Why Are You Buying Jam? It’s Summertime. Don’t Buy Jam.

Slate's Culture Blog
June 26 2013 4:56 PM

You’re Doing It Wrong: Jam

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Summertime is jam-making time.

Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo forSlate.

Most people I know buy jam when they want jam. This makes sense in the winter, when fresh peaches, cherries, and berries are in short supply, and when jam is the easiest way to make those fruits a part of your life. But it makes absolutely no sense in the summer. When juicy warm-weather fruits are abundant and cheap, it’s a no-brainer to make jam with them, a process that’s insanely easy (and fairly quick) and yields results that taste fresher than any store-bought jam.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

Jam’s reputation for being difficult is mysterious. Is it fussy and time-consuming to preserve jam in shelf-stable jars? Sure. (To be fair, it’s also exciting! The risk of botulism and other dangerous bacteria makes home-canning feel as dangerous as Tipper Gore thought Prince’s “Darling Nikki” was.) But it’s child’s play to make jam that’s intended to be eaten right away, kept in the refrigerator for a few weeks, or frozen for several months. Literally all you have to do is cook fruit with sugar until it starts to break down and thicken.

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One could make the semantic argument that such a combination is rightly called a conserve, since it doesn’t contain pectin, the plant-based gelling agent that thickens commercial jams. But if jam is good enough for the National Center for Home Preservation, it’s good enough for me. Jam has the added appeal of its delightfully uncertain etymology: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s probably a literal reference to the act of jamming fruit together, but observers have noted the word’s similarity to the French j’aime—“I love”—since the 18th century.

Not having to sterilize lids and boil jars is one major advantage of making refrigerator jam. Being able to use less sugar than you otherwise would is another. Canned jams often contain a 1-to-1 ratio (by volume) of fruit to sugar, which acts as a preservative and inhibits mold. With refrigerator jam, mold isn’t as much of a consideration, so you can use one-half as much sugar and allow the fruit flavor to dominate. There’s also the matter of cost: Your $5 jar of Bonne Maman starts to lose some of its panache when you realize you can make equally good homemade jam for one-half the cost.

No combination highlights the advantages of homemade jam over store-bought more than strawberries and rhubarb, the darling duo of the pie world. They require slightly more preparation than, say, blueberries; in addition to rinsing them, you have to hull the strawberries and peel tough strings off the exterior of the rhubarb stalks. (Nick the end of the stalk with a paring knife, and then pull away the fibers with your fingers.) But the final product, half an hour later, exudes more sweet-tart brightness than any pie. Serve it hot on top of ice cream or cake, or cool it before spreading on bread or swirling into yogurt. Or take a cue from John Ayto’s Diner’s Dictionary, which notes in its entry on jam: “Up until the nineteenth century, fruit preserves might just as often be eaten on their own, as a dessert.”

Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam
Yield: About 2½ cups
Time: 25 to 30 minutes

1 pound strawberries, trimmed and roughly chopped
1 pound rhubarb, trimmed and roughly chopped
1 cup sugar

Combine the strawberries, rhubarb, and sugar in a medium pot over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the strawberries and rhubarb begin to break down, 20 to 25 minutes. Cool and serve. (Store leftover jam in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a few weeks, or in the freezer for up to several months.)