One of the things I adore most about autumn is the fruit – a generously wide variety of it, beautiful, ripe and inexpensive – in some cases even free, unless you count picking it and hauling it home.
Obviously, as the time and stomach volume permits, I munch away at all of this glorious bounty raw, or in pies and tarts, but there is something incredibly comforting about preserving some of the perfectly ripe fruit at the peak of its flavor in jam jars, to keep for when the landscape turns white and blue, to remind us (and the lucky recipients of such jars) that winter is not forever. And that, for all it’s -20C and pitch dark at 6pm outside, at home there is warmth and candlelight, and in the meantime, there’s jam.
Best thing about plum jam is that of all the jams I’ve ever tried to make (with the possible exception of the very pectin-rich quince), it’s the one that sets the fastest and most reliably, without the need for any added pectin. So all you really need to make it is sugar and plums. And if you’ve got whole cloves or star anise or cardamom pods in your pantry, it’ll be that much better.
The second best thing about it (though not unique to plum jam in my experience) is that you can make it in tiny batches, and you can make it fast – far faster than the hours-spent-at-the-stove image a jar of homemade jam might evoke, so that you can cook a tiny batch of it whenever you have a couple of handfuls of plums on hand, and be able to gift (or keep to yourself greedily) the jam jar the very next morning, and channel the domestic goddess without much effort at all.
I sincerely recommend using the spices listed (one of, not all three together!) in the cooking process. They do not detract from the plum flavor, but in fact enhance it and elevate your jam to heights far above the regular off-the-shelf shop-bought stuff by giving it that extra-fancy complex scent like the really expensive gourmet stuff you might or might not have tried – or the best-ever homemade jam that I hope you have. If you haven’t – just do it, you won’t regret it!
Star anise or cinnamon stick can be used in either golden or purple plum jam, as they are easy to see and therefore get out at the end of the process. Cardamom is harder to see in purple plum jam, but is easy to remove from golden (unless you tie it in cheesecloth, in which case it’s easy either way), and cloves can be left in the jam after cooking, so use them in either.
A note about ripeness of plums: you should use mostly or only ripe fruit. If one or two of your plums are hard, it is no trouble, but if all of them are just slightly underripe, your jam will set so hard, you could slice it with a knife – underripe fruit are too rich in pectin, making them ideal to add to overripe ones to set a jam, but not to make a jam of on their own!
And then, of course there’s
the problem of canning apparatus and tools. Or not at all, as it happens – if you use small jars (250ml ones are great for gifting!), you don’t need much at all, and all you need is probably already there in your kitchen. That is because the plums have high acidity, and so boiling-water processing is all it takes to make plum-based preserves shelf-stable for about a year (or more, but don’t quote me – most reputable canning websites suggest eating homemade jam within 1-3 years of preparation). What this means is that you don’t need any fancy apparatus to process the jars – a stockpot, a silicone trivet and a pair of jar tongs (or if you are like me and don’t have those, a silicone spatula and a wooden spoon to place jars inside the pot and fish them out) are all that is needed.
So, if you’ve ever thought that in order to have lovely rich-tasting jam, you either need to empty your wallet and hit the gourmet store, or have a country estate with a huge kitchen equipped like a miniature canning factory, you’ve been terribly misled.
So, how do you go about it? It’s all really very simple!
This will make approximately 750ml jam (3x250ml jars of it).
- A 2L+ pot for cooking the jam
- A wooden or nylon spoon
- 3x 250ml canning jars, washed. I use the sort with screw-top lids by preference, they seem to work best for me and seal reliably – though I’ve also made and processed jam in washed-out honey jars, it’s not generally recommended to reuse those. Thicker-walled jars for home canning have a far lesser chance of cracking during processing or when filled with very hot jam.
- Your glasses (if you have them), or a pair of goggles such as pictured (mine are my old laboratory eye protection gear), which are entirely optional – but I like the safety that having something between my eyes and hot sugar syrup provides.
- A timer/thermometer is helpful, but not necessary. If you want one, you should get a cheap and good dual-function one at IKEA – I love mine and it’s worth every one of the pennies (not many!) it cost! (No, I don’t work for IKEA’s ad department. Sadly.)
If you plan to gift the jam or store it outside the refrigerator, you will also need the following to process the jars:
- A 4L+ pot for boiling-water processing the jars
- Something (like a silicone trivet) to prevent jars from knocking about too much in the processing pot. Some people use a 100% cotton tea towel, or a metal rack-style trivet.
- Jar tongs or something you can use to lift the jars out of boiling water. I would recommend the jar tongs for safety – I’ll buy a pair myself as soon as I can find a good one for a decent price!
- 500g ripe plums of any sort, pitted and sliced or chopped into small pieces. I quarter the plums, and then slice them crosswise into pieces about 0.5cm thick
- 300-350g sugar (I would not recommend using less than 250g or half the weight of the fruit as the jam may not set)
- 1 cinnamon stick (be careful what sort you buy!), OR 3 stars of star anise, OR 12 whole cloves OR 4-6 cardamom pods (all optional, any are recommended)
That’s all! Now, what do you do?
- Put your jars and lids opening-down on the oven rack and set the oven to 75C. This will sterilize and dry them while you make the jam.
- Put your plums and your sugar in the smaller pot and turn on medium-high heat. I use 6/9 setting.
- Set the larger pot with 3L of water in it on the back burner. Stick your glasses or goggles on if using those, and feel like a scientist tinkering in his or her lab!
- Stir the plums with sugar and mash them a little until sugar dissolves. Add the whole spices. Keep stirring until the jam boils.
- Set a timer for 15 minutes. This is a guideline, not an absolute measure. Keep watching and stirring the jam so that it does not stick and burn (it isn’t prone to that, really, but you don’t want to chance sugar burning – it’ll ruin the entire batch).
- Reduce heat a little if the jam boils too vigorously – it should boil but not spit.
- To know when the jam is ready to be jarred, you can follow this easy guideline courtesy the National Center for Home Preservation:
- At first the syrup will drip off the spoon in a single drip (not pictured so well), then after a while it’ll drip in two simultaneous drips (it really does!), and then, after a little while longer, it will sheet or drop off the spoon in blobs (see rightmost picture). At that point your jam is going to set.
- Once you’ve reached this point, turn off the heat, stir the jam well and remove the cinnamon stick, anise stars or cardamom pods. If you used cloves, feel free to leave those in the jam, they will do it no harm.
- Take your jars out of the oven using potholders.
- Pour or scoop the jam into the prepared jars, and screw the lids on thoroughly. The lids and jars will be hot, so use a tea towel.
- If you plan to eat the jam within 2 months and store refrigerated, go no further. Allow the jam to cool to room temperature and place in the refrigerator.
- If you want to make the jam shelf-stable and/or plan to give it away, bring the larger pot of water to a boil if it’s not yet boiling. Place the trivet inside. Carefully lower the jars into the water using jar tongs (or whatever contraption you come up with), and time 10 minutes.
- Take the jars out, place them on a wooden board, and allow them to cool. Once cooled, the tops of the screw-top lids will ‘ping’ into the depressed position, indicating a vacuum seal – that’s your sign that processing succeeded.
Note: If a lid does not depress after cooling, store the jam in refrigerator for up to 2 months (I don’t recommend re-processing), and eat it or use it in dessert.