Jam: Buy It vs. Make It
I recently moved out of the city to the ‘burbs, and while a lot of stereotypes about California are true, some are super-true. Yes: fruit trees grow abundantly, and a stroll through a verdant neighborhood will leave your little yellow basket overflowing. When I put out the word on the neighborhood email list that I was in search of backyard fruit to make into jam, I was deluged with responses. But a trip to my new neighbors’ down the hill rendered my own jam-making repetitive: they had set up shop in their kitchen to make compote, jam and dried apricots, all at the same time as their cats cowered and glared at the disruption.
Dan and Maria are about ten years ahead of me in terms of the creative accoutrements they’ve added to their garden (strawberries, bees, bricks and solar-powered lights that look like gumdrops), so they’re pretty much going to be my collective Yoda, though they don’t know it yet. As for jam-making, they were also ahead of me there, because they had conquered the fear of botulism that leads me to freeze, rather than can, my small batches.
They directed me to the FDA’s Food Safety website, which assures me that the botulism thing is way more of an issue with low-acid vegetables, like corn or beans, or with meat (oh my gross, who would can meat?). When canning fruit or tomatoes, it’s okay to boil the cans as long as you use fresh lids each time. As they plopped batches of jam into jars, they waited for it to cool, and then — pop! Each lid was sucked into place by the sealing process. I don’t know. It was kind of magic. I’m going to try it, but I haven’t yet.
Anywho, all we’re talking about now is making jam, which is remarkably similar to making applesauce: you cut up fruit, you add 1/2 to 3/4 its weight in sugar, you simmer it until it looks like jam, and it’s jam. I added pectin (1 1/2 tablespoons per 1 1/3 cups of fruit, according to this groovy pectin calculator) so it’d really gel, and it really did. Were the results worth the trouble? I’d say they were. But let’s do the math!
The cost depends entirely on your fruit. When I did pick-your-own berries two summers ago, they charged us $4 a pound, which was fun, but it wasn’t a bargain. A friend of mine buys berries in bulk when they’re in season and cans them for when they’re not, which does bring it in a bit cheaper. But as I said, I was working with free: the bounty of (my neighbors’) back yard, though I freely recognize not everybody lives in an earthquake-prone paradise.
This recipe says that 2 1/2 pounds of stone fruit yields 1 1/2 pints (24 oz) of jam, which sounds about right to me. If fruit is $4 a pound, that makes it 41 cents an ounce. Smuckers runs about 24 cents an ounce; Safeway’s house-brand organic is about 40 cents an ounce. The fancy favorite Bonne Maman brand is 45 cents an ounce. So if your fruit is reasonably priced (or free), your yield is the fanciest jam around. Not a bargain, but not a loss, either.
The effort is underwhelming. If you’re hanging out in the kitchen anyway, or having an afternoon at home, there are worse ways to spend it. A small batch (which is what we’re talking about here) really only takes about 45 minutes, maybe an hour and a half if you drag it out. The bottom line is: it’s easier than you think.
HOLY MASTICATED FRUIT, BATMAN. First of all, you can experiment with flavors, adding spices to your taste, which you’re not going to get from a big-batch company worried about people avoiding its fare because it tastes weird. To whit: I added cinnamon to my jam and it’s awesome, and when I make blueberry jam I will add ginger, and when I make strawberry jam I will add balsamic vinegar because the internet is full of this stuff. Second of all, the freshness adds an unbeatable brightness to the whole process. Third, it has the undeniable flavor of showing off.