How to Make Strawberry Jam

Back when I was a restless, pierced teen, I was fascinated by the cultural flux of the last century. I desperately wanted to have been a flapper. To have lived in the Roaring 20’s, with those hats and dresses and Art Deco broaches! Not to mention the speakeasies and that the homemade films that have one believe that everyone walked in double-time with a brass band giving soundtrack. Maybe it was my inability to focus on the parts of history that weren’t so glamourous, but it wasn’t until recently that I understood the short time line between the party-time of the 20s and The Great Depression of the thirties.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because I’ve come to realize that if I had been a flapper in the 20s, I’d have been in my thirties during the Great Depression. Instead, I was in my 20s during this decade’s renaissance of Brooklyn and the money-will-never-stop-flowing bubble. I toddled around on high heels and drank at bars and sat on boys’ laps in too-short skirts. If there were video of this to show my granddaughter, she may look to me like I did to my grandmother – she got to do that!

Now, the party is over and I’m paying back the debts to Uncle Visa that allowed me the glamourous life. Or maybe I’m just getting old. I had a moment of “kids these days!” with a friend of mine as we compared notes of teenagers recklessly either rollerblading or skateboarding though Manhattan traffic while texting. Kids these days!

Back as a kid myself, I could never imagine, not in a million, that there would be any return to the conservative homemaking of the 1950s. Not for me, anyway! Being above that, I’d hightail it to Greenwich Village and find the Kerouac of the day. Except, that’s not what is happening. I am feeling a genuine pull back to home-making. Not all at once, but slowly, I outgrew my need for the rush of the reckless and unfamiliar and it is being replaced by bragging about my prize-winning cookies. Or the anticipation of getting my hens and picking the spring’s first peas and entering the fall circuit of County Fairs.

Its not glamorous but its quiet, and I can control what goes on in my kitchen and I like to dress like Jackie O! All I need is a pillbox hat.

So, yesterday, I made strawberry jam with what may be the last fruit of the strawberry season. We found the World’s Most Perfect Strawberry – so perfect, Mark called it a “Tattoo Strawberry,” like what you’d find in the tattoo artist’s portfolio. We aren’t canning the jam, as there really isn’t enough to justify that procedure, but I wrote a post on canning that you can read here if you want instructions to do so.

And then, I woke up to read this morning’s NY Times food section, and there was a review of the summer’s cookbooks, which focus primarily on just the same nostalgia that I am feeling so if you more camaraderie and instruction, the shelves are full with brand new and revised options.

How to Make Strawberry Jam
2 pounds very ripe strawberries
4 cups sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice

1. Clean all your strawberries by taking the green tops off and removing any that are really past due. Don’t wash them unless you can feel sand as you don’t want to introduce any excess water to the mix. If they are gritty or dirty, rinse then blot dry.

2. Put all the berries in a big pot and add the sugar and the citrus.*

3. Bring the mixture up to a boil slowly, occasionally mashing the berries.

4. When the mixture comes to a boil, cook it, stirring frequently until two things happen: it reaches 220ºF and it gels when you dribble a little onto a plate and let it sit for a minute. This takes a long time – about 30 minutes or so.

You’ll know you are there when you can run your finger through the jam and the line left behind doesn’t run back together again. Pour into a clean jar and allow to cool, lid off. Then cover and either stick in fridge for immediate consumption, or process and save for winter.

*As I was making this jam, I was curious about the science behind why this works at all, so I consulted my favorite food scientist, Harold McGee and his genius encyclopedia On Food and Cooking and realized that, while my direct method of mixing everything together at the beginning worked, it would be scientifically more appropriate to cook the berries down (this releasing their natural pectin,) adding the sugar (to both make an inhospitable environment for microorganisms and to help bring the pectins back together again,) cook until most of the water has evaporated, and then at the end add the citrus, to solidify the newly-formed pectin chains.

He also wrote this passage, found on page 296, that I wanted to share because if you’ve gotten this far in this entry, you are as fascinated by food lore as I am:

Another venerable technique for preserving fruits is to boost their sugar content. Like salt, sugar makes the fruit inhospitable to microbes: it dissolves, binds up water molecules, and draws moisture out of living cells, thus crippling them. Sugar molecules are quite heavy compared to the sodium and chloride ions in salt, so it takes a larger mass of sugar to do the same job of preserving. The usual proportion by weight of added sugar to fruit is about 55 to 45, with sugar accounting for nearly two-thirds of the final cooked mixture. Of course, sugar preserves are very sweet, and this is part of their appeal. But they also develop an intriguing consistency otherwise found only in meat jellies–a firm yet moist solidity that can range from stiff and chewy to quiveringly tender. And they can delight the eye with a crystalline clarity: in the 16th century, Nostradamus described a quince jelly whose color “is so diaphanous that it resembles an oriental ruby.” These remarkable qualities arise from the nature of pectin, one of the componants of the plant cell wall, and its fortuitous interaction with the fruit’s acids and the cook’s added sugar.

Now, off to spread some of that on my morning toast and contemplate getting a strawberry tattoo because I’m still a little bit reckless.

  • Donald Urquhart

    Nostalgia really seems to be making the rounds these days. However, in my experience the flapper lifestyle is fun for a while, but then it starts to get stale and old really fast. Everybody should get to do it at least once, there’s something missing in life if you don’t. However, once it’s done, it’s done and trying to go back to it makes it empty. On a more upbeat note, this jam for strawberry jam sounds like a fun one, and I’ll have to try it at some point. However, you shouldn’t try canning it because of the recent research that’s been done on proper canning. A lot of older recipes are not proven safe under the new guidelines, which are important to avoid food poisoning. However, making a jar for the fridge is a great idea!

    Donald from Down’s Syndrome Treatments

  • JDP sr

    Glad I could finally open the post!!! Must have been the heavy traffic on it this AM that prevented me. Home-made strawberrry jam is THE BEST thing in the world. BTW, Helen (my Mom) was a teen in the twenties and a young home-maker through the depression. Will have to dig out her WW2 cookbook for you,

  • Patricia

    Thanks for all the nostalgia, and the science of fruit preservation and pectin. I always learn something from reading your blogs, so keep writin’!!

    BTW, I have a beautiful faux leopard-skin coat from which you could make that sassy Jackie-O pillbox hat. Hey, you might inspire a song!