I have an opinion about strawberry jam. No, actually, I have an attitude. I don’t like the old fashioned way of boiling the dickens out of watery berries loaded with sugar, only to yield a brownish substance that is supposed to resemble fruit. Nor do I like adding powdered or ooey gluey liquid pectin. (Of course, you can make your own pectin from early season green apples, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
That was before I learned new tricks, tricks that have transformed my approach. The first trick is to macerate the fruit in sugar overnight, a step advocated by Christine Ferber, the doyenne of preserving. This brings out the flavor of the fruit, dissolves the sugar gracefully and helps develop the set without adding pectin. She sometimes does this twice, letting the fruit sit in liquid after an initial boil, which plumps it up. Or she boils the liquid independent of the fruit nearly to the gel point and adds the berries at the end for a final rendering.
The second useful trick – my own — is to combine strawberries with another ingredient. My favorite is to add red currants, since they have lots of pectin. I make currant-strawberry jam every year now, as well as strawberry-rhubarb jam. I made improvements to both this year, which I hope to share at some point. Both of these are bright and fresh in color and flavor, although they mellow when stored for winter consumption.
This year, in response to Paul Virant’s book The Preservation Kitchen, I made strawberry jam with red wine. He suggested Pinot Noir and I agreed. The alcohol of course cooks off, but the flavor of the wine complements the strawberries and creates an old-timey depth that the defunct boiling method intended to achieve. The other interesting discovery is that the wine contains enough natural sugar that you don’t need nearly as much sugar as in typical jam. The rule of thumb is to add 3 cups of granulated sugar to 4 cups of fruit. That’s a lot. I typically add less but you do jeopardize the set. Here, I used 2/3 cup of sugar to 4 cups of fruit! That’s a stunning reduction. Maybe there are other chemicals at work from the fermented grapes.
As with every recipe I’ve made from Virant’s excellent book, I’ve reduced the amount and rewritten the recipe procedurally while preserving his concept. I prefer small batch canning since I like to try different things, so I halve or quarter most recipes. Below is the way I made it, yielding 3-4 four-ounce jars, just the right size for a few breakfast meals.
Strawberry Jam with Pinot Noir adapted from Paul Virant’s Preservation Kitchen
2/3 c granulated cane sugar
¾ c Pinot Noir or another light and slightly fruity red wine
1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
Clean and hull the strawberries and cut them into 1/3 to ½-inch dice. Place them in a heavy saucepan with the sugar for about 20 minutes, or until the strawberries render their juice and the sugar is mostly dissolved. Add the remaining ingredients and bring the mixture to a boil. Cook for about 5 minutes. Let cool and refrigerate at least overnight but up to a few days.
Prepare jars and lids for water bath canning. Place a saucer in the freezer to cool.
Strain the liquid from the macerated strawberries into a wide pan, reserving the berries. Cook the liquid over medium-high heat until it is reduced by approximately one half and reaches approximately 215 degrees on a candy thermometer. This will take anywhere from 15-25 minutes.
Add the reserved strawberries and continue to cook until the temperature reaches 221 degrees or … this is important… a drop placed on a frozen plate wrinkles when pressed with your finger. I find the latter a better test of gel than the former.
Ladle the jam into prepared jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Process in a water bath canner for 10 minutes after the water returns to a boil. Turn off the heat, remove the canner lid and let sit for 5 minutes before removing to a counter to cool undisturbed.
Makes 3-4 four-ounce jars.