Swap-Box Hero: Strawbarb Preserves

One of the perks of being a site host is that you get to scavenge through the swap box at the end of pick-up day. This week, that meant we staff got to divvy up bundles of underloved endive and rhubarb. Thanks, but no thanks on more greens—I got plenty in my own sharebox. But rhubarb? Yes, please. Time for a jam session.

Rhubarb stalks
Ruby beauties scavenged from the swap box
Small batches are faster, easier, fresher, and use less sugar

I’ve come to rely on a method outlined by Russ Parsons in How to Pick a Peach. The key is to cook the fruit in a large, non-stick skillet rather than a big Dutch oven or stock pot. The combo of wide surface area and smaller quantity lets your chosen fruit goo reach higher temperatures more quickly, so you get a faster set . . . without pectin . . . with fresher flavor . . . and requiring less sugar.

It was at Parsons’s urging, too, that I finally acquired a kitchen scale, which allows me to, well, scale a batch to any amount of remnant fruit I have on hand. Getting the chemistry right is much easier when you can work by weight. He counsels a 1:1 ratio for most any fruit preserve, though I tend to use even less. My usual practice is 3 parts fruit to 2 parts sugar, and I adjust that up or down depending on how sweet/juicy the fruit is.*

In about 20 minutes of prep time and a half hour of cook time, I knocked out seven jars of varying sizes – some for keeping, and, just to pay the swap-box bounty forward, some for gifting.

Mix and match

I’ve had success using strawberries, cherries, peaches, plums, blackberries, raspberries, rhubarb, and nearly every combination of those, sometimes adding vanilla or herbs or citrus juice/zest. It just takes a few times through the process to get the hang of it, but your risk—both in terms of time and fruit invested—is tiny compared to the commitment of a huge batch, where, if something goes awry, you’ve wasted the better part of a day and a flat or more of produce.

*Technically, per the FDA, “preserves” and “jams” must be at least 65% sugar by weight. I don’t care. “Fruit spread” is awkward. I’m sticking with “preserves” even though I’m using 60% fruit. It is preserved, after all.

Strawbarb preserves
A pound each of berries and rhubarb yielded 7 small jars of preserves.

Strawbarb preserves
  • 1 lb strawberries, rinsed, hulled, cut into small pieces (about 3-1/2 cups, cut up or 2 pints to start)
  • 1 lb rhubarb stalks, washed, cut into pieces about the same size as the berries (about 4 cups , which was roughly 1-1/2 of the bundles in the photo up top)
  • 1-1/3 lbs sugar (just over 3 cups)
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

Combine the fruit and sugar in a large pot. Slowly bring fruit mixture to a boil until the juices are clear—I generally find that takes 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat. Scrape the vanilla seeds into the pot, then add the beans. Cover loosely, and leave it alone to macerate further for at least four hours. I once got sidetracked and didn’t get back to it for 24 hours, and everything turned out fine.

Just before you begin to cook, prepare your jars and lids by sterilizing them in boiling water for 5 minutes. And stick a small plate in the freezer—you might need it later.

Pick out the vanilla bean, then scoop three or four ladles of the fruit-sugar mixture into a large, non-stick skillet (I, too, was skeptical on my first try—didn’t even own a non-stick pan—but after a hellacious clean-up job, I went out and bought one just for making preserves).

Strawbarb preserves
Fruit cooks faster and tastes fresher — with less sugar — in a shallow pan.

Over medium-high heat, bring the mixture to a simmer and cook until it thickens. Depending on how juicy the fruit is, this’ll take 5-10 minutes at a full-on, bubbling simmer. With some experience, you be able to judge when it’s done by how it looks and feels, but if you need corroboration, use the plate test. Take your little plate out of the freezer and drip a little bit of the hot fruit onto it. If it sticks—if it doesn’t run right off the plate when you tip it—your preserves are ready.

Plate test
If it doesn’t run, your jam is done.

Ladle the hot fruit into the hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Repeat the whole process with the remaining fruit mixture.

Fasten the lids and either:

  • Let cool completely, then refrigerate and use within a month or so, or
  • Make them shelf-stable by processing in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes. If you’re new to canning, check out the Ball Company’s online guides or Marisa McLellan’s wonderful blog (and book), Food in Jars.

Note that these preserves may be a little looser than you’re used to—certainly looser than the store-bought stuff—since you’re using way less sugar and no added pectin. I think that makes them even more versatile, though. They’re much easier to spoon atop a cup of yogurt or mix into a vinaigrette—and they’re still killer spread on a biscuit or toast. Just have a napkin handy.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. annierie says:

    Love rhubarb. Spent time last week hanging around our pick up site to swap for it.

    Made rhubar-b-b-q sauce today.

    Sandy Spring LFFC member here for my third summer.

  2. Susan says:

    Thanks for stopping by, annierie. Your BBQ sauce sounds great — would you mind sharing the recipe?

  3. Ted Crawshaw says:

    I never taught her to waste good rhubarb by mixing it with other things. Good old-fashion pie is what rhubarb is for.
    Susan’s dad.

    1. Susan says:

      Sooooo, I guess you don’t want that jar of preserves I was going to send you for Father’s Day?

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