Here’s my family recipe for apricot jam, handed down through generations. One generation, really — my mom got it from a pamphlet put out by some local womens’ group, after we moved to an old ramshackle house in the middle of a huge but disused apricot orchard. The trees were old, but a lot of them still produced fruit, and it was no trouble to walk around and collect bucketsful. So we needed some way to make use of all that fruit…
This recipe is different from the usual one you find packed in a box of pectin, because, well, it doesn’t use pectin. Instead, you thicken the jam by cooking it a lot longer. This means it tastes less like fresh fruit; but it has a wonderful taste of its own, a bit like dried apricots, and a nice gloopy texture. As a bonus, putting an apricot kernel1 in every jar gradually adds an almond-y aroma2.
Making jam is much easier (and safer) than most people think. After all, 100 years ago everyone used to can food, unless they were millionaire financiers or nomadic tribesmen. If our primitive ancestors could do it, so can you! And jam is easier than canning vegetables because the acidity of the fruit inhibits microorganisms, so you don’t have to be paranoid about sterilizing everything.
Jamming basically boils down [sorry] to mixing the fruit with lots of sugar and some lemon juice, cooking it, and pouring it into clean canning jars. The heat of the boiling jam helps sterilize the jar, and turning it upside down at first gets the lid too. As the air at the top cools, it shrinks and forms a partial vacuum that holds the lid on tightly to maintain the seal.
The jam keeps for years, although unless you make a lot of it, you’ll run out long before then. We’ve eaten three-year-old jam that still tasted great. A very few jars go bad — maybe one in 20 — and a bad jar is pretty obvious because it’s either lost its seal or has mold on top, so you just throw it away and get another one.
It takes only about an hour of active time, it will make your house smell amazing, and you’ll end up with yummy jam and syrup that you can enjoy for years. Do it!
But: Read The Directions All The Way Through First. Some of the details are important.
You’ll need to buy:
- Apricots, duh. Firm and slightly under-ripe if possible. (As a rough estimate, it takes about 1 1/2 cups of cut-up apricots to make an 8 oz jar of jam.)
- Lots of sugar. Get one of those big sacks. Don’t skimp on sugar or the jam won’t turn out right. NutraSweet™ is right out.
- Several lemons.
- 8oz canning jars, usually made by Ball or Mason. Most supermarkets have them, usually in the baking aisle. Make sure the jars come with the screw-on rings that hold the lids on.
- Jar lids. These are usually sold separately because, unlike the jars, they’re not re-usable. Make sure they’re the right diameter for your jars.
Your kitchen needs to have:
- A big non-aluminum3 cooking pot.
- A big stirring spoon, ideally wood.
- A ladle.
- Optional: A quart-size jar or sealable plastic container (for the syrup).
- Optional: a hammer (to extract the kernels).
Cut the apricots in half and put them in a large non-aluminum cooking pot. Set aside the pits for later. For each cup of apricots, add 3/4 cup sugar and 1 1/2 tsp lemon juice.
Let the mixture stand at least two hours, and watch as the magic force of osmosis sucks the water out of the apricots, dissolving them and the sugar into yummy goo.
Now put the pot on the stove and bring the goo to a boil over high heat. At first you’ll just need to stir occasionally to keep it from scorching, then as it comes to a boil you’ll need to stir continuously. Once it’s at a steady boil, set a timer for 25 minutes and keep stirring…
When it first starts boiling, it’s going to produce lots and lots of pale orange foam, which you’re going to have to skim off with a ladle to keep the pot from overflowing. When I was a kid, we serendipitously discovered that, if you put the foam in a quart jar and let it settle, it turns into apricot syrup. Do this The syrup is awesome on pancakes or ice cream. Keep it in the fridge.
The foaming will stop, I promise, even though you’ll feel like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice for a few minutes. Then just keep stirring, stirring, stirring…
When the timer goes off, take a look at the mixture. If it still seems liquidy, let it boil another five minutes (but no more). The goal is to have reduced the volume by about half, and for what’s left to be fairly thick; sort of like boiling jam. When it’s ready, turn off the heat.
You will have first prepared4 a bunch of canning jars. The jars will have just gone through the dishwasher (even if they’re new). The lids will have been soaking in a bowl with boiling water poured over them. The rings will have been just sitting around.
(If you didn’t first prepare this stuff, while the apricots were dissolving in sugar, you’re in trouble now. Serves you right for not reading the recipe through! All you can do is let the jam cool a bit, pour it into any clean containers you have around, and put it in the fridge. You’ll have to eat it all in a few weeks. Get friends to help.)
As an optional but recommended bonus: Extract enough kernels from the pits so you have one intact kernel per jar. To do this, get a hammer and put the pit on a clean cloth on a very hard surface like the sidewalk. Whack the pit with the hammer, hard enough to crack it open but not hard enough to mush the kernel inside, which looks like a little almond. This takes a bit of practice, so it’s a good thing you have dozens of pits.
You’ll probably end up with a half-full jar at the end. This won’t seal properly, so keep it in the fridge. Or if you run out of jars first, you can put the remaining jam into any other closeable containers you have around, and put them in the fridge. Either way, the refrigerated jam will keep for a few weeks.
When the last jar is filled and flipped over, set a timer for 5 minutes. When it bleeps, flip all of the jars back upright and let them stand for a little while. You should soon hear a little metallic “ping!” sound as each jar seals shut — the cooling air shrinks and forms a partial vacuum that pulls the lid tight and makes it flip from convex to concave.
If any jars haven’t popped shut by themselves in 15 minutes, they’re not properly sealed, so put them in the fridge and eat the jam soon.
Tighten the sealed jars’ rings some more, and label them with the type of jam and the approximate date. In a reasonably cool place (basements are good) they’ll keep for at least 2 years.
(Before you open a jar for the first time, press on the lid to make sure it’s still sealed. If you can pop the lid down, or if you can pull it off without a fair amount of force, it’s lost its seal and you should throw the jam away. But this happens really rarely.)
As a child, I knew that apricot kernels were full of deadly cyanide, and felt sort of nervous about using them in the jam. (But not too nervous to eat it.) It turns out, though, that the concentration is really pretty minimal. ↩︎
I am told that almond extract is often made from apricot pits, and that marzipan sometimes is too. ↩︎
The acid in the fruit would react with the aluminum, giving the jam a nasty metallic taste. ↩︎
I’ve always wanted to write that! ↩︎