Grow your Own Jam: Tips from Rachel Saunders

In June, Stone Barns Center kicked off its “Grow Your Own” program series with a jam class led by Rachel Saunders, the gal behind Blue Chair Fruit Company and author of The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook.

While guiding attendees through making a strawberry jam with nutmeg-geranium and a strawberry-rhubarb jam with orange-thyme, Rachel offered valuable insight and numerous tips on learning the language of jam making.

Enjoy these expert tips from Rachel's class!

Make the harvest last. Next time you’re ready to turn seasonal ingredients into preserved jams, consider these tips from Rachel’s class:

  • Cooking pans: Rachel uses a copper preserving pan for all of her jam making. She recommends them as their shape is perfect for quick moisture evaporation and prevents boiling over. Rachel also notes that copper provides even heat distribution and doesn’t react with the fruit-sugar mixture. They aren’t a cheap kitchen item, but they are made so well, they’ll be heirlooms. If you don’t want to sue a copper pan, Rachel suggests stainless steel.
  • Pectin: Pectin is a natural carbohydrate found in fruits and is often added as a powdered ingredient to jams to act as a gelling agent. Rachel does not use pectin when making jams with fruits that naturally contain it. Her strawberry jam recipes do not call for pectin. One reason is that pectin contributes a “mouth-feel,” or perceptible change to consistency. It is a matter of preference, but pectin is not a necessary ingredient many jams.
  • Stirring: Stirring jam is important, but it’s not as much about mixing the ingredients as it is about checking to make sure your jam is not sticking to the pot.
  • Sticking: Sticking does not mean your jam is burning, but it is a warning sign that it may burn soon. It is better to air on the side of caution. Once you jam has burned, you have to start over.
  • Skimming jam: Skimming the foam from your jam is mostly about aesthetics. Removing the foam will result in a darker, more consistently colored jam. There is partially another reason. Foam contains extra air—this can create air bubbles or extra headspace in your jar that can cause your jam to spoil more quickly after it’s processed.
  • Skimming spoon: The best spoon to use for skimming jam has a sharp edge—this will allow you to get right under the foamy top, and scoop it out while leaving as much of your smooth mixture in the pan as possible.
  • The freezer test: Rachel always freezers tests her jam. When you begin cooking your jam, place two spoons on a dish in your freezer. You will use these to test your jam for doneness. When you think your jam is done, use a non-frozen spoon to scoop out a portion of your mixture from your pot. Transfer that to one of your frozen spoons and return is to the freezer for 1-2 minutes. Remove the spoon from the freezer and nudge the jam gently with your finger. It should be neither warm nor cold; if still warm, put it back in the freezer for a moment. Tilt the spoon vertically to see how quickly your jam runs; if it runs slowly, and is thick and gloopy, it is done. If it runs very quickly, or appears watery, cook your jam for another minute or two, stirring, and test again, repeating the freezer test as necessary.