The berry season is upon us. First the strawberries, then raspberries, blueberries, blackberries and many kinds of wild berries such as Oregon grapes, gooseberries and huckleberries. This is such a glorious time of year for the small sweet berries and the products you can make with them. The berries are so wonderful fresh, but if you are like me you want to preserve some of that summer taste for those cooler winter months.
Purchase or harvest berries in the morning. Keep them refrigerated until you are ready to eat them or preserve them. Berries that are warm are softer and will spoil more quickly.
All berries freeze pretty well. If you plan to freeze the berries, do so as soon after picking as possible. Wash them well in cool running water and then dry and drain well. Get as much of the water droplets off the berries as possible. The extra water will form large ice crystals and soften the berries even more.
Freeze whole berries by placing them on a cookie sheet and placing the cookie sheet in the freezer. As soon as they have frozen solid, package them in freezer bags or containers. Do not use plastic storage bags or containers. They are not air or moisture tight and will not protect the flavor or prevent freezer burn.
Blueberries, elderberries and huckleberries have a skin on them that can become tough when frozen. You may want to consider steaming these berries for 1 minute and then cooled in ice water immediately. This will tenderize the skin and make a better favored product. When freezing them then, just barely cover them with medium syrup (3 cups sugar to 4 cups water).
If you plan to sweeten the berries before freezing place cleaned berries in a shallow baking pan. Sprinkle sugar on them and gently mix. The shallow pan allows the berries to lie in single or double layers and prevents them from getting crushed in the mixing process. Then place sugared berries in the freezer bags or containers and freeze.
For crushed or pureed berries, sort, wash and drain. Crush berries and add sugar to taste. Stir gently until the sugar is dissolved, pack into containers, seal and freeze.
Jams and jellies
Outside of freezing the most popular preserved products to make with berries are jams and jellies. To make successful jellied products you need the correct proportions of sugar, acid and pectin. When these ingredients are used in the correct proportions they form a gel that holds the fruit pieces, puree or juice into a thicken jam or jelly. Because the proportions are so crucial you should never double a recipe for jams or jellies. It takes a lot of sugar to form a gel. If you use less, you will end up with syrup or a very soft gel. If you use too much, sugar may not dissolve. These crystals will leave a sandy or gritty feel in the mouth.
Do not double a recipe, either. It takes too much cooking time, which breaks down the pectin resulting in soft and runny fruit spreads. Boiling longer only makes the problem worse and may change the flavor and darken the color.
If you want to make a low sugar jam or jelly, be sure to use a pectin product for low sugar or sugarless jams and jellies. The pectin is designed to gel the fruit without the use of sugar or as much sugar. Many of them are formulated to use with artificial sugar products as well.
Jams and jellies are most successful if you use commercial pectin and a mixture of overripe and under ripe berries. The under ripe berries provide more of the natural pectin and the overripe berries provide added flavor. Also berries, especially strawberries have more natural pectin in the early berries versus those from plants that are a little older. So jams and jellies that are made later in the season may need a little more pectin or more under ripe berries to set up.
Lastly, don’t forget to process all pints and half pint jams and jellies in a boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes.
Many of us may have syrups on our shelves that were jams gone wrong. There are some however that intentionally make syrups that have great flavor, color and consistency. Syrups can be made with or without pectin and lemon juice. Lemon juice may improve the color. Pectin is used to control the consistency of the syrup.
Syrups can be made with fruit puree or with fruit juice. Those made with fruit juice can be from fresh fruit in which the juice has been extracted or from commercial juices. It is suggested however if you use commercial juices to use some pectin.
Syrups do need to be processed in a boiling water bath canner in pints or half pint jars for 10 minutes.
Sandra Brown is the food safety and nutrition expert for the Washington State University Cooperative Extension in Clark, Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties. Reach her at 360-397-6060, ext. 5700 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The WSU Cooperative Extension in Clark County is at 11104 N.E. 149th St., Building C-100, Brush Prairie, WA 98606.