Who puts up her own blackberry-plum preserves anymore? Who freezes her own strawberry jam, makes her own nectarine-orange marmalade from scratch or produces peach-raisin chutney to take as a hostess gift for an evening?
People like Marianne Gravely, for one. Gravely, a government technical information specialist who lives in Woodbridge, frequents farmers markets and takes her children to pick-your-own farms and orchards. It's fun, she says, in addition to teaching her children "where our food really comes from."
But the biggest reward is the extraordinary flavor of homemade jam. "You can just taste the summer in it," she says.
New products and techniques have revolutionized home preserving. The amount of sugar can be reduced to one-quarter to three-quarters of what used to be required. Faster methods have enabled cooks to better preserve the fresh taste of the fruit. Freezer jams and refrigerator preserves have reduced the painstaking sterilization procedures that scared away many cooks.
Preserving is becoming something fun for the weekend cook, a skill that produces jars of custom-made jams and even chutneys that are perfect for gifts and summer entertaining.
Gravely had never made preserves until about 15 years ago, when she and a friend impulsively bought a bushel of apples at an orchard. "I had to figure out something to do with them," she says. She was surprised at how easy preserving was.
"People are always so thrilled and impressed when you give them a jar of homemade jam. I feel like saying, 'If you knew how easy it is, you'd do it, too.' "
Until the last few decades, jams were of necessity sugary -- the rule of thumb in old cookbooks was to use three-fourths to one pound of sugar for every pound of fruit. The sugar made the fruit jell.
Now, low sugar and even no-sugar preserves have become possible because of new pectins -- a natural thickening substance present in ripe fruit that is added to jams and jellies to make them jell faster and more reliably. Often derived from orange and other citrus rinds, new pectin products "have been known since the 1980s," according to Florian Ward, director of research and development for TIC Gums Inc. of Belcamp, Md., which sells thickening and jelling agents to the food industry.
But it took the growing consumer interest in healthy eating -- fewer carbohydrates and calories -- to move the products onto the shelves, says Douglas J. Peckenpaugh, managing editor of the trade publication Food Product Design.
Sure-Jell, Ball and other brands of home canning and preserving supplies have begun adding the modern pectins to their lines. Each of the various products is unique, and manufacturers include instructions and recipes specifically tailored to their formulas. Some products can be used to make artificially sweetened, low-sugar dietetic spreads. Others are designed to yield preserves that are simply less sugary and are healthier and more fruity tasting than the old-fashioned versions. And many can be used for both purposes.
Because I had always felt that traditional jams were cloyingly sweet, I tested the newer pectins in preserves prepared with only enough sugar to make them taste good. I devised a group of quick, easy, small-batch recipes using two of the most widely available "low-sugar" powdered pectins, Sure-Jell and Ball. These products are usually stocked along with traditional pectins and canning supplies in supermarkets, discount department stores and, occasionally, hardware stores. They can also be purchased online.
Read the label on the box carefully to look for the words "lower-sugar" or "no sugar needed"; these are not the same as "no-cook" freezer jam pectin that comes in packets.
Though the Ball and Sure-Jell brands are not always interchangeable, I created recipes that could be prepared with either. Further, to allay food safety concerns and for the convenience of cooks short on expertise or time and lacking canning paraphernalia, I focused on developing freezer jams, which don't have to be processed in boiling water.
The resulting preserves can be kept refrigerated for up to three weeks or frozen for up to a year. Because the cooking times are too short to ensure sterilization, they can't be stored on pantry shelves.
To provide options for hobby preservers who prefer to skip jams, I've also included light, easy freezer chutney. The chutney doesn't have to jell -- it merely thickens slightly from the boiling-down process -- which eliminates the need for commercial pectin entirely. As a result of higher acid content, chutney has a slightly longer (four-week) refrigerator shelf life than the jams.
The two brands of pectin I tested worked much like their traditional counterparts, but, to my taste, yielded preserves with a brighter, fruitier, less "cooked" flavor. In the reduced-sugar recipes provided here, they produced preserves that jelled readily, had a normal consistency and were almost as clear as the old-fashioned super-sugary jams.
The scientific literature suggests that "in very low-sugar applications" the jelling consistency can be less appealing and that these new products often yield preserves with less clarity than the traditional pectins. The newer pectins are also said to be more prone to lumping or clumping, but it's easy to avoid problems simply by following the recipe directions to thoroughly stir the pectin and sugar.
If you are new to preserving, read the tips before you begin. Happy jamming!
Award-winning cookbook author Nancy Baggett started picking berries on a farm when she was 3 and making jams when she was 11. She can be reached through her Web site, kitchenlane.com.