I vowed that I wasn’t going to make strawberry preserves this year.
Thanks to one failed attempt after another, I had decided to throw in the towel and skip entering strawberry preserves into this year’s Calloway County Fair. To be honest, none of my strawberry preserves have ever been “fair-worthy.” I’ve gone ahead and entered them anyway, but red and white ribbons were all that I earned. As a former 4H’er, I’ve struggled with the achievement of second and third place in that category.
After each year’s judging, I’ve leaned over the roped barricade to closely observe the strawberry preserves category winners to determine what made their strawberry preserves better than mine.
- Unlike me, they’ve used commercial pectin.
- Unlike me, they didn’t macerate the berries to achieve a jewel colored jelly that suspended the fruit.
- Unlike me, they’ve barely observed (much less followed) the rules for jar labeling or headspace.
- Unlike me, they achieved a perfect set.
- Unlike me, they won the elusive blue ribbon for strawberry preserves.
Last year, I convinced myself that I had a champion jar. I had nearly missed strawberry season. All the activities surrounding our son’s high school graduation paired with planting our the garden kept me busy. Thanks to the keen eye of the Murray Main Street Director during a Saturday Market, I scored a flat (16 quarts) of strawberries two weeks before the fair. That weekend, our kitchen went into full preserve manufacturing mode.
But I had failed to achieve the perfect preserves set- – where the whole fruit hangs beautifully suspended in jelly. Time after time, I only achieved a soft set — meaning that that jellied suspension is more liquid than it is a solid.
Let’s face it: nobody likes pouring their preserves onto a biscuit. Especially fair judges.
One of the issues with achieving perfect strawberry preserves is that strawberries are a low-pectin fruit. You almost have to use commercially-produced pectin to get jelly suspension. But I refuse to use commercial pectin. As with other processed food, I don’t trust the preservatives that are added to the pectin. So, I battle the odds stacked against me trying to balance boiling the sugar to the right consistency with avoiding scorching the preserves.
My frustration levels were at their peak when I read at the University of Georgia National Center for Home Food Preservation‘s website (the king of canning research from which all Cooperative Extension competition rules were established) that I wasn’t failing, but instead I was actually achieving a most desired “traditional preserves set.”
Excited to discover that I wasn’t hopeless, I called my sister, former Cooperative Extension Agent extraordinaire. She’s my hot-line for all things canning. I never allow her in my kitchen when I’m preparing for competition. Nor do I allow her to see my selected jars until after I bring them home from the fair. But I sure talk for hours with her about what I’m doing.
I asked her about the “traditional preserves set” concept. Bless her heart. Like the loving sister she is, she lied like a dog. She told me that the experienced judge would recognize what a glorious thing I had achieved. Just to make sure the judges understood what I was offering wasn’t a failed preserves attempt, I even noted on the label that I had utilized a “traditional preserves set.” I tried to add “as described by the University of Georgia’s National Center for Home Food Preservation,” but it wouldn’t fit on the label. I’m sure they were as impressed as I was at my precious jar of preserves as they taped a white ribbon to its lid.
This Monday, when I got an email stating that The Berry Farm would be delivering freshly picked berries to the office, I grabbed my wallet. I resisted the urge to buy a whole flat.
“Be smart about this,” I told myself. “Get a couple of quarts, just enough to make a test batch. If I fail again, then I haven’t wasted my time and money.”
Now, you must understand. Its only strawberry preserves that I’ve struggled to set. Any other preserves, especially my blackberry preserves are ‘da bomb. (If I might brag for a moment!) My strawberry preserves taste divine, but taste isn’t considered in fair competition.
I let the berries sit overnight in one of the refrigerators at work. On Tuesday, I brought them home. I measured out 3 lbs of fruit, selecting the best specimens. I avoided the biggest berries, choosing the smaller ones because true preserves feature the whole berry instead of pieces of fruit. I washed, dried, and hulled them. Then, I added two and a half cups of organic sugar. I gently folded the fruit and sugar together, letting the juices release for a couple of hours before covering the container with parchment and putting it in the fridge to macerate overnight.
On Wednesday after supper, I poured the berries and sugar into my favorite dutch oven. I turned the heat on low, then went and washed dishes. I kept an eye on the it but left it alone, letting it slowly heat up and melt the sugar. By the time I rinsed the last dish, I could hear the mixture revving up to a soft boil. I turned off the stove and let it cool. Then I put it all back into the parchment covered container to sit once again overnight in the fridge.
Tomorrow night, I’ll make the preserves. Or at least I’ll try to make preserves. I’m sure several prayers will be said as I attempt to achieve at least one “fair-worthy” jar of strawberry preserves capable of bringing home a blue ribbon.
Types of Jellied Products
From the University of Georgia National Center for Home Food Preservation:
Jelly, jam, preserves, conserves and marmalades are fruit products that are jellied or thickened. Most are preserved by sugar. Their individual characteristics depend on the kind of fruit used and the way it is prepared, the proportions of different ingredients in the mixture, and the method of cooking.
Jellies are usually made by cooking fruit juice with sugar. (Some are made without cooking using special uncooked jelly recipes.) A good product is clear and firm enough to hold its shape when turned out of the container, but quivers when the container is moved. When cut, it should be tender yet retain the angle of the cut. Jelly should have a flavorful, fresh, fruity taste.
Jams are thick, sweet spreads made by cooking crushed or chopped fruits with sugar. Jams tend to hold their shape but are generally less firm than jelly. (Recipes are also available for uncooked jams.)
Preserves are small, whole fruit or uniform size pieces in a clear, slightly gelled syrup. The fruit should be tender and plump.
Conserves are jam-like products that may be made with a combination of fruits. They also contain nuts, raisins or coconut.
Marmalades are soft fruit jellies containing small pieces of fruit or peel evenly suspended in the transparent jelly. They often contain citrus fruit.
Other fruit products that are preserved by sugar but not jellied include butters, honeys and syrups. Fruit butters are sweet spreads made by cooking fruit pulp with sugar to a thick consistency. Spices are often added. Honeys and syrups are made by cooking fruit juice or pulp with sugar to the consistency of honey or syrup.