Jam making is a curious thing. There’s a strange thrill about watching something fresh, and transient and so of-its-season, turning into something that can be dug out of a cupboard in the dead of winter and savoured for a taste of warm days, light evenings and all-round lushness.
My favourite foods and drinks are ones that can become whole new entities, can be raised almost a higher state of being, simply with a bit of ingenuity. The kind of ingenuity that’s so beautifully clever it was invented hundreds of years ago, and requires very little to bring it into the modern world. That might be why I don’t like milk but love cheese, can take or leave grapes but love wine. We humans are smart when we have a yin yang balance with what’s wonderful about the ingredient we’re working with, and what we envision for it. Our ancestors knew that, too, it’s why they never froze things with liquid nitrogen. Forcing things never works, you can always taste when something is forced, or clumsily put together.
My first ever job was picking fruit at a fruit farm. I was 11, and was never allowed near the soft fruits like raspberries or strawberries (too delicate and way too tempting for children to go near), so I cut my teeth picking gooseberries by the handful, getting paid by the kilo. For ten weeks of every summer for five years, I looked like I’d been caught in the crossfire of a million angry tomcats, and the splinters from gooseberry bushes are like nothing you’ve ever known. That said, earning £5 a day when I was 11 (it was a lot of money then) gave me a bizarrely fierce loyalty towards this weird, old fashioned, rock-solid, hairy little fruit with a raw taste that would make your face look like Dot Cotton licking piss off a nettle (a phrase shamelessly stolen from The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker).
Gooseberries are lovely. I shan’t hear a word against them.
Cut to this year: it’s currently the height of PYO season, and, maybe because I spent weeks doing it as a child for money, I’ve never actually PYO’d. Weird, huh? Spurred on by a shameless need for fresh fruit that wasn’t yet more satsumas from Morocco, the OH and I spent a happy hour wandering the aisles (? I guess they’re aisles, I’m gonna stick with aisles) of our local fruit farm, loading up on 2kg of gooseberries, and – wait for it – another 2kg of fresh strawberries.
So, here we go. Strawberries and gooseberries. Let’s jam.
A note on good jam making
- It’s way easier than anyone lets on.
- Sterilising jars is always way easier than it sounds.
- “The wrinkle test” is real, and useful. More on that below.
How to sterilise jam/jelly jars
- Turn your oven to about 100 degrees and make sure there’s a shelf in place on the middle
- Fill a clean washing up bowl with hot, soapy water and give the jars and their lids a good wash
- Rinse under hot water, then put them in the oven – on their sides on the shelf
- Turn the oven off and bring them out when your jam is ready
The wrinkle test
The premise: When the jam is at setting point, it’ll wrinkle up when you put a dab of it on a surface and let it cool. To speed up the cooling process (and so you’re not constantly dabbing your finger into searing hot sugar liquid, put a saucer in the freezer.
How to make strawberry jam
This makes about 2 ½ normal size jars of jam – the recipe I used said it would make four jars, but it didn’t. I made two full jars and put the rest in a bowl in the fridge, where it was eaten on toast in about two days.
Fresh strawberries, topped and hulled
granulated sugar (some people suggest jam sugar, but the added pectin makes it go a bit solid – like American ‘jelly’ – whereas I prefer my jam more liquidy)
A squeeze of lemon juice
A teeny dash of balsamic vinegar – it makes the strawberries taste more like strawberries (if you don’t know what I mean, you will when you try it)
*The acidity of the lemon juice and the balsamic give it that little push it needs to be less like strawberry syrup and more like actual jam.*
A good episode of something, to top and hull your strawberries to. Standing alone in the kitchen chopping fruit is boring.
A tall, deep pan – if you don’t have one, I guarantee your nearest Oxfam will
A wooden spoon (apparently it’s important, and not just for looking wholesome)
2-3, clean, empty jam jars, sterilised
Perfect, easy strawberry jam
Place all the ingredients in a big, tall pan on a medium heat, and put a clean saucer in the freezer
Stir the mixture gently every few minutes with your wooden spoon, allowing the strawberries to macerate in the sugar as it dissolves
Once the sugar has dissolved, turn up the heat, and let it boil rapidly. Don’t put a lid on it or it’ll boil over
After about 4 minutes of the rapid boiling, take the pan off the heat, and do the wrinkle test.* It won’t be ready, but do it anyway – this is so you can see what it’s not meant to look like.
*Positive side note – it already tastes bloody amazing at this point, so enjoy.
After another 7-8 minutes (yes, time it), do the wrinkle test again
Mine was wrinkling like a gem by wrinkle test no.3, but there’s no right or wrong timing. I think the longer you boil it for, the more solid your jam will be.
Let your jam cool a wee bit (20 minutes or so), before plucking your jars out of the oven and filling them up. Be careful as you do this: between the jars and the jam, it’s hotter than the sun.
Once the jars are full, add a circle of greaseproof paper to the top, then screw the lids on and press the little safety button in. I don’t know why it’s there, but it’s really satisfying to do. If you know about jar lid science, please tell us the secret in the comments!
Save yourself a tiny bit to have on sourdough toast. You’ve earned it.
Gooseberry and ginger jam
Gooseberries are so sour that again, you don’t need any pectin for this to set. The ginger was a last-minute addition, but it’s worth it and very subtle. You can leave it out if you want.
(Makes 5x 200ml jars)
1.6kg fresh, green (or mostly green) gooseberries, rinsed, de-leaved, topped and tailed
1.6kg granulated sugar
An egg-sized chunk of ginger, peeled and chopped into chunks (keep the peel too)
An episode of something good to distract you from having to top and tail 1.6 kilos of gooseberries – ESSENTIAL
A stainless steel or heatproof glass bowl
A tall, deep jam pan
A new j-cloth or a piece of muslin (the OH has hops bags that he uses for brewing – these are good if you have them)
A wooden spoon
A Pyrex jug, if you have one
How to make gooseberry jam
Preheat the oven to about 150 degrees, and put a saucer in the freezer
Wash your jam jars, and put them to one side.
Put the pan of gooseberries on the hob on a medium heat with 600ml of water, and bring to the boil. Boil rapidly, with the lid off, until it’s reduced by about 1/3 and the gooseberries are softened. Turn the heat down to medium-low.
Place the bowl of sugar in the oven for about 15 minutes, turning it with a dry spoon halfway through, to warm it up.
Switch the oven off and put your clean jam jars in, side on, along with their lids
Add the sugar to the pan, and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Bring the heat back up and boil rapidly, with the lid off.
Chop the ginger and tie it into the piece of muslin, like a tea bag. Add it to the pan and stir it through.
After about 15 minutes, try the wrinkle test. Test every 8 minutes or so, making sure to remove the pan from the heat every time you do so. I found the wrinkle point took longer than it did with strawberry jam, around 45 minutes in total.
Take the pan off the heat, and the jam jars out of the oven. Gently fish the ginger ‘tea bag’ out, and put it in the sink to cool down.
Use the Pyrex jug to fill the sterilised jars with jam. Top with a circle of greaseproof paper, and screw the lid on, pressing the safety button in as you go (again, no idea why, but it’s fun, right?)
The strawberry jam recipe has been adapted from Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess.
The gooseberry jam recipe was adapted from the recipe from Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking