Tomatoes don’t worry me, and I don’t fret much over corn and collard greens. Those long-producing veggies will stay in the markets for weeks and weeks. I can enjoy them at my leisure. But the short-season crops — asparagus and peas and cherries and especially strawberries — put me into a panic. They’ll come and go quickly, so I feel I must eat them constantly, at every meal and every snack and then some.
But a guy can only eat so much, even of strawberries. That’s why one learns to preserve them. I can relax a bit knowing I’ve saved some of their piercing sweet-tart flavor for the dark days of winter, when all I can get are those abominable flavorless supermarket berries. And so this past weekend I brought home eight quarts or so of beautiful farmers market strawberries and experimented with three different ways to put them up for winter.
Putting Food By, that revered food preservation guidebook, gives three techniques for packing whole strawberries (as opposed to crushed or juiced) for the freezer: sugar-pack, syrup-pack, or water-pack. I figured water would, well, water them down, and I judged my juicy berries to be syrupy enough on their own, so I opted for sugar-pack. Sure enough, the sugared berries oozed out enough syrup to help preserve them for months in storage and to ward off freezer burn.
The process is simple: after washing and hulling the berries, toss with enough sugar to coat them well, pack them into freezer bags, gently squeeze out as much air as you can, and put them away in the freezer until a strawberry craving hits you sometime around Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Putting Food By suggests ¾ cup of sugar for each quart of berries, but I found that one cup coated the three quarts I was packing just fine and so I stopped there. I hope I won’t be proved wrong come January.
This was not only my first strawberry jam but my first ever jam. For guidance I looked to Jam On, the excellent book by jam maker extraordinaire Leana McCarthy of Anarchy in a Jar. Her step-by-step instructions were clear, friendly and an indispensable guide through the jam-making process for a newbie like me. Jam On has a delicious-looking recipe for strawberry-balsamic jam, but I wanted a basic strawberry-only jam, so I devised a this recipe. The jars are supposed to set up for a week or two, but I snuck in a few tastes already and I predict good things come Christmastime.
I’m not sure what possessed me to try this. Without a dehydrator, you must rig up a food dryer by propping open your oven door, setting a fan next to it for air circulation, then leaving the oven running on its very lowest temperature for four, five or even six hours. It reduced a quart of strawberries to about a cup of leathery slivers. But oh my they are tasty. The slow shrinking of the berries concentrates them, and each little piece delivers a blast of flavor. I’m not sure yet what I’ll do with them, but I doubt they’ll make it to winter.
Will this be enough strawberries for the season? Maybe, or maybe I’ll freeze another quart or two. After all, I still have plenty of time before pickling season.