Despite the scary weather this morning in northern Franklin County, some hardy souls from the SACG would not be deterred from picking fresh berries in southern Franklin County. First, we were able to pick a few black raspberries at the SACG when we met there this morning. Then, Mari, her husband John, Beth and I threw caution to the wind and drove back to Schaact's Farm in Canal Winchester to pick strawberries. (I also picked strawberries last week at Hann's Farm in Obetz, but they did not open until 10 a.m. this morning and we wanted to get an earlier start). The benefit of this morning's thick cloud cover was that it was a cool morning to pick strawberries (albeit a touch humid). Beth and I had finished picking and were heading back to the car when it finally started to rain in at Schaacht's Farm. (We stopped by Big Lots on our way home so that I could pick up a dozen half-pint jars for $7 -- almost the perfect size for canning my own preserves).
This year, we picked berries a week earlier than we did last year and it made a giant difference in the number of strawberries which were available. There were also only about ten other people in the field with us (because many people were probably deterred by the weather forecast) and we had no trouble finding lots of ripe strawberries.
I made 10 half-pint jars of strawberry jam last Friday and it had finally set by the time I checked again this morning. I also froze 3 quarts of strawberries last week (and made lots of strawberry short cake and spinach-blue cheese-strawberry salads). I'll be freezing most of the berries I picked this morning.
Freezing strawberries is very easy. You just cut off the top of the strawberry (after washing them) and place them flat side down on a cookie sheet before putