Making Preserves

The strawberry fields are calling again, and the family is answering the call. This time, though, we're not going to cram strawberries into our mouths until we swear we'll never look at another one again. This time, we're going to make preserves. I called my friend Michael, who grew up cooking with his Italian grandmother and has since added a scientific bent to his culinary exploits. "I make preserves about four times a year," said Michael, "but I've made it the old-fashioned way only once -- with my mother when I was a kid. We bought two big racks of blackberries. Smelling them in the car on the way home, I thought, 'This is going to rock.' But when I saw the operation unfold, I said, 'I'll never do this again.'"

A couple of things contributed to that resolution. "First, we got Mason jars, which have a seal, a lid, and a glass jar. The glass jars had to be boiled in a 25-gallon stockpot with a big rack inside it. It was so heavy, Mom needed Dad to lift it onto the stove, and it took over an hour to start the water boiling."

The jars spent 15 or 20 minutes being boiled under pressure. "You do that to kill spores. They're these little buds that live in a calcium shell, and you have to super-nuke them to make sure they don't start growing in the anaerobic environment of your jam." After boiling, "we took this rack full of super-hot glass out and lifted it onto a towel. Then we boiled the lids and inner rings for about 10 minutes."

Meanwhile, "in another stockpot, we mashed about ten pounds of blackberries with a potato masher. And here is where the story gets ugly for me. For every cup of mashed fruit, we had to add six cups of sugar. The amount was hideous; it dwarfed the amount of fruit." However terrifying, there was a reason for all the white stuff. "Everything done in the process of making homemade preserves is for the purpose of preventing any kind of microbe from living in this fruit mixture. Fruit and sugar are the perfect matrix for 'bugs' to live in. You add all this sugar to draw out the water from the fruit -- the sugar exerts osmotic pressure. The water forms a bond with the sugar molecule, and so it isn't available for consumption by the 'bug.'

"It took a long time to melt all that sugar, and we were stirring constantly for about 45 minutes. It took a lot of arm work. You know it's incorporated when you scrape along the bottom of the pan and no little granules show up." Then you add pectin, set it at a low boil, sit back, and watch. "It took a long time -- over an hour."

To test how it's coming along, "you take a spoon and put it in the freezer. Then you dip it in the mixture and watch the rate at which it drips." When you think it's done, "you pour that mixture into the jars. Oh -- and don't touch the edge of your huge stock pot to the edge of the jar, because you'll have to start over." Some bacteria might have been transferred. It would have been better, said Michael, "if we had had a metal ladle from a restaurant supply store that we could sterilize in the pressure cooker and use."

Then, "we let the jars cool for about two hours. Then we melted paraffin and carefully poured it over every jar. Once the paraffin had cooled -- another two-hour wait -- we put the lids on."

The preserves lasted a long time -- at least two years, ideal for an age that didn't have the benefit of refrigeration. "But the color wasn't black any more. It was a weird blue. The texture was like Jell-O, probably because we didn't thicken it correctly -- we added too much calcium chloride on top of the pectin. And the taste was of blackberry, but more of a candied blackberry." Michael found himself wondering, "In the age of refrigeration, isn't there a way to modify this? I can't wrap my mind around blasting fresh fruit with all that sugar."

A simple recipe from Cook's Illustrated showed him the way. "I'll give it to you from memory. You take one pound of prepared fruit -- that means washed and mashed with a potato masher. Add two tablespoons fresh lemon juice and one cup of sugar. I do this four pounds at a time. I buy four bags of frozen Marian blackberries from Trader Joe's [frozen available late summer, fresh available now, $2.99 for 11 oz.]. I put them in a glass bowl to defrost. I wash six 20-ounce Mason jars [ $9.99 for two 13-oz. or six 8-oz. jars at Target] in the dishwasher, so they come out nice and warm and steaming. Then I cook the fruit mixture in a cast iron skillet on low, low heat, stirring every five minutes for about an hour and a half. I do it slowly, because I don't want the taste of cooked blackberries. I want to highlight the freshness of the fruit."

After the hour and a half, "a white foam forms at the edge of the pan, and I incorporate the foam into the middle. Then I take a plate that I've chilled in the freezer, drip a little bit on the plate, and watch how it slides down. The first three or four times, it runs off like water, but eventually, it doesn't even reach the edge of the plate. I call that done. I put it in the jars, not worrying about not touching the edges, and I put the jars in the refrigerator. My preserves last around six months. It gets eaten, and doesn't have enough time to ferment or have a 'bug' grow."

Michael was careful to note that he's not bagging on the old way. "Andrew Johnson said that there are two kinds of fools: those who think something is old, therefore good, and those who think something is new, therefore better." But this way gives him what he wants, and it sounded like a good place for the Kellys to begin.

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