One Saturday night a few weeks ago, friends tipped us off that Butler's Orchard had snap peas and blueberries and black raspberries all ready to go at once. Needless to say, we canceled all other plans for the next day, and by 8:30 am Sunday morning, we were off to the races.
Blueberries are awesome to pick with an 18-month old. They free from the bush easily, they're plentiful at toddler height, and us oldies can reach the higher ones and save our backs while the kid gets the low-hanging fruit. We came home with 5 pounds of blueberries, 5 pounds of black raspberries, and stains just about everywhere.
The beauty of the at-first-blush-insane 8:30 start time is that we can pick and eat to our hearts' (and stomachs') content and be home in time for nap. The toddler and wife recharge, and a certain crazy person hauls a** to the kitchen stat and makes jam. By the time everyone wakes up, the jars are happily popping closed on the counter. Girl on a mission, you know?
My usual routine is to put the jars in the dishwasher as I start making jam, and hold them in the steam until I'm ready to use them. But in a new-to-me book, Blue Chair Fruit, Rachel Saunders proposes a rather genius alternative: sterilize the jars -- first empty, then filled -- in the oven. I love two things about this. First: no sane Washingtonian happily creates extra humidity in the summertime. In this city, dry heat + oven fan is much better than a steamy kitchen. Second, the oven method makes processing more jars at once, and jars of different sizes much easier, since you don't need to worry about having space in the canner or about having the right size jar holder for each size jar. Instead, you set the jars on a rimmed baking sheet and processes them and their rings and lids at 250 degrees F for at least 30 minutes, then again for another 15 minutes once filled. The only tricky part is having functional oven mitts (yes, of course mine ripped a hole the day before this project. Yes, both of them.) and a steady hand so the jars don't shake or fall during the transfer. Also: make sure to lower your oven racks, so you have room for the jars. Other than that, it's a cinch, and so much less messy/stressful/hot and sticky. Hooray for not hating the process of canning!
Saunders' recipe is straightforward but thorough. She offers a two-step test to check if jam is ready: first, does the surface crinkle? Second, when you tilt the spoon, does it refuse to run? If both are true, the jam is done. For me, this took much of the guesswork out of jam making, and I wound up with a flawless consistency. Also, Saunders tells you to stick five spoons in the freezer for testing along with the saucer, because let's be honest - it's never done on the first try.
There's one bit that makes no sense, though: she recommends cooking the jam for a total of 10-12 minutes, and testing for doneness at the 10-minute mark. All fine and good, but her testing process takes 3-4 minutes at minimum. One round of testing, and you've surpassed the 10-minute mark. Instead, I turned the stove all the way down between tests, so as not to overcook the jam, and I ran tests in parallel, so as to cut the risk of overcooking.
In the end, it worked. The jam had perfect consistency, but fresh, raspberry-forward flavor. if you're thinking about making raspberry jam this summer - red or black - I hereby pound the table for this recipe. Now go get yourself some raspberries.
Rachel Saunders' Black Raspberry Jam
Adapted, just barely, from the Blue Chair Jam Cookbook
Makes 6 8-ounce jars
3 1/2 pounds black (or red) raspberries, divided
2 pounds sugar
5 ounces strained freshly squeezed lemon juice (though if at all possible, use a reamer rather than a squeezer; you really don't want the zest oils, which will easily overpower the raspberry flavor)
To sterilize your jars the Saunders way, place your oven racks in the lowest spots in your oven and preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Set clean jars and an equal number of unused lids on a rimmed baking sheet, and place the sheet in the oven for a minimum of 30 minutes. Remove the jars just in time to fill them (see instructions below).
Put a small plate or saucer and five metal spoons on a flat surface in the freezer to use for testing the jam later.
In your largest, widest nonreactive pot or pan, combine 1 pound of raspberries with the sugar and lemon juice. Set the pot over medium-low heat and cook, stirring regularly, until the juice starts to run from the berries. Increase the heat to high and cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture boils.
Boil the mixture vigorously for 1-2 minutes, stirring every couple of seconds. Then add the remaining 2 1/2 pounds of berries and stir to incorporate. Bring the mixture back up to a boil, stirring every 30 seconds. Once it reaches a boil, cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
At the 10-minute mark, start testing for doneness:
1. Remove one spoon from the freezer, scoop a representative half-teaspoon of your jam, and set the spoon on the saucer in your freezer for 3-4 minutes. Touch the underside of the spoon: if it's still warm, give it another minute in the freezer. If it feels room temperature, that jam is ready for testing. I recommend reducing the heat as low as it goes while you wait, so you don't overcook the jam.
2. Nudge the jam gently with your finger: if the surface crinkles, it's done or nearly done.
3. Tilt the spoon vertically. If the jam refuses to run, it's done.
Right before you take out your first spoon, repeat the process with your second spoon. This cuts the wait time between tests, and may also reduce the risk of overcooking.
Turn off the heat, but do not stir. Use a spoon to skim the foam from the surface of the jam.
Remove your jars from the oven just in time to fill them, as you want them to be hot; however, you may find that they're too hot, in which case the jam will start to boil when put into the jar. If this happens when you start filling, wait 2-3 minutes before continuing to fill the jars.
Use a wide-spout funnel to pour jam into jars, then wipe the rims clean. Put the lids onto the jars, and screw on the bands just until they catch (not too tight). Return to the oven and process for a minimum of 15 minutes (mine needed 30 more minutes to seal correctly). They will seal (and some will pop) as they cool. Leave on the baking sheet for several hours, until they are completely cool. I test the seal by carefully removing the band and lifting each jar by its lid, just an inch or so above the counter. If the jar remains closed, the seal is intact. If a jar does not seal properly -- and two of mine didn't -- just reseal them within 24 hours (following the same process) and you're good to go.