low heat for some amount of time, stirring occasionally and skimming off the foam that will rise to the top. You can do this for as little as 15 minutes, or as long as all day – it’s up to you. The longer the simmer, the more concentrated the flavor and the thicker the jam. I usually simmer it over very low heat about 2 hours, stirring every 10-15 minutes. During this time, you can add your sugar and your pectin, if you are using either of those things. I don’t use any sugar, but I’m a freak who hates super sweet things. I’d recommend adding a little at a time if you choose to use sugar, and tasting as you go to avoid making it too sweet. Or you can make the healthier choice of not adding any sugar at all – strawberries are sweet by themselves! If I decide to eat strawberry preserves by the spoonful in January, well, it’s literally just fruit…But if you do use sugar, just make sure it is fully dissolved before beginning the canning process. I don’t use pectin either, and I’d encourage you to try my “syrup” version of strawberry preserves because I really think it’s more useful, but if you’re just after something for a PB&J, go ahead and use the pectin, per package directions.
  5. Meanwhile, sterilize your mason jars and jar rings by boiling for 10 minutes. I do this directly in my water bath canner right before I want to start the canning process – that gets my canner nice and hot. I leave my burner on while I do the next couple of steps, to keep the water simmering.
    1. ***Note: Whatever you do, make sure you dont skip this step. The jars need to be hot when you ladle the strawberry mixture into them, or else they are likely to crack.***
  6. Remove the jars with tongs and put them on a dishtowel on the counter.
  7. Ladle the strawberry mixture into the jars leaving 1/4″ headspace. “Headspace” refers to the gap between the top of the food (the strawberries) and the lid of the jar. They make tools to measure this…or you can just eyeball it, like I do. Using a tool is safer.
  8. Wipe the rims of the jars with a damp cloth or a paper towel. You don’t want any food bits on that rim! Then put the lids on the jars, and tighten the jar rings.
  9. Place cans in the water bath canner (“big pot”), and cover with water. If you sterilized your jars in the canner, there should already be enough water in the pot.
  10. Boil at a rolling boil for 10 minutes (adjust for altitude using this chart if you live over 1000 ft above sea level). Do not cheat on the time. This boiling period makes the food safe for room temperature storage and is very important.
  11. Remove jars using tongs and place on dish towels on the counter or table. Make sure you put them on TOWELS with air flow around each jar. This will help prevent the jars from breaking.
  12. Wait up to 24 hours for the lids to pop. Each lid will make an audible “popping” noise as it seals. If any of your jars don’t seal, transfer to the fridge and use within a few weeks. You’ll know if a jar didn’t seal because an unsealed jar will have a little bubble in the lid that you can press on, and watch the bubble bounce back.
  13. All successfully canned jars will keep indefinitely on the shelf, and up to 3 weeks in the fridge. I’m pretty sure I had a jar open for longer than 3 weeks at one point because my philosophy is “if there’s no mold and it smells okay, eat it” but  can’t officially recommend doing that because ethics and stuff.

    See? Pretty! Note that this nice, bright red color will darken over time, as the jars sit on the shelf. By the time I eat the preserves, they will look different…but they will still taste fantastic, and I’ll enjoy looking at them in my cupboard for quite awhile!

Strawberry Preserves/Syrup Recipe – Water Bath Canner – SHORT VERSION

Materials
  • Strawberries. 4 qts makes about 6 jars of strawberry preserves
  • A Dutch oven or medium sized pot.
  • Potato masher or blender
  • 8oz canning jars with band and lids (buy new lids here
  • Water bath canner (i.e. a really big pot with a rack – buy a rack here.)
  • Kitchen tongs (or a fancy canning set. I use tongs. Tongs do, however, tend to drip water on the floor, so consider yourself warned.)
  • Clean dish towels
  • Optional: sugar/sweetener and/or low-sugar pectin.
Procedure
  1. Hull your strawberries and rinse the berries to remove any dirt or debris.
  2. Dump the berries in a Dutch oven, and heat over low heat, stirring occasionally until berries are warm and soft – about 10 minutes.
  3. Mash berries with potato masher or puree with blender to your desired “chunkiness” level
  4. Simmer the berry mixture over medium-low or low heat for some amount of time, stirring occasionally and skimming off the foam that will rise to the top.
  5. (optional) Add sugar and/or pectin.
  6. Sterilize your mason jars and jar rings by boiling for 10 minutes
  7. Ladle the strawberry mixture into the jars leaving 1/4″ headspace.
  8. Wipe the rims of the jars with a damp cloth or a paper towel. Then put the lids on the jars, and tighten the jar rings.
  9. Place cans in the water bath canner (“big pot”), and cover with water.
  10. Boil at a rolling boil for 10 minutes (adjust for altitude using this chart if you live over 1000 ft above sea level).
  11. Remove jars using tongs and place on dish towels on the counter or table, and wait up to 24 hours for the lids to pop.
  12. All successfully canned jars will keep up to a year on the shelf (maybe longer if depending on wo you ask…), and up to 3 weeks in the fridge.

Your Challenge

Well, first of all, I challenge you to go to a U-pick farm. U-pick farms are awesome…and it doesn’t have to be strawberrry picking either! I’ll be going back for blueberries in a week or two!

Secondly, try some fruit preserves (er…syrup) without the pectin. Even if you just do ONE JAR to try it. I bet you’ll like it. Well, I like it anyway.

Thirdly, if you haven’t canned before…can some jam. It’s the easiest thing in the world to can, and is perfectly safe. Since you are’t relying on any special ingredients for safety, you can feel confident eating your homemade goodies…in the depth of winter.

Best of luck, and happy picking.

This is what my kittens did while I made jam. I thought the Internet should know. Read how I got my babies by clicking here.

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