After picking blackberries along the Selway river in the warm afternoon of a late Idaho summer, the only way I could describe the damage to my skin is that it looked like a pack of wild kittens had been set loose on me. It really did, little nicks and scratches interlacing over every surface of arm and leg that got a little too intimate with the brambles. But it was worth it.
I’ve been away, friends, first in the remote northern reaches of Montana, a place I can’t seem to get enough of and return to, compulsively, every August, and then in the idyllic, many-rivered, deeply-forested back country of north-central Idaho, followed by a couple of days in the expansive, desolate, basin-and-range deserts of remote Nevada. It was a needed break, from the telephone, the internet, the city, life. And now I’m back, and not really ready to be back. But at least I’ve got some jam, sagebrush, and a collection of stones as little reminders of my time there.
This was my first foray into jam-making, and truth be told, I broke a bunch of rules. For gosh sakes, though, I made jam in a motel room, in a rice cooker! When you’re traveling, and you like to cook, you have to improvise. I’ve taken to bringing along a rice cooker when on road trips. Amazingly, it serves pretty well as a makeshift stovetop. (Worth its own post.) I’ve gotten gradually more experimental with it, moving from the safety of steamed grains and vegetables into the wild territory of fried eggs, pancakes, and most daring – jam. I did everything: the sterilizing of the jars, the making of the jam itself, and the subsequent water bath, in the rice cooker.
The biggest no-no in this instance is that I didn’t adhere to the strict rules about non-reactive metals. Rice cookers are generally made of aluminum. It was a gamble. I omitted lemon juice in the hopes of less acid meaning less chance of unpalatable metal aftertaste. Whether it was due to the lack of acid, or just some great luck, I’ll never know, but it worked. A lot of the recipes consulted emphasized the importance of removing blackberry seeds. Doing this requires a food mill or a strainer and a fair bit of elbow grease. I duly followed their orders. The results, while delicious, struck me as a little tame – more jelly than jam. You lose some of the subtle characteristics that make a blackberry what it is, I think, when you strain it. So for round two, I did no straining. It’s seedy, yes, but that doesn’t bother me. It also has a more intense, blackberryish flavor that speaks of the woodsy Idaho back roads where they ripened and were picked. And that’s what I wanted to capture.
Where I’ve been:
Glacier National Park in Montana
Yield: 6-7 half pint jars
6 cups lightly mashed blackberries (about 9 cups prior to mashing; more if you’d prefer to strain the seeds)
2 cups sugar
1 package no-sugar pectin
jam jars, rings and lids
jam funnel (basically a wide-mouthed funnel)
First, sterilize your jars and metal rings, but not the gum-lined lids. Do this by boiling them in a non-reactive pot for 15 minutes. Most people use jar grabbers to handle the hot glass and metal, and this is no doubt smartest. Sans those, pour out enough water that you can grab them without submerging your hand in the water, and use a heavy towel to do so. What I did was pour the boiling water into a container with the gummed lids, because they need to be warmed up too, and then once the jars had boiled, poured the hot water into the container with the lids, and kept the jars there too.
Next, mash your blackberries. Mix together 1/4 cup sugar and the pectin. To a cold, non-reactive pot, add the blackberries and the pectin/sugar mix. Blend thoroughly. Slowly bring to a bowl, stirring regularly to keep the blackberries from burning. Once it has reached a robust boil, add the remaining sugar and stir. Boil for one minute longer, and remove from heat.
Using a ladle, carefully pour the hot jam into the jars. Seal with lid and ring.
Now you process the jam in a hot water bath. Boil them for at least 10 minutes, adding about 5 minutes for each 1,000 feet of altitude. Remove from the bath, and allow them to cool, undisturbed, overnight. If the lids do not pop up with the press of a finger, they are properly sealed and will last for a year. Enjoy!