Strawberry fields forever: Pick your own for the freshest taste, and start jammin’

Steve Peters / Photo

Steve Peters
RUTLAND BITES

Have you gone strawberry picking yet? Now’s the time, and the local season doesn’t last for much longer. Picking your own is the best way to get perfectly ripe berries at a reasonable price. While you may find packs of strawberries in grocery stores for less, they’re such a disappointment. Have you noticed that they’re often red on the outside but white on the inside? Then when you bite into them, you taste nothing. They have no flavor whatsoever, even though they appear ripe and tasty when you take them home. What gives?

Strawberries like those are most often strategically grown for size rather than taste. We’re fooled into thinking that these large berries, which appear ripe, must be good based on their appearance alone.

That’s why one of the things I like best about going to pick my own is that I can judge the ripeness of the strawberries for myself. I can feel them, see them up close and occasionally, bite into one and get a taste that puts all other strawberries to shame. That’s not the experience you get in a store.

Unfortunately, unripe strawberries do not continue to ripen after picking. Those white strawberries without flavor aren’t going to get better with time. They’ll likely just get moldy. You’re better off buying frozen berries in the store, as frozen produce tends to be frozen only when ripe. But picking your own is always the best option in my opinion. It’s something to do with friends or family, you’re getting a good deal and you’re getting the best quality.

I went out to Breezy Hill Berry Farm in Castleton recently, and in less than a half hour picked 10 pounds. Later that evening I froze about two-thirds of my supply and used the remainder to make jam. To freeze, you just gently wash and dry the berries, hull them and then freeze individually on a baking sheet. Once frozen, they can be transferred to a plastic freezer bag or another container. This process prevents the berries from freezing together. You can slice them before freezing if you want, but that’s up to you.

It’s the jam I really want to talk about, though. I haven’t always had an interest in making jam, and I haven’t always had the best results in the past. I don’t want the jam that’s more sugar than fruit, either, and that is most often the case in many recipes and storage options.

There’s the common question of whether or not to use pectin. Pectin is a starch found in fruits and vegetables that helps give them their structure. It’s available in a powder similar to gelatin, but it’s made from produce, not animals. When making jam or jelly, some fruits, like apples, are naturally high in pectin and don’t need any added in order to set. But some fruits, such as strawberries, don’t contain high enough levels of pectin in order to gel and set on their own.

You could skip the pectin, and there are plenty of jam and jelly recipes without it, but you either have to add a considerable amount of sugar or cook the fruit down for quite some time to compensate. And those are the instances when I haven’t had good luck. Last year’s pectin-free strawberry jam had weirdly separated by the time the holidays came about and we went to give it out as gifts. Of course, there are other options out there that I’ve yet to fully explore. There are freezer jams and no-cook jams. But I’m typically interested in something that is shelf-stable and not taking up my limited fridge or freezer space.

When using pectin, depending on the brand and variety, you may also have to use a good amount of sugar in order to activate it, which doesn’t really solve the problem. However, there are some brands that don’t require quite as much sugar to work.

This time, not wanting to attempt a pectin-free recipe again, I tried Pomona’s Universal Pectin. Pomona’s is activated by a calcium water that you add to the jam. Most pectins rely on the interaction with sugar to gel or thicken up. Luckily, you don’t taste the calcium or the pectin, and with this brand, you can adjust the amount of sugar based on your preference. According to their instructions, you can adjust the sugar anywhere from 3/4 cup to 2 cups, or use ½ – 1 cup of honey instead.

If everything I just mentioned sounds like more work than you have the time or inclination for, luckily, I found the entire process incredibly simplified by using Pomona’s. I followed the basic recipe included in the instructions, and just made a few adjustments. The jam started to thicken quicker than any I’ve made before. I added in some lemon thyme from my garden, but you could try flavoring it with basil, rosemary, ginger or black pepper.

Strawberry lemon thyme jam

Makes roughly 7 cups or 7 half-pint canning jars

  • 8 cups fully ripe strawberries, hulled and sliced
  • 1 package Pomona’s Universal Pectin
  • 2 cups sugar
  • salt (optional)
  • several lemon thyme sprigs

In a large, wide pot, mash the strawberries. Make the calcium water as described in Pomona’s instructions. Add 2 teaspoons of this to the mashed fruit. In a bowl, whisk together the pectin with the sugar.

Heat the fruit over medium-high heat and bring to a full boil for a couple of minutes. Add the sugar and pectin mixture and stir to combine into the strawberries. Return to a boil and then remove from the heat. Stir in a couple pinches of salt, to taste, if desired.

Transfer the jam to hot, sanitized canning jars. Add a couple sprigs of the lemon thyme into each jar. Process in a water bath for 10 minutes following standard canning procedures.

Steve Peters

Steve Peters is a cook, gardener and baker living in Rutland.

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