Step 1: Get cherries.
I have wanted to make sour cherry jam for years, but it seems that I just about always miss sour cherry season. I tend to think they will stick around longer than they do, or it is not a convenient jam-making time when the season is upon us. This year, I finally prioritized jam making and picked up around five pounds of sour cherries at the greenmarket. Sour cherries have a slightly different flavor from sweet cherries. They are the ones typically used in pies and maraschino cherries, and they are delicious, but the main reason I wanted to use sour cherries instead of sweet is that jam and preserves generally need a whole lot of sugar to set up and keep right, and I thought sour cherries would make a more balanced jam than sweet ones would.
Step 2: Pit cherries.
I recommend a cherry pitter for this task, also known as an olive pitter. It works on both. This task is repetitive and time consuming. If you have someone to chat with, throw on some music and jabber away. If you’re on your own, I recommend turning on the TV and sitting while pitting. It’s all fine and good to be meditative about it, full attention to pitting cherries on foot in the kitchen, but that’s not how I was feeling on Wednesday evening after work and class and hustle and bustle. I was happy to sit down.
Step 3: Put all your ingredients in a big pot and turn on the heat.
This is the first time that I have *gasp* canned without a recipe. I am generally fearful of doing so, because it’s possible to screw up and give your loved ones botulism for Christmas, and that is no fun at all. But I could not find a recipe that I felt compelled to use. A lot of recipes I came across called for pectin, which I didn’t feel like getting into (I have only used pectin in jam once, and I found that I far preferred the texture of preserves made without it). The Gourmet recipe had me smashing cherry pits and tying them in cheese cloth and letting it all sit for 8 hours before cooking and then adding pectin anyway. Who wants to do that? Martha Stewart had fewer cherries than I did and only used a splash of lemon juice, and she had me adding a little sugar at a time and waiting…a little more and then waiting…it looked like a good recipe, but who has the patience?
In the end, I looked at those two recipes and compared the amount of sugar in both and went for the higher of the two, using the same techniques I’ve used for past preserves. Both recipes called for lemon juice, and I added significantly more lemon juice than either recipe called for. More acid = no botulism, and I love lemon juice in just about anything. I simmered some big strips of lemon zest in with everything else, but removed them after about an hour or so, so as not to disrupt my acid balance. Then I cooked and cooked and cooked it. Pectin would definitely have helped it gel more quickly. It bubbled away on the stove for at least 2 hours, probably more, before it became an appropriately jammy consistency.
Note: I broke some of the cherries up a bit with my hands before cooking, and, after simmering for a bit, I used an immersion blender to chop some of them more finely, leaving some big chunks in there. If you do not have an immersion blender, go ahead and coarsely chop all of your cherries before throwing them into the pot.
Step 4: Check to see if you have jam yet.
Put a small plate in the fridge to chill. Once your jam gets to be thick and fairly uniform in texture, put a dollop on your chilled plate and stick it in the fridge for a few minutes. Check to see if it has set up by running your finger through the jam. If your finger leaves a little path of plate in its wake, your jam is done. I’ve seen a number of recipes that call for elaborate jam-checking measures: Using a thermometer to ensure that you are cooking it at 220 degrees for a set amount of time, turning off the heat every time you check your jam lest it should overcook in the three minutes or so that your dollop is in the fridge, etc. My experience has supported my belief that an extra three minutes of cooking will not destroy your jam. The sugar and acid content and how you process your jars will determine how well your jam keeps. Texture is really an aesthetic thing. Call it done when it’s the texture you want, and you won’t run any greater risk of spoilage.
Step 5 (optional): Let your jam plump overnight.
I had some substantial hunks of cherry left in my jam (I like it that way), and, even when it finally thickened up, the bigger pieces floated to the top of the pot. Letting the jam sit a while before canning gives the fruit an opportunity to absorb more of its surrounding syrup. The fruit can then be distributed more evenly within the jars rather than floating to the top. That’s the idea. Also, it was late by the time my jam achieved jamminess, and I was tired, so I opted to not can just then, instead letting my jam sit and cool and plump overnight, lid on. Ideally, I would have canned first thing in the morning instead of going to work. Alas, that was not to be. I somehow found room in the fridge for the pot to sit during the day. Here it is plumped and ready to go:
Step 6: Prepare your jars (also, a word about canning pot alternatives).
