I first tried my hand at making fruit preserves 5 years ago, and it has become my absolute favorite kitchen activity. Nothing satisfies my slight hoarding tendencies quite like seeing a pantry shelf stacked with a year’s worth of colorful preserves.
My goal when I make jams is to capture in each little glass jar a moment in time, the sliver of the season when a particular fruit is at its most intense. This is something I often find missing in jams. Instead of the fresh nuanced vibrancy you should be slathering onto your bread or eating with your morning yogurt, more often you are eating something bogged down with sugar and dull mediocrity. If you aren’t preserving the very best then why are you saving it?
The tricky part of jam making is how to get all of the liquid to evaporate as quickly as possible while maintaining the fresh intensity of the fruit. I imagine I will always be tweaking my technique. But after lots of practice, here is what I have found that works for me.
Start with the best fruit: the jam is only as good as the fruit you are starting with. Always use well-ripened fruit that are at their peak and tasting the most intense. It is after all the centerpiece.
Macerate the fruit: this is very simply allowing the fruit to sweat it out a bit in the sugar. It starts the ‘cooking’ process without the addition of heat and reduces the amount of time that you actually have to cook everything. The maceration also apparently helps the sugar strengthen the fruit’s natural pectin. Also, it has the added bonus of working with my ADD by allowing me to breakup the work.
Sugar quantity: many recipes call for a sugar to fruit ratio of 1:1. When I didn’t know any better, I measured out 1 lb of sugar to preserve my 1 lb of strawberries. Looking at the mountain of sugar almost made me cry. If you are using fruit at their peak this really shouldn’t be necessary. Now I do a sugar quantity of 30% to 50% of the total fruit weight. I know I know, you are going to say well the sugar helps with the setting. Well, read on.
Small batches: think about it. The goal is to get liquid to evaporate as quickly as possible, right? So the more liquid you have in a pan, the longer it will take. By simply canning one small batch at a time or breaking up a large amount of fruit into several small batches, you are significantly reducing the amount of time the fruit will be over a hot flame. Also, I like to use a wide pan with flared sides. The more fruit that you have touching the hot surface, the quicker and more evenly everything will cook. Also, the flared sides allow for liquid to actually evaporate instead of getting trapped and rolling back down into your preserve.
Pectin: this is the all important thing that thickens and stabilizes your jam. Pectin is found naturally in all fruits and land plants. The issue is that certain fruits like apples and lemons are high in pectin and others are not. Of course, the fruits of your favorite jams — strawberries and grapes — are low in pectin. Life couldn’t be that easy right? So to make up for this, many people add packaged pectin to their jams. I have only ever done this once, in a desperate attempt to save a strawberry jam that wouldn’t set. But this was before I started using the small batch method. Since then, I haven’t had any issues and so I do not add pectin to my preserves. Also, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a looser set.
This is a preserve that I made around this time last year. I didn’t have anywhere to share this then, so I’m sharing this a year later. I thought that the chamomile’s natural floral notes and crisp sweetness would be a great compliment to the first pears of the season, the bartlett. It doesn’t hurt either that they are such a photogenic couple — the blushing, freckled pear and the delicate, white, and yellow centered flowers.
If you cannot find fresh chamomile, I imagine dried would work as well. I do find that drying often intensifies the flavors of things, so maybe remove the chamomile part way through the cooking process.
H O N E Y C H A M O M I L E P E A R P R E S E R V E
three 12oz jars
2 1/2 pounds bartlett pears, cleaned, cored & diced
1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons fresh chamomile flower buds
2 lemons, zest & juice
1 pound pure raw honey
Toss together the pears, chamomile flowers, zest and juice of 1 lemon, and honey in a large glass or ceramic bowl. If you prefer to remove the chamomile flowers before canning, use a tea ball. Make sure that the honey is mixed in well. Cover and allow to sit in the fridge overnight.
When you are ready to cook, place a metal spoon in the freezer. Cook the pears in batches. Small batch cooking is key remember? The number of times you will repeat this process depends on the size of your pan, probably around 2-3. Divide the zest and juice of your second lemon, set aside. Transfer the pears into a wide, heavy bottomed pan. The pears should cover the pan as a single layer. Cook over high heat until the mixture starts to thicken, about 6-8 minutes. You will need to stir every so often to keep the fruit from burning. Once the pears turn translucent and start to soften, turn off the heat and remove from the burner.
Puree smooth about 2/3 of the fruit mixture in a food processor. Return the puree back to the pot with the rest of the fruit. Cook over high heat until you can draw a clear canal down the middle of the preserve with a wooden spoon, a couple minutes more. Towards the end of cooking, add some of the zest and juice of your second lemon, to help brighten up the flavor. Double check the doneness by putting a bit of the preserve on the frozen spoon. When you tilt the spoon, the preserve should run down the spoon slowly. If it is running too fast, cook the jam a minute or two longer, test again. Please note that this is going to be a fairly loose set preserve.
Spoon into clean jars, making sure to leave about 1/2 inch of headspace. Since this is such a small batch, I decided to just store mine in the fridge. Feel free to process in a water bath for 15 minutes. If you decide to do this, make sure that you start with jars that have been cleaned and boiled.
Repeat the above steps until you have cooked all of the pears.
My favorite way to eat this is on yogurt with some homemade granola and seasonal fresh fruit.