Perfect Strawberry Jam

It’s mid July, and I’m just in time to catch the very best strawberries this year has to offer. Although you can get British strawberries anywhere from May to September, it’s fair to say that the best tasting and sweetest strawberries, you’ll find in June and July. If you can find a punnet of small, ripe strawberries from either Hampshire or Kent, so much the better!

Like anything else you rustle up in the kitchen, jam is simple to get the hang of, but takes ages to perfect. And annoyingly, those additional improvements that you make usually have diminishing returns – you spend hours endlessly tweaking your technique, with only you really noticing whether this batch is better or worse than the last one you made!

I’m instantly turned off by the arrogance of anyone claiming to have a ‘perfect’ recipe for anything, but I honestly don’t think you’ll find a better, or actually easier recipe for strawberry jam than this one.

My whole philosophy towards jam, which you’ll know all about if you made it through my ridiculously lengthy explanation of making marmalade, is that the key to attaining the best flavour, is to use the least amount of heat possible once you’ve added the sugar. If you boil your jam for a long time, you’ll lose all subtlety of the fruit flavour, and end up with a jam that just tastes sickly sweet. So this whole recipe is built around reducing heating time to an absolute minimum,

I discovered this idea of ‘heat phobic’ jam making from a video on Youtube I watched years ago, which I only mention because I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I’m claiming responsibility for inventing a new jam making methodology – this is merely the adaptation of the best knowledge I was able to find, until I was satisfied that my recipe was as perfect as I could possibly make it.

So without further ado, let’s make some strawberry jam!

The first thing you’ll need to do is hull and halve (or quarter) your strawberries. If you don’t have a huller you can use a paring knife to cut out the calyx, but I totally recommend buying one. They’re not too expensive, and it’s so quick and easy to use.

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Next, you need to place your strawberries in a large pan to make the jam. I have a very deep 8 inch saucepan that is just big enough for the job, although I have to monitor the heat carefully to make sure it doesn’t boil over. A large cast iron casserole dish is also a good choice.

I think it’s worth rinsing the pan out before you place your strawberries in it, so that it has a thin coating of moisture all over the inside. On a couple of occasions I’ve managed to ‘fry’ the strawberries, and that’s definitely not the look and taste you’re going for!

Traditionally you would add lemon juice to the strawberries to help activate the pectin. But as I want to reduce the cooking time as much as possible, I’m going to sprinkle on some citric acid instead; it’s basically powdered lemon juice. If you can’t get hold of citric acid you could just use the juice of a half a lemon instead.

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Clamping on a lid, you then need to heat your strawberries gently until they release their juice. You’ll want to use a very low heat for this, as you want the strawberries to maintain their integrity, and not disintegrate. Many people like to mash their strawberries up a bit to create a smoother jam, but I like to find big chunks of strawberry in mine – it feels much more decadent 🙂

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On my hob it takes about 20-25 minutes on a low heat before the fruit is satisfyingly floating in it’s own liquid. Keep the lid on to ensure you’re not losing any moisture, and swirl the pan periodically to make sure nothing is stuck to the bottom.

If I haven’t already prepped my jam jars, this is the point at which I like to do it. I will either run them through the dishwasher, or wash them in warm soapy water before sterilising. I’m using 4 x 260ml jars today, and this recipe should fill those perfectly. If you want to use a regular 1lb jam jar, you should expect to fill three jars.

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I like to set my jars up on a baking tray lined with a silicone baking mat. This provides some friction to stop things sliding around when you move the baking tray in and out of the oven. You will also want to sterilise a jam funnel and a ladle, as they will also be touching your final jam later on. Place the baking tray into a cold oven, and then set the heat to 150c, keeping the jars in the oven until the moment you’re ready to use them.

I also take the opportunity at this point to place a saucer in the freezer, so that I can test the set of my jam later on.

Returning to the strawberries now…

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Once the strawberries have given up their juice, and before they start to fall apart, whip off the lid, and immediately dump all your sugar into the pan.

I like to use jam sugar, as it makes everything easier. You can also use regular granulated sugar, and add some liquid or powdered pectin to the jam as well.

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Despite the strawberry’s notoriously low pectin content, it is possible to set the jam without adding any extra pectin. However, every time I have set a batch ‘naturally’ it’s always ended up tasting overcooked; I honestly don’t think it’s worth it, especially as you’re the only person who’ll ever know you added the pectin anyway. Nobody’s going to be impressed that you didn’t add pectin if your jam doesn’t taste nice 😉

Anyway, stir the sugar through, and turn up the heat to dissolve it completely.

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Once the sugar is all dissolved, you can really whack the heat up and bring your jam to a rolling boil. This is the point when the jam starts to bubble up and rise dangerously high in the pan. DO NOT leave your jam for a second, and watch it like a hawk.

If you’re dicing with death, like I am here, be prepared to pull your saucepan off the heat and stir the bubbles down. Don’t leave it until the last second either, as the jam will continue to rise after you’ve taken it off the heat. A sensible person would probably use a slightly bigger pan. I am not that person.

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After 1 minute of boiling, remove your saucepan from the heat, and wait for the bubbles to subside.

Take a spoonful of the jam and place it on your cold saucer. Set a timer for 5 minutes, and leave the jam to cool and firm up.

I like to take advantage of this time spent waiting by scraping as much of the foam off the top of the jam as I can. I’m going to boil it up again briefly, so you don’t need to worry about getting off every last bit, but it never hurts to get the worst off now.

After the 5 minutes are up, push your finger through the dollop of jam.

 

If your jam has reached setting point, the jam will not flood back to fill the area where you pushed your finger through. Some slow seeping back is not a problem.

If you jam has not yet reached setting point, you’ll need to boil it up again and hold it for another minute, and then test again. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever had a batch that wasn’t ready after 1 minute of boiling though, so if it’s nowhere close to set at this point, you might have done something wrong…

All that’s needed now is to stir in a knob of butter – this helps to break up the scum so that it can be more easily removed.

Once I’ve melted the butter into the jam, I like to return it to the boil momentarily. I don’t know whether this is really necessary, but I get quite obsessed with contamination and the risk of jam spoiling. I often give my strawberry jam as a gift, so I want to ensure that it will last. I’ve never had any jam go off yet, but I don’t want to risk being less careful!

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Once the surface of your jam has calmed from it’s momentary boil, you will find that it is a lot easier to scrape the scum off the surface. Remove as much as you possibly can, and then give the pan a good swirl to hide the rest 😉

How easy was that?!

You will need to leave your jam to cool a little before putting into jars. When the jam is hot, the strawberries will float on the surface, but as it cools the jam can suspend the fruit in a more even distribution. Mine usually takes about 30 minutes to cool enough. I swirl the pan every 5-10 minutes along the way, so that the set on the surface is broken.

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If you have have oven gloves with individual fingers, you will find it much easier to fill the jars. Otherwise, a thick tea towel is best for the job; you’re going to need as much dexterity as you can here, so using an oven mitt is going to make things very tricky!

Placing the jam funnel over the jar, carefully ladle in the hot jam to fill generously to the top of each jar. Use a magnet to help you lift the lids onto the jars without touching the insides, and seal tightly. Now simply leave to cool and set completely. Job done!

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If you didn’t wait long enough before putting your jam into the jars, you may notice that all the fruit pieces float to the surface, leaving the bottom of the jar devoid of all fruit 😦

Fear not, there is a quick fix! Invert the jars on your worktop, and leave for about 5 minutes. The fruit should float to the top (bottom), and then as the jam sets up a bit more you can turn the jars the right way around. The fruit should distribute itself a little more evenly through the jam as it slowly rises, and the jam continues to cool.

I would advise against doing this repeatedly though, as you may weaken the pectin and end up with a loose final set.

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Just be aware that you’re not going to win any prizes in the county fair if you do this to your jams! It’s considered improper technique, and will leave an incriminating circle of jam on the inside of your lid. If I need to do this, I always make sure not to give these as gifts to any discerning jam connoisseurs! 😀

So that’s it!

I have made 12 jars of strawberry jam this week, so that’s a whole load of Christmas gifts sorted already!

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I did save some of the leftovers for myself though, and have enjoyed several scones over the last few days. You can really see how bright and clear the jam is; I cannot emphasise enough how much better your jam will be if you minimise the cooking time once you’ve added the sugar. It tastes sweet, but very fruity, and the colour is almost unreal. I truly believe this is better than anything you can buy in a supermarket.

So there it is, my perfect strawberry jam; I challenge anyone to improve this recipe!

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Perfect Strawberry Jam

800g Strawberries (2 x 400g punnet)
2tsp Citric acid powder
800g Jam sugar
Knob of butter

Rinse out a deep 20cm saucepan with cold water, but do not dry.
Hull the strawberries and cut in half. Cut larger strawberries into smaller pieces if necessary.
Put the prepared strawberries into the pan as you go, and sprinkle with 2 level teaspoons of citric acid, tossing gently.

Cover with a glass lid (so you can see inside but don’t need to remove it) and cook on a low heat for 20-25 minutes.
The strawberries should just about maintain their integrity, and be floating in a bright red juice.

Add the sugar and stir continuously.
Once the sugar has dissolved, continue to a rolling boil.
Hold the rolling boil (lowering the heat if required to stop it boiling over) for about 1 minute.

Remove from heat, and test for set – place small amount of jam on a cold saucer and leave for 5 minutes.
Push your finger through the jam. If it doesn’t flood back and fill the space, it’s ready.
If not set, return to the boil for another minute, and check again.

Stir a knob of butter through the jam, and return to the boil momentarily.
Scrape off as much of the scum as possible, and then swirl the pan to disperse the rest.

Leave the jam for 20-30 minutes before putting into jars, to increase chance of even fruit distribution.
If you put into jars immediately, the fruit will simply float to the top.

This recipe fills 3 standard 1lb jam jars.

Jar sterilisation:
In the oven on a baking sheet – 150c/130c fan for 20 minutes.

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