Fruit

How to Make Berry Jam Without a Recipe

July  6, 2015

Here at Food52, we love recipes—but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.

Today: Cathy Barrow—author of Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry—shows us how to freestyle berry jam. 

When berry season arrives, I rush to fill the preserving pot with all the varieties I can carry home. Berry jam is versatile and practical (one step to thumbprint cookies! rugelach! jam tarts!)—and downright delicious.

Raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, mulberries, olallieberries, marionberries, huckleberries, currants, and gooseberries all mature in the heat of summer, so when making preserves, choose one variety or combine a variety willy-nilly for what the French call Old Bachelor’s Jam. (What old bachelors have to do with delicious jam is beyond me, but the name suggests jam made from bits and bobs in berry boxes that were stashed in an old bachelor’s refrigerator, and I’m just fine with that.)

Here’s how to make any sort of berry jam, willy-nilly: 

1. Pick your berries.
Always sample before buying, and decide if the berries have the bright and berry-licious flavor you expect. I used raspberries, currants, and blueberries here. Discard fruit that bears mold. Buy organic fruit so you do not have to wash it. Water makes berries soggy, which will make the flavor of your jam thin. By the same token, avoid buying berries if it has rained recently.

When you bring berries home, spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet or plate with paper or tea towels (not terry). Pick over them to remove any stems or leaves, then refrigerate. While this method will keep the berries fresh for a few days, for the best results, start jam the same day you buy the fruit.

2. Gather the other ingredients.
In addition to the berries, you’ll need sugar and a lemon. You may want to add herbs: Lemon verbena is my favorite, but lemon thyme, lemon balm, and lemon zest are all good choices (see a theme here?). Stick with one type of herb so the flavor really comes through.

 

3. Make the fruit mixture.
Begin with 8 cups (4 pints) of beautiful berries and 3 cups of sugar in a big bowl. If you want herbs, add about six sprigs tied together with twine.

Squeeze in the juice of one lemon and stir well, dissolving the sugar in the process. If working with fruits with a sturdy skin, like blueberries, gooseberries, or currants, use a potato masher to smash some of the fruit. This will build structure in the preserves.

Cover the bowl and let the flavors develop for at least two hours on the counter, or stash the bowl in the refrigerator for a day or even two days before proceeding.

 

4. Separate the syrup from the fruit.
Place a colander over a preserving pot (at least 5 quarts, non-reactive, and heavy bottomed like Le Creuset) and pour in the fruit mixture, so the syrup goes into the pot and separates from the fruit. Let it drip for a few minutes, then place the colander in a bowl to catch any additional syrup. Remove and dispose of the herb bundle.

  

 

5. Cook.
Clip on a candy thermometer, turn the heat to high and bring the syrup to 220° F, the soft gel stage in candy-making terms. This jump-starts the jammy consistency while at the same time ensuring the fruit will be cooked for a limited period of time, keeping the flavors especially fresh tasting.

More: The difference between jams, preserves, and confitures.

Some people hate the seeds in raspberry and blackberry jams. If you are on the no-seed team, run the fruit through a food mill before returning it to the preserving pot. I usually put half the strained berries through the food mill because I like some seeds but not too many.

   

Once the syrup has reached temperature (220° F), add the berries back from the colander (and any accumulated syrup). Keep the heat high and do not stop stirring. It will come to a big boil—a scary boil. There may be spitting hot sugary jam. Be brave.

 

Stir until the fruit is no longer floating and there is only a little bit of foam on the surface. Remove the preserving pot from the heat, and let cool for two minutes. With a spatula or wooden spoon, gently press against the surface of the preserves: It should wrinkle slightly. (If it doesn’t, place the pot back on the heat and test again after two or three minutes at a hard boil.) 

 

5. Add booze (if you’d like).
This next bit is completely optional, but it’s a very nice touch: Off the heat, add a slug (a heavy tablespoon) of liquor, liqueur, or sirop—I love St. Germaine or Cointreau. Add a knob of butter to clarify the gel and make the jam shiny. Stir well and thoroughly.

6. Jar.

Ladle the preserves into four or five half-pint (8-ounce) jars. Store in the refrigerator for a month or so or, for shelf-stability, process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes following recommendations from the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Enjoy in yogurt, with a scone, or right out of the jar.

What berries do you use to make jam? Tell us in the comments below!

Photos by James Ransom 

36 Comments

maribeth July 27, 2017
I am surprised and delighted that so little sugar is necessary . Why do all of the canning books use a 8/6 ratio including extension services?
 
Amanda N. August 5, 2015
When is the soonest you can eat your jam? After one month of fridge storage? Or can they only be eaten within a month?
 
Author Comment
MrsWheelbarrow August 5, 2015
There's no need to wait! Eat that beautiful berry jam as soon as it's cool enough that you won't burn your mouth! It will keep in the fridge for a month.<br />
 
Amanda N. August 6, 2015
Ah! Thanks so much!
 
Nora August 4, 2015
Would this method work with stone fruits? NC peaches are the best (sorry, GA and SC) and they are here now.
 
Author Comment
MrsWheelbarrow August 4, 2015
Hi Nora, This method does work for stone fruits. 3 pounds fruit, pitted and peeled + 3 cups sugar + juice of one lemon. Make sure to chop the fruit up into small, uniform pieces for the best results.
 
A. August 4, 2015
Unless you grow & harvest the berries yourself, you still need to rinse before using even if they're "organic." I just bought some organic raspberries, and the container clearly states that the fruit should be rinsed before eating. There are all kinds of nasties besides pesticides/fungicides that can get on produce in organic fields - Mexican cilantro anyone?
 
esther August 3, 2015
I made a mixed berry jam. To pick enough berries I had to work over several days, so I froze some of the berries. However, when I went to get mulberries the harvest was poor and the berries were quite soft. So, I put these berries in vodka! Just a suggestion for it you get some berries early and want some of the flavor in your jam a little later on in the summer. I've also stored some of the berries in home made limoncello and added that to some of my jams! Good luck!
 
Artcat July 14, 2015
I've been making old fashioned raspberry jam for years, but this year my gooseberry bush finally had a high yield, so today I made your jam with 6 cups gooseberries and 2 cups raspberries. I added a Tb of framboise liquor and the butter as you suggest. I just finished hot water processing it, and am looking forward to trying some when it cools. The kitchen smelled divine when the berries were cooking!
 
Emily L. July 9, 2015
ah! this is so much easier sounding than other jam recipes I've seen! will definitely be trying this sometime this weekend!
 
Nora July 9, 2015
I made this today with blueberries off our bushes. I made a half-recipe, just to be sure how it would go. It was perfect. I love the flavor and the fact that it's relatively low sugar. I wasn't certain I'd know what a wrinkled surface looks like, but I did. I've over-cooked blueberry jam before, so I was cautious, and that turns out to be a good signal that we're done. Of course, it's about 100 degrees outside, so what better than to steam up the kitchen? It reminds me of how my mom canned and froze in mid-August, without that mod con we call air conditioning. Thanks, MrsWheelbarrow. <br /><br />PS-do frozen berries work?
 
Author Comment
MrsWheelbarrow August 3, 2015
Hi Nora, Yes, frozen berries will work wonderfully. I always freeze 3 pound zip bags of fruit so I can make all sorts of jams during those cold winter months.
 
Denise B. July 7, 2015
I cook down berries (raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cherries etc), together or alone . 1-2 qts with only 1/2 cup sugar and 3 rounded tablespoons of minute tapioca. Stir continuously while cooking for approximately 8-10minutes. Cover and let cool. Scoop into jars, place lids on and refridgerate overnight. I then freeze the jars. It is delicious and very little sugar so the fruit taste really comes through. I have not experimented with any herbs in the fruit spreads but will give some a try.<br />
 
Author Comment
MrsWheelbarrow July 7, 2015
This is fine for refrigerator or freezer storage but cannot be process for shelf stability (the tapioca makes it unsafe for canning.)
 
denise July 7, 2015
Ok, having never canned or perserved (but perfectly happy to take the plunge) when you say to process in boiling water...you are talking about AFTER you fill and seal the jars, right? Yes, I'm actually that new at this!
 
Author Comment
MrsWheelbarrow July 7, 2015
Yes, Denise, you're right! After filling the jars to 1/2-inch from the top, clean the rims of the jars, place the lids and rings and then place upright in boiling water (covered by one inch) and boil/process for 10 minutes.
 
Nora July 7, 2015
Thanks, Mrs. Wheelbarrow. <br />James, read up on making jams. Sugar is an essential ingredient. You may want to just freeze the berries and use as you go with your smoothies.
 
James July 7, 2015
Thanks.
 
Author Comment
MrsWheelbarrow July 7, 2015
Thanks for all your nice comments. AJ, agreed, it would be a mighty hot jar of jam to hold in one's palm! But, this is written as a refrigerator jam recipe and I am assuming the jam cooled before being placed in jars for storage! <br /><br />For those of you, like heatheranne already do something like this, it's a quick step to making those jars shelf stable and freeing up all that freezer space. I've written a few articles with detailed instructions like this one: (http://www.washingtonpost.com/pb/recipes/just-right-strawberry-preserves/14088/)<br /><br />Don't fear waterbath canning. It's easy and quick and with small batches, the entire process takes only about one hour. For CanningEmergencys, feel free to message me or find me on social media. I am happy to answer questions at any time. Signed, MrsWheelbarrow, the Can-Vangelist
 
AntoniaJames July 7, 2015
Oh, okay, thanks for the clarification. I read the part about processing in a hot water bath for shelf stability according to standard satefy instructions, which usually means filling clean jars with piping hot jam and processing right away. ;o)
 
heatheranne July 7, 2015
I love doing this. I buy all the strawberries I can in the summer, combine with some sugar, let them sit for a while, then cook until nice and thick. (Oh, and yes, add some lemon juice). Then I cook and freeze. Tasting that fresh strawberry taste in the middle of winter is amazing. I now refuse to buy store bought jam. Yuck.
 
Dea July 7, 2015
If I preserve now will they be good for the Christmas holiday
 
Author Comment
MrsWheelbarrow July 7, 2015
Dea, waterbath canning will make jars of jam shelf-stable (without refrigeration) for one year.
 
boulangere July 6, 2015
Interesting about Slivovitz, AJ. I wonder how it would do in sorbets. I feel a science experiment coming on.
 
AntoniaJames July 7, 2015
Slivovitz in sorbet, yes, seriously yes. Perfect with plums or plouts, of course. ;o)
 
boulangere July 6, 2015
The top photo puts me in mind of the paper cradles of currants the daughter and I delicately slurped while strolling the streets of Bologna.
 
AntoniaJames July 6, 2015
By the way, in the photo under "6. Jar.", help me understand how she can hold in her bare hand a jar with just-boiled jam in it. What's shown in that photo seems so dangerous! Am I missing something? ;o)
 
AntoniaJames July 6, 2015
After many years of picking blueberries from the bushes lining my front walkway and preserving in a variety of different ways, I've decided that blueberry butter wins the grand prize of berry goodness. It's so intensely flavored and makes an extraordinary gift because it is not generally available. Everyone who's had it absolutely loves it. My favorite iteration is vanilla bean + bay leaves. <br />Second favorite: bright, pure, herb-and-spice free raspberry jam. To my mind, absolutely nothing out there that can improve the flavor of a dead ripe raspberry, though I do give my small batches a good glug of Slivovitz - which doesn't really change the flavor of the preserves, but gives that flavor a bit more body. Slivovitz is the unsung hero in my preserving kitchen. It's the equivalent of veal stock in savory stovetop cooking and braising: almost like magic, it makes everything with which it comes into contact much better, without asserting a particular flavor. ;o)
 
Bevi July 6, 2015
Slivovitz got me through the Czech Republic.
 
Gwen July 6, 2015
This is wonderful! I made cherry, strawberry, raspberry, or, "red" jam last night by the seat of my pants and used this exact 8/3 ratio and it came out beautifully. Lucky guess!
 
Author Comment
MrsWheelbarrow July 7, 2015
I hope you added a lemon, too? The lemon and sugar work together to activate the natural pectins in the fruit and aid in the set.
 
cheese1227 July 6, 2015
Are you sure #5 is optional?
 
Author Comment
MrsWheelbarrow July 6, 2015
Not in my kitchen! LOL!