Tuesday, 12 March 2013

jam jar etiquette : lesson one

Making jam is one of those small effort / big reward things, and you get to eat the results ~ what more could you ask for?  But like so many things, it is taking that first step that is the most difficult, when you feel like you don't even know what words to use to ask the questions you need the answers to, and even if you did then you're still not sure who to ask!

Like so many of the home crafts that used to be so common a couple of generations ago, jam making fell out of favour but is making a comeback.  While children used to grow up seeing making jam as something ordinary and achievable, it can all seem a little daunting and complicated if you've never seen it done.  Over the past couple of years I've picked up some handy tips to do with the equipment/preparation side of things as well as some great recipes, so this is me paying it forward!  

...think of this as a kind of virgin's guide to jam jar etiquette ~ now that really is a phrase you don't often get to say!  Starting off right here for lesson one, which covers things to keep in mind when reusing jars, buying new jars, and tips on storing empty jars.

Why make jam?

A jar of home~made jam makes a personal (but not too personal) gift for a relative's birthday or house~warming present for a friend, or keep it all for yourself and indulge in the game of 'invent my favourite flavour'.  If you do give some away then you get to enjoy the reaction ~ 'oooooh, that looks delicious ~ did you make it yourself?' and then you can smile smugly and say 'why yes, I did actually!'

If you're considering making jam then you've probably checked out a few recipes and you're dying to get started, but the phrase 'take your sterilized jars and ...' keeps popping up, along with 'prepare jars in the usual way...' and, my personal nemesis, 'pot as standard'.  What does that even mean?  Pot?  I don't have a pot, I thought it was about jars!  Or is 'pot' the verb?  You know, I pot, you (singular) pot, he/she pots, we pot, you(plural) pot, they pot...

'To pot' refers, as far as I've been able to work out, to putting the jam you've made into the jar you've made as clean as possible so the jam doesn't go bad.  Seriously.  I know, they could have just said that, don't you think?

Jars ~ where to start?

So, accepting that buying jars is easier (it is. I know this, you know this, we all know this), why don't we all just buy them instead of reusing the ones we have?  

Well, one reason ~ it can get expensive.  If you're buying just one or two it's not so bad, but if you make a batch at a time of, say, six jars, and you do a couple of flavours of jam, then chutney, then just a couple of jars of lemon curd, then you're considering making your own mincemeat for christmas time ~ that's a whole lot of jars!  Another reason ~ I know it's boring, and we all get tired of hearing it, but it is much more environmentally friendly to reuse jars you already have.

If you're planning to give your goodies as gifts, clearly you are going to want the packaging to look great too,  but that doesn't necessarily mean you needed to go out and buy a jar.  First, check out the jars you have at home ~ the marmalade that's been hanging around at the back of the fridge, that tall slim jar of olives in the cupboard, the jar of mint sauce left over from the roast dinner last week.  Would any of those do?  If so, empty the contents into another container, and pop it in the fridge.  If not, next time you go food shopping, take your time looking at the jams and spreads, the table sauces, even the cooking sauces ~ there are some really decorative jars around.  So long as it has a glass body and metal lid, it's a contender, so you'll need to decide whether you're prepared to buy the (for example) finest~organic~hand~tended~using~traditional~methods~in~a~tiny~village~in~northern~Italy~artichoke~hearts if you hate artichoke hearts and they will be going in the bin, because you only really want the fancy jar!

For plain ordinary jars for lemon curd or jam, you could buy some value/basic/smart price items (lemon curd is 22p in Asda right now, pickle is 28p), swap them into another container (not together, I'm definitely not recommending that!) and use the jar for your jam.

Brand spanking new...

If you would rather buy new jars, I can highly recommend Lakeland ~ they have all the associated bits and pieces there too ~ but remember the majority of these are optional!  Although it does make it pretty clear in the listings, it's worth noting that you have to buy the lids separately to the jars, and the lids are necessary if you're putting jam in there...  As for other equipment, I use a stockpot, a wooden spoon with a corner, and a wide neck funnel ~ no thermometer, fancy labels, waxed paper circles and so on.  I'm not saying those things are no good, I'm just saying they are not essential!

If you choose to reuse...

Before starting the process of washing used jars you need to think about whether you will actually want to reuse this particular jar.  At first I seemed to end up with really big jars that I would never have filled with jam ~ these are fine if you're going to pickle onions for example, but otherwise, think twice before choosing to keep bigger jars!  Don't worry if the jar smells even after washing ~ vinegary odours can be conquered ~ just check out lesson two!

I know it sounds obvious, but best to say it anyway...Wash any jars you plan to reuse, thoroughly, at least once in hot water with washing up liquid.  If you have an old one around you'll find a bottle brush is very handy (not the plant type, the cleaning baby bottles type) ~ make sure you don't forget the lid, or the twiddly bit the lid screws onto, as it's very easy for some smudges of jam to get stuck here.  

It's a great idea to soak the labels off at this stage too ~ although in the spirit of being absolutely honest I have to admit I rarely do ~ my excuse reason for this is that I am too lazy although we give a lot away (filled, of course!) a fair few stay here, switching from empty in the cupboard, to full in the fridge, to half empty in the fridge, to empty in the fridge, to the kitchen sink, to the cupboard, then out on to the kitchen side to be filled again, and I don't worry too much about the labels for the ones we keep!  

Something I have learned the hard way is to screw the lids on to any jars you're keeping (once they're dry), as that way you won't end up playing the endlessly frustrating game of 'guess which lid goes with which jar' when you're wanting to get on with making the jam!


            ~You've now completed jam jar etiquette lesson one!

jam jar etiquette : lesson one asked 'why make jam?'; whether to buy new jars or reuse those you already have; and how to store empty jars should you decide to reuse.

Next time, on jam jar etiquette : lesson two asks 'stinky jars ~ how can they be reused?; there is a simple solution to the stinky jar problem,  just follow this step by step guide to de~stink those jars!

Jam jar etiquette : lesson three asks 'sterilizing jars ~ why and how?'; there are a few ways to sterilize jars ready to fill them with yummy homemade jam, chutney, or marmalade.  Different methods work for different kinds of jars, so it's best to experiment a little to find out what will work best for the jars you're using.

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