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why didn't I do this before?

two pint jars of strawberry jam posed on the porch railing

good-looking jam

I first made jam in 2007, I think, and since then I've branched out some in the recipes I made... but not too much. I don't get that many chances to put up each kind of fruit, and I don't want to mess up and not have any strawberry jam for a year. So I've stuck to tradition, and also to Sure-Jell pectin (and its Certa liquid pectin partner). A few years ago I heard about Pomona's Universal Pectin, but I discounted it: a box was more expensive than a box of Sure-Jell and I figured that it was hippy stuff that couldn't work as well as a more scientifically formulated product from a real American company like Kraft Foods.

I know, right: what was I thinking?!

After my mom made freezer jam with some last year—and even more, gave me the rest of the package that she didn't use—I figured it was finally time to give the hippy alternative a try. After all, I had a ton of strawberries to work with! Plus as I get old I start to be able to learn a little bit, and I figure after seven years I should be able to tell when jam is cooked enough to set.

So the first superior thing I noticed about the Pomona's is the flexibility of the recipe. With Sure-Jell you need to measure the exact amount of fruit and the exact amount of sugar, and boil for exactly 1 minute—all of which (except maybe the sugar) is impossible in actual real life. So they're setting you up for stress right from the beginning. With the Pomona's pectin the instruction booklet starts out by encouraging the user to experiment and come up with new recipes; for the printed ones they tell you to use somewhere between 3/4 and 2 cups of sugar per 4 cups of mashed fruit. Or substitute another sweetener, something else that won't fly with Sure-Jell. Or use no sugar at all and cook it longer. And hey, why not double or triple the recipe? (another Sure-Jell no-no). The fact that Marissa (of Food in Jars) uses Sure-Jell means that it really must be more flexible than the included recipes suggest, but the fact that the printed material sets out to hold you to the One True Way doesn't make for a relaxed jamming experience; how different the easy-going ways of Pomona's.

And then there's that sugar itself. The Sure-Jell recipe for strawberry jam calls for 5 cups of mashed strawberries and a startling 7 cups of white sugar. It makes a tasty jam, and one that sets up well and is a beautiful strawberry red in the jar, and I made it happily for years; but 7 cups of sugar is a lot. It fills a large mixing bowl when you measure it out. It's hard to maintain my alternative credibility when I'm feeding that much sugar to my family. To step down gradually from my previous sugary excesses (and to stretch the strawberries into as much jam as I could get) I used the maximum amount of sugar called for in the Pomona's recipe, but that still amounted to only 4 cups of sugar to 8 cups of strawberries. Much better.

And then, also, it works. Not having an exact recipe made me pay more attention to the jam in the pot, and I was pretty conservative in cooking down the fruit before adding the sugar and pectin. But the overall cooking time wasn't much longer than what I'm used to, and the jam set up very nicely: a little bit of a softer (more "jammy", as they say) set than I'm used to, but certainly a product that will stay in an open jar held upside down. That it's tasty goes without saying.

So my only disappointment is that I waited so long to make the switch, and I'm sure looking forward to more jamming this summer!

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