As promised, this is total immersion in Strawberry goodness and THE number one question (and actually, this is the gateway to all others) is:
What do you want to end up with?
This determines everything else. Opens the road or closes it. The first fork in the ‘decision tree’ (for the geeks out there).
Because strawberries are like – well, in their own fruity way, they are like potatoes: They can be baked, boiled, frozen, eaten fresh. All can be done to the same bucket of strawberries you pick, if you pick the right ones.
But if you ‘choose poorly’ (as the monk from that Indiana Jones movie put it), then your opportunities with the fruit become increasingly limited. And the reason for that (which will be outlined in much more detail in a later post but take my word for it now) is that, as Aunt Toby has said many times before about preserving food: It never gets any better than what it is the very first time you get it into your hands. Soft fruits (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cherries, etc.) can go from “mmmmm-yum” to “oh, yuck; look at that” in less than 24 hours.
Jam/Preserves (Canning): If what you want to make/preserve is jam/conserves/preserves, then if the strawberries you find in the field are what is referred to as ‘dead ripe’ (strong strawberry fragrance, perhaps have some soft spots), then you are in good shape. They will not travel well at all, but that is ok since you are going to get them home, rinse them really well, cut out anything dubious, hull them, throw them in the pot (like you see above) with sugar or a little less sugar and some pectin and boil the whole mess down until a sample does not flow down a saucer. Jam.
The rinsing and the cooking will do most of the job of preserving; the lid will get sucked down and if there is any mold, you will know it the minute you open up the jar later on. On the other hand, if you also have half-ripe or half-unripe(the ones with the green or white ‘shoulders’ at the top of the berries), those are really good to put into making jam – they have more pectin in them naturally and will help the jam firm up.
Frozen berries: Depending on what method you use for freezing, ‘dead ripe’ will work also, but only if you use the “plastic bag or container’ and anticipate just thawing the whole deal and putting it over ice cream or cake or something like that. Treat them the same way in that you rinse and rinse them, cut out anything dubious, hull, slice or just mush them up and freeze (a little sugar if you like that sort of thing). If what you want is a product that when you take it out of the freezer still actually LOOKS like a strawberry, then you need a younger strawberry – not ‘dead ripe’ – ripe, certainly, with a nice but not overwhelming fragrance, but still firm. These will travel well from the field to your kitchen and will hold long enough that you can go through several rinses, and use your method of freezing them. They will not be mushy, will hold their shape. In a later post, I will outline the method we use at Chez Siberia which produces individually frozen berries so that we put them into a ziplock(tm) bag and can use them any way we want them later on.
Fruit Leather (Drying): Any strawberries are good for this since the process requires you basically to make jam without sugar and then spread it on the plastic trays in a dehydrator unit.
Fresh: Save your best berries for eating fresh. And ‘best’ does NOT mean ‘dead ripe’ because no one walks straight in from picking them and pulls out a pound cake, washes up berries to put on the cake, cover with whatever you cover your berries with in terms of your version of ‘cake and berries’ and sits down to eat. By the time you are ready to eat your dessert, it will be several hours; even with refrigeration, ‘dead ripe’ berries will start to sag and weep juice and turn rapidly into mush. Not your best berry for this. Take the berries that are ripe but not soft, hull them, put them in the fridge and then go back to processing the rest of your berries. You can reward yourself later.
And finally, ARE YOU READY? Because Aunt Toby is all about the readiness issues – because just going out to pick anything without having everything in your kitchen right there and in place for when you get home is a first class ticket to fruit being thrown out into the compost heap.
Fruit picked today must be processed today. Say that three times and remember it.
If you don’t have time to process fruit today – then do NOT pick it today. it will NOT be nice fresh fruit tomorrow, no matter how much you refrigerate it. It will still be ‘yesterday’s fruit’. So, here are the shopping lists – have these things available BEFORE you go to pick. You do not want to have to stop at the store on the way back, with 15 pounds of strawberries sitting in the back seat of your car and an inside the car temperature rising every moment you are in the store trying to find an item. Trust me. Fruit does NOT get improved by that. And here’s a note – at my local ‘large regional supermarket chain”, there is a large canning display: canners, equipment, vinegar, bags of sugar, flats of jars and bands and lids. Just the reminder I need to ‘get it now’ – because I KNOW (from having this happen to me many many times before) that when I want to do peaches in August – all those jars and lids and equipment are going to go ‘poof’ and I will be in a bad spot. Get the stuff you need NOW.
Shopping and Equipment Lists:
Getting them clean once you get the berries into the house: the biggest colander you can find.
Jam: (and this is for regular cooked on the stove jam; freezer jams are a whole different deal)
–Jars with bands and new lids to match. Check your jar inventory now and check the jars: anything with cracks, chips at the top, etc. should be put into recycling. Treat yourself to new jars. You’ll be washing and rinsing the jars and heating them up in your oven.
–Big, honkin’ stainless steel or aluminum pot or dutch oven. Definitely something that will hold a lot and also provide even heating.
– Heat Proof ladle, jar funnel, jar lifter, pot to heat water and sterilize the lids and bands
– Sugar. Lots and lots of white sugar. Yes, Aunt Toby knows that there are recipes for jams made with honey, stevia and goodness knows what else. This is the traditional ‘tastes like your grandma’s’ jam. White, out of a bag, sugar. Do yourself a favor and just buy three 5-pound bags of sugar. You’ll need about 4-5 cups of sugar for every 10 cups of whole fresh berries. I know people talk about using other sweeteners like honey – but the problem is that many of these alternatives also have flavors that change the flavor and/or texture of the jam.
Great instructions on making strawberry jam: Strawberry Jam
Containers or ziplock(tm) bags. Seal-a-meal(tm)
For the method we use here at Chez Siberia, you will also need: cookie sheets.
Containers – ziplock(tm) bags, Seal-a-meal(tm), glass jars.
Waxed paper if you are producing fruit leathers and want to roll it up like ‘Fruit Roll-ups’ ™
If you want internet resources for all of this sort of thing including canning books (you DO have a good canning book, right? Well, if you do not, then go to one of the resources listed here): Introduction to Canning
(Jam photo courtesy of girl_onthe_les’)