It seems to be another amazing year for blueberries here in the northeast. The bushes are packed with berries, and they are sweet and juicy. Even if you aren’t blessed to live next door to the family farm where 20 gargantuan blueberry bushes reside, you are still going to find great prices at the U-pick places, as well as at Farmer’s Markets.
We eat a LOT of blueberries when they are ripening, and we get a considerable number of them into the freezer for use in baking through the winter months. [Find out how easy it is to freeze blueberries]
I think our favorite way to eat them though, is in preserves. In January, nothing reminds you of the hot, high days of summer quite the same way as a spoonful of these preserves on your toast. It reminds you that January doesn’t last forever, and that in just a few months, you’ll be able to enjoy fresh berries, warm from the sun. And maybe helps you cope with the fact that once you finish this piece of toast, you have to go out and shovel a foot of snow off the walk. George R. R. Martin aside, summer is coming, even in January. Blueberry Preserves will help you remember that.
But, before you can enjoy that moment, you have to make the preserves, right? There are a number of ways to do this, and a search online will yield a ton of recipes. A lot of those recipes use pectin though, and I am not crazy about pectin. For a long time, I didn’t make jams and preserves, because they use so much sugar, which just didn’t seem like a healthy thing to be feeding my family. Then I realized that pectin was the problem.
Using pectin means you have to use a higher proportion of sugar to ensure the chemical action required to thicken the fruit will take place. Nearly all commercial jams and jellies use pectin. Sugar is cheaper than fruit, products containing pectin don’t have to cook as long, and the final yield is higher because you aren’t cooking off as much moisture. All fine if your eye is more on the bottom line than it is on flavor and texture and cutting back on stuff like sugar. Though, this is not exactly a sugar free preserve. It still uses a lot; just not as much as it would using pectin. I’m not making any health claims here – it’s a treat, not a food group.
Not using pectin means the longer cooking time is going to give you more concentrated, intense fruit flavor, and the sugar will have time to take on almost caramel-y undertones as it cooks, so you end up with a depth of flavor that you will never get using pectin. You do have to watch it more closely, and as I mentioned above, and your yield is going to be a little less, because you’ll be cooking more of the moisture from the berries.This is a canned preserve, but don’t let that intimidate you. Preserves are canned using the water bath method which is the easiest canning there is. And this preserve can be frozen if canning is not your thing.
If you are interested in canning, this YouTube video give you a very basic idea of how easy it is to can preserves: Tips for Water-Bath Canning. I don’t have a dedicated water bath canner though. I have been through several of them, and they rust out, and take up a lot of room. I use a pan similar to this one, which can also be used for a lot of other things, and will never rust out on me. I use a round cake cooling rack in the bottom to keep the jars from clattering around – just make sure that it is the right size to sit on the bottom of your pan. Finally, this is a good set of canning tools, many of which can be used for other kitchen tasks though the year.
- 10 cups of fresh blueberries
- 6 cups of granulated sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons of lemon zest
- ⅓ cup fresh lemon juice
- This is a canned preserve, so it's important to make sure your jars and lids are sterilized. If you plan to freeze yours, then you can skip over this first part.
- To begin, fill a large stockpot half full of water [you are going to want the water to be over the tops of your jars by a couple inches, so make sure you have enough water in there for that] and set over a medium burner. Make sure the rack is in the bottom.
- Carefully put in the jars and lids. Once this comes up to a boil, cover and turn off heat. You are going to turn it back on high for about the last 10 minutes of the preserve cooking time, to sterilize the jars and have the water hot enough to can the final product.
- Wash blueberries and pick over, removing any debris and spoiled berries.
- Place about half of the berries in a 5 to 8 quart heavy pot. Crush well with a potato masher.
- Stir in the other half of the berries, the sugar, salt and lemon zest.
- Place the pot over a medium flame, and cover with a lid. Stir every few minutes.
- Once the mixture comes up to a simmer or low boil, remove the lid, and continue to stir every 5 minutes, or more often if they start to stick at all.
- Place a small plate in the freezer – this will be to test the doneness of the preserves.
- Cook about 25 minutes, and test a small amount on the cold plate you put in the freezer. After sitting on the plate for a minute or so, the preserves should look pretty thick, and should not run very freely if you tip the plate. If the mixture is still too thin, keep cooking, and check again about every 5 minutes, returning the plate to the freezer after each check. How long it takes is going to depend largely on the moisture content of the berries you are using. This batch took about 40 minutes total.
- At the 30 minute mark, return your large pot of water and jars to a boil.
- When the preserves are thick enough, stir in the lemon juice and cook an additional 5 minutes.
- Carefully remove the jars from the boiling water in the large pot, and set upright on a towel on your work surface. Keep the heat on under the pot.
- Ladle the preserves into the jars – the big funnel in the canning tools set helps keep the edges of the jars clean. Jams don’t need very much headspace above the surface of the jam itself – about ¼ inch between the top of the jam and the rim of the jar is enough room. Any more than that leaves too much chance for bacteria to grow, so fill them right up to that level.
- Wipe the edges of the jars clean with a damp cloth, and put on the lids and rings. Don’t screw the rings down super tight – just until they resist a bit is fine. If you have less than enough to fill the final jar, just put that one in the fridge to eat up first.
- Carefully place the covered jars back in the large pot of water - there are jar tongs in the set of tools, or use regular tongs to gently set the jars upright on the bottom.
- Once the water is back up to a full boil, set the timer for 10 minutes. When the time is up, carefully remove the jars to a wooden cutting board, or a dry towel on the counter - don't use same towel as before since it might be damp and cooler and could break the hot jars.
- You will probably start to hear the centers of the lids popping down pretty quickly.
- Cool completely and check to make sure all of the centers of the lids have popped down. Refrigerate any jars with a dome still on the lid, and eat up first. When the jars are fully cool, you can remove the rings if you like, though I leave them on.
- Store in a fairly cool spot, and when opening the jars, inspect the contents, discarding any jars with mold or questionable appearance. Preserves will keep very well for up a year, or even longer, though the quality may suffer somewhat after a year.
There is something really special about preserves you have canned yourself. You feel all “Little House on the Prairie” as you open a fresh jar, even if you are in the middle of town. I get an especial kick out of giving a jar of them as a gift – “Here’s a little piece of something I think is important and pretty cool – hope you like it!”And of course, they will.
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