You-picks and Strawberry Preserves 101

Firstly, I am sad to share that I lost some of my favorite pictures of the berry picking and jamming venture to a computer crash. Luckily, those were the only thing lost. After some pain and suffering….. Strawberries.

Growing up near Plant City, FL, I was pretty spoiled when it came to strawberries and maybe a little confused. I didn’t know that anywhere other than Florida and California grew strawberries! Imagine my surprise to find out we were not special, the sun shines everywhere! Not a surprise actually, I knew this all along but the timing of the season is what throws me off. Spring? Summer? Seeing as they kinda blend together in Florida, no wonder I was so confused.

I have memory of my mom bringing home flats and flats of berries purchased on the side of the road.  The berries were often being sold in front of the field where they had earlier been picked. We also went you-picking more than a few times as I recall, crouching down the rows peeking under plants. Strawberry season was such an important time of year in our neck of the woods that there was a huge strawberry festival.

This was no ordinary food festival.  At one time it may have been a quaint town party offering strawberry delights.  Now, however, this is an all out headliner event! Not only can you get strawberry shortcake but you can catch a concert of the latest big name music act or catch a thrill on the carnival rides. This event rivals the state fair and commands a scheduled day off from school.

Such a contrast from small food or farm festivals tucked away in a field off a dirt road.  This was just such a local strawberry festival that I got to enjoy a recent weekend.  Tall dark & handsome, myself and friends went to the you-pick fields at a local farm holding a strawberry festival.
We braved the weather forecast and drove over the mountain and through the woods to Cedar Circle Farm in Thetford, Vermont.  As you might imagine this was a small family farm that had gone all out complete with a horse drawn red wagon. We pulled into the farm mid morning, truthfully knowing we were a bit tardy for the best pickin. There were already a dozen people in the fields. Yikes! Serious competition! We each requested an empty flat to fill from the cashier who advised us that might be ambitious.

Undaunted we joined the crowd in the field and began to harvest our share. Squat-walking our way down the rows the little red jewels were hiding under the leaves. We jumped from row to row looking for the best picking. A different variety growing every few rows. Some of the plants were bushier, some had few leaves. Some had big green berries while other were small and red. I greedily grabbed anything that was red, not too squishy and not too green.  As it turns out, of the dozen varieties planted in their own rows, the vast majority of what we picked turned out to be flatter berries with seedy tips or small pretty heart shaped berries. Both have a relatively high water content making them juicy as oppose to a firmer somewhat drier berry that would be good for freezing.

As our box began to fill and my focus was allowed to shift from berry mode, I looked up and saw that the once quiet rows were now buzzing. Dozens of little kids now picked and squealed and posed for family photos.  I personally enjoyed the conversation between the father and his infant son.

As the morning grew late we cashed out our haul and made our way up to the farmhouse where there was story telling and concessions. The food included sausages with farm made relish, home grown lettuces with farm made dressing, strawberry shortcake with local organic cream and ice cream. We tucked into shortcake and sausages just as a light rain began to fall.  Those of us who wouldn’t melt meandered the farm stand and gardens.  About the same time people wanted to enjoy our farm stand shelter, we were ready to enjoy our hard earned harvest in the comfort of our dry homes.

The group of us piled back into the car perfumed with berries and we went back over the mountain and through the woods. That is how you get everywhere in my neighborhood. The whole ride home I was thinking about how I was going to make my first batch of jam. Plain old strawberry? Balsamic vinegar and black pepper? Chipotle and lime?

In the end I went strawberry preserves 101 (aka: Heirloom Strawberry Preserves) from the Ball Blue Book.  This book is great to cover the basics of canning, use it as a springboard. To make this more jam like, half or chop berries and/or lightly mash while cooking.  Preserves are berries suspended in syrup or jelly, Jam is spreadable fruit. I make something in between.

Strawberry Preserves 101:

6-8 cups strawberries

5 cups sugar

1/3c lemon juice

Combine strawberries and sugar in a large saucepot. Let stand 3-4 hours. Bring slowly to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add lemon juice. Cook rapidly until berries are transparent and syrup is thick.  Remove from heat. Allow to stand overnight, uncovered.

Reheat strawberries, until heated through. Stir carefully, distributing without breaking the berries. Skim foam and ladle hot preserves into hot jars. Leaving ¼” of room at the top, seal, and process jars in boiling water for 20 minutes.

I also reserved one jars’ worth of jam as refrigerator jam by storing in a ceramic mug with a lid.

Some of the reasons that I use this particular method it because it has no pectin (easy!) and could essentially be accomplished in short but separate steps. Clean, Combine, Cook, & Can with periods of rest in between.

To thoroughly appreciate this jam, I decided to whip up some homemade bread to serve the jam on.

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