June 17, 2015

Strawberry Season in Maine

The fresh strawberries are starting to appear in the markets here in Southern Maine (!!!). I see strawberries as the official start to the short Maine preserving season - for one, strawberry jam is one of my favorite types of jam, so it's the first Maine-grown produce I feel the need to capture in large amounts. When the berries are in, I hear the firing of the starting gun. The race is on to put up my favorite produce - and our in-season, local fruit is high on the list.

That said, I also thinking jamming, in general, and strawberry jam, in particular, is one of the more finicky things one can attempt in food preservation. Some knowledge and experience is required to get fruit jams to "set" or to have that jam-like, spreadable texture (versus a runny fruit syrup). And then strawberries have their own issues, like foaming and floating, that can confuse or worry a newbie canner.

I've written tons on how to best preserve strawberries, but here are the highlights: my favorite recipes for the New England canner who is as excited about the first fruits of summer as I am.

For jamming, I turn to Pomona's Pectin - it's available at natural foods stores, Whole Foods, and online. Pectin is the stuff in fruit that bonds with sugar and water to create the set. Manufacturers extract pectin from fruit, dry it, and powder it, so you can be sure your jam or jelly will set. The thing is, most pectins require the addition of sugar to work. If you're looking to avoid sugar completely or use an alternative sweetener for whatever reason (flavor, health, fun), you're out of luck with most commercially-available pectins. 

Pomona's is uniquely formulated, in that it does not need sugar to set! No sugar needed means you're free to use any kind of sweetener you want: honey, maple syrup, agave, Stevia, Splenda, and of course, white or raw sugar, just maybe less of it than some recipes call for. 

My favorite strawberry jam made using Pomona's Pectin is this strawberry rhubarb jam, using a robust honey from my friend SK. The honey flavor complimented the tart rhubarb and strawberries nicely and stood up to the fruit, whereas a mild honey would disappear. 

I've also made low-sugar strawberry jam using SureJell's No Sugar Needed pectin (no sugar in that you can use Splenda, but it's also a reduced sugar pectin). The recipe calls for 6 cups of fruit and 4 cups of white sugar. I think the flavor is perfectly sweet without being cloying or losing the fruit flavor, but the more I become used to my low-sugar jams made with Pomona's, the more I find it's on the sweet side. This recipe would be perfect for someone who is used to a full-sugar jam, but is looking to use less sugar without freaking out their sweet tooth. 

While I love the classic strawberry jam, add-ins are fun, like vanilla extract or herbs. I'm enjoying the strawberry basil jam from my friend Sue at Above the Dam Jam that I bought at the Kennebunk Farmers Market. She adds whole basil leaves while the fruit is cooking, then removes them before canning. I've steeped whole herbs like lavender and mint in with my strawberry mixture, adding a subtle complexity to the final product. 

Bourbon and vanilla add a nice touch too - if you're lucky enough to have been given or if you make your own, a splash of Bourbon vanilla extract adds some sweetness, which will in turn help you reduce the sugar in your jams. I've also added a vanilla bean to my sugar before jamming, to infuse the sugar with a slight perfume of the spice. I've got Love and Olive Oil's limoncello strawberry jam bookmarked for this year. 

A lof of these projects might not take place in the next few weeks, since I use my freezer to preserve the berries first. I pick my own fruit, then wash, dry, and hull the berries. After they're packed into freezer-grade plastic bags, I stow them in the freezer until I either run low on strawberry jam or until I have more time to undertake a more elaborate project like canning. 

Jam also freezes well, and several pectins are available that don't require cooking to work. That means there's more fruit flavor making its way into your jam, and in the middle of winter, your tastebuds will be particularly wowed.