When I was young - several hundred years ago - there was this tradition of growing strawberries in a field, strangely utilising something called straw. Ahem. With the arrival of the various sporting occasions - Ascot, Wimbledon etc the very best of the first strawberries would be picked and dispatched to delight the great and the good at a premium price. The next pickings would be sent to Covent Garden overnight by rail to be distributed around the country for all to enjoy. The strawberry season was very short - and very special. A lot rode on the success of the crop and much could take place to damage it, not least of which was the weather.
The final picking and clearing of the field ready to be prepared for next year - was for Jam Strawberries. This was all the small, perhaps misshapen, still under ripe also-rans, sold at an attractive price, which made delicious jam. The perfect economical use of the whole harvest gave the maximum return for the grower. The country was dotted with hundreds of small market gardens and farms specialising in this niche crop. It was much the same for rhubarb, but I digress.
Nowadays we have all-year-round, grown in polytunnels, sourced around the world, perfect, large, luscious fruit which are splendid on pavlovas and for the terraces of Wimbledon and beyond, but which do not make great jam. I am not a scientist but I feel a fruit only has a certain amount of flavour in it's genetic make up and if you spread it into a bigger casing there is only so much to go round. Smaller taste better, in my book.We are also encouraged, quite rightly in some cases, to keep everything refrigerated, and serving at such temperatures kills the taste - tomatoes are another case in point.
- Don't! If you are a beginner give yourself a break and start with something more reliable and less tricky - like raspberry. Building your confidence will go a long way to future success
- I have found that in the main you can't make great jam from the strawberries sold in supermarkets. My own deduction for this is that have too much water. I use fruit from a PYO farm which I find sets well every time
- Make your jam as soon after the fruit has been picked as possible. The levels of pectin drop off from the point of picking and as strawberries don't have as much as some other fruits you need to maximise the potential
- I add 2 lemons per kilo of fruit. This may be overdoing the acid a little but when jam doesn't set it is usually an acid issue. If I add it from the get go then it avoids having to re-boil the fruit which will darken it and affect the flavour
- Make small batches - in a large pan. If you don't have a preserving pan use the biggest straight sided pan that you have. The jam will need to boil vigorously and will need plenty of room to do that
- I don't use jam sugar myself and I don't teach my students to do so - it should be possible to make perfectly good jam without the added expense. However, if you would prefer to have the security that added pectin brings then just follow the recipe on the pack and all will be well
- I don't have one of those fancy strawberry hullers - I use either a teaspoon or the end of one of those old fashioned potato peelers - the type with the string wound round the handle. ( The string isn't important, it's just a description.)
- Lastly, whatever your jam turns out like - it is just fine as it is. Every batch will be different and that is just as it should be. No other area of cooking turns out identically and the only reason that the jam should be abandoned is if it is burnt. If it drips off your toast you can lick your fingers, if it is too solid it can be used in other ways. Above all - never apologise! Be proud of what you have achieved and keep on preserving
Start with good quality, just picked fruit - if possible. A few under ripe will help the set - fruit has the highest pectin levels just before it is ready to be picked. Hull the fruit ( remove the stems and leaves ) and only wash if they are muddy or they may be contaminated in some way ( a polite way of saying dogs might have peed on them ). I don't cut them up because strawberries break down on cooking anyway without assistance. It is nice to have whole fruit in the jam and on your toast. I would only cut them if they were enormous - but then, if they are that big I wouldn't be making jam with them anyway. Put them in a large pan with the lemon juice and put over a low heat to allow the fruit to soften without either breaking it down too much or burning.