Wash your jars, lids, etc. Put the lids in a small saucepan of water and heat until tiny bubbles form, but don’t let it boil. You don’t want to overheat the lids and damage the seal part before processing your jam. Put the jars in whatever canning mechanism you’ve got and cover with water by about 2 inches. If you have a special canning pot with the little slots for each jar, put it to use! If you do not have a special canning pot, have no fear. I do not have a special canning pot either. I have a big stockpot, the kind that’s designed for spaghetti, with the pot-sized strainer that fits into the cooking pot. The main thing you want, when looking for a canning pot, is one that is big enough to cover your jars with a couple of inches of water, and one that has some kind of mechanism to keep the jars off of the bottom of the pot. A wire rack would work. Gourmet actually has you lining the bottom of a regular pot with kitchen towels. That last idea scares me a little, but they usually know what they’re doing with food over there at Gourmet, so give it a whirl if you’re less of a chicken than I am. I set my jars in the strainer inside my stock pot, and it works just fine. Cover them with water and bring to a boil. Boil them for 10 minutes or so. Go ahead and boil whatever else you plan to use for packing: wide-mouth funnel, ladle, jar lifter, etc.
If you plan to can your jam as soon as you have cooked it (as opposed to letting it plump overnight), start your jars around the time that you start your jam. It takes a while for all that water to reach boiling point. Once they’ve been sterilized, leave them in the hot water until it’s time to can. If you have let your jam plump, bring it back to a boil while the jars sterilize. You don’t need to cook it more, but you do need it to be hot in order to pack it into jars.
Step 7: Pack and Process your Jam.
Once the jars have been sterilized and your jam is hot, get to canning! I highly recommend procuring a jar lifter to help with this. I used to can without one, using a silicone kitchen mitt to lift jars in and out of boiling water, but that sucked. Get your hands on a jar lifter. You can borrow mine. One by one, lift the jars out of the hot water, tip the water back into the pot, and let dry for a minute before filling with jam. I have not found a funnel to be necessary, but some people like them. I just spoon it on in. If you have noticeable bubbles in the jar, run a butter knife around the edge to knock them loose. I have only found this to be a problem with really thick stuff like apple butter. Jam tends to settle into its jar just fine. Leave 1/4 inch of empty space (head space) at the top of the jar, or whatever your recipe calls for. Top with lid and screw on the outer band to hold it in place. Screw it on until you feel some resistance, but do NOT screw it as tightly as humanly possible. The lids need a little bit of give so that air can escape while the jam is being processed and you can get a nice vacuum seal.
Put the jars back in the pot, making sure that they are not touching each other or the walls of your pot. Use the jar lifter. It’s better than a silicone glove. Bring the water back to a boil and start timing. I processed my cherry jam for 10 minutes, an appropriate amount of time for acidic things in pint-sized jars. Some recipes insist that you keep your jars in the water until it cools down. Others insist that you remove them immediately. Both camps are very clear about the fact that their way is the only possible way to make sure your jam is processed properly. I take this to mean that they both work just fine, but I tend to remove my jars and allow them to cool out on the counter, both because this method dominates my more trustworthy recipes and because it is more satisfying to watch them cool down, gleaming on the counter, and to listen for the flat little “ping” that happens when a convex lid vaccum seals and becomes concave, safely sealing your jars of jam.
Cherry Jam Recipe in a Nutshell:
What goes in:
- 5 Pounds Sour Cherries
- 5 cups Sugar (quite shocking to the sugar-cautious among us!)
- 3/4 – 1 cup Lemon Juice
- Zest of 1 Lemon, in wide strips
- Cherry pitter
- Jar lifter
- Adequate canning pot & jars (no, you cannot reuse old jar lids. New lids everytime, please!)
- Any other canning paraphernalia you deem necessary
How to do it (abridged):
- Pit and coarsely chop the cherries.
- Combine all ingredients in heavy pot over medium heat, stirring well to dissolve sugar.
- Bring to a boil and cook until jammy consistency is reached (check using the chilled plate method, above). Remove lemon zest.
- If desired, let plump overnight and return to boil before canning.
- Sterilize jars and lids and any other relevant equipment.
- Fill and process jars.
- Make adorable labels to give your jam away as holiday gifts (I usually get around to this in December or so), or label with a sharpie and hoard for your greedy little self.