Steamy Jam Days

Jars of apricot jam steam on the counter, fresh out of the canning kettle, gleaming brilliant orange in the afternoon sun. It’s hot in the kitchen, one of those steamy 90 degree days, and not the preferred weather for canning. But the end of apricot season is upon us, and a farmer friend had just gifted us a last precious box of apricots from her walk-in cooler, a small, firm red-speckled variety that, while not best for eating out of hand, promised to make a perfect jam. We didn’t have time, as our favorite recipe indicates, to macerate the apricots overnight; the moment for jam making had to be seized that very day. So we paid for our impatience in the added labor of skimming jam foam.

Macerating the fruit overnight is a step that makes for less work at canning time, and a neater overall process, but it isn’t as essential as other parts of the recipe; the balance of sugar, acid, and pectin should not be modified, or the jam won’t set, or won’t be shelf stable. Maceration is the process of tossing the sugar and the cut pieces of fruit together for a period of several hours or even overnight. The process of osmosis is a natural equalizer; as the sugar works its way into the fruit, causing excess air and moisture to leak from the fruit, which forms a bit of natural syrup around the fruit chunks. When we macerate the fruit ahead of time, it cuts down significantly on the foaming action of the jam as it cooks, since the foam is caused by the release of air from the cells of the fruit as it boils. Since we didn’t have time to macerate the fruit ahead of time, we had a task to skim off the pale, pastel foam of the sugar fruit mixture. This foam is troublesome in the canning process, taking up space in the jam jar as it is filled, but then shrinking after it cools, which can make for too much headspace and trapped air in the jar. It’s considered a cosmetic blemish, which will disqualify you from a blue ribbon at the county fair, and it does make the final product slightly more prone to spoilage once opened, since the foam does not have the proper acidity to keep well. So, as the sugar and fruit boil together in the jam pot when the jam has almost set, the foam must be skimmed off. Into an empty jar it goes, a pale peachy foam that can be spooned into cocktails or over yogurt, so as not to waste even a drop of the wonderful fruit essence.

A big box of apricots will make more than one batch of jam, but beware the impulse to double the recipe. Jam recipes are carefully evaluated and tested to make sure that they will set, and doubling a jam recipe will prevent the jam from getting quite hot enough all the way through to set. So in the heat and the steam of the hot kitchen, as the first half a dozen jars cool on the counter, we measure another 9 cups of chopped apricots, and the requisite sugar, and the lemon juice, and begin the entire process again. It always seems like so much sugar to add, but the truth is that the ratio of sugar is crucial to the pectin set, shelf-stability, color, and flavor of the finished jam. The lemon juice is critical as well, and not just for flavor. Jam making is science in action, and while it’s fine to follow a recipe and get predictable results, we are always looking for ways to understand the reasons behind the instructions for fuller understanding.

In all water-bath canning recipes, much is made of the division of fruit and vegetables into high and low-acid varieties. Apricots, being a low-acid fruit, need the addition of lemon juice to increase acidity in order to make the jam set. Acidity is crucial to the safety and storage potential of all water-bath canned products, but it plays a special role in jam making. Acid helps to draw the pectin from the fruit as it simmers, and pectin is the critical component that makes a jam thick and spreadable. Pectin is a carbohydrate, concentrated mainly in the seeds, skins, and peels of raw fruit. It functions as a kind of structural cement that helps hold cell walls together, and is more present in slightly unripe fruits; it degrades as the fruit ages. As the jam/sugar/lemon mixture simmers, the pectin is released into the liquid jam, forming a kind of matrix, or mesh, that bonds with the sugar and fruit to create the thick, spreadable texture of jam. If there isn’t enough acidity in the fruit, the pectin will not be made available to bind with the sugar. The sugar keeps the fruit firm, and brightens the color, preventing it from oxidation by binding completely to it, a web of chemical bonds that prevent air and water from entering.

While not all fruits have enough pectin to set jam, most can make a soft set jam with the addition of sugar and acid, as needed. Adding commercial pectin is another option, but the different kinds of pectin (low-sugar, liquid, powdered) all require different processes, so the recipe you follow must be specific to that particular pectin source.

The kitchen windows are fogged with steam, but the house smells fruity and wonderful. The jam pan soaks in the sink, sticky spoons clatter into the soapy water, to be cleaned again. The canning kettle steams and slowly cools after the last set of jars are removed. 12 jars of perfect, brilliant apricot jam, cooling in a shaft of sunlight on the counter. A dozen jars of summer, preserved, to brighten winter gloom in the months to come. This moment can never repeat, though we follow the same recipe every year. It is a kind of pattern, though, a repeated ritual, to fill the pantry so. Bit by bit, a day at a time, each season and each year with its own flavor and rhythm, but the recipes hold the place for us, give us a path to follow. Preserve this moment, golden as apricots, fleeting as the season of summer stonefruits. These are the times to savor, rolling them around on the tongue, in the heart, in memory, every time we take a jar from the shelf. With every spoonful, may you be nourished by the memory of such sweetness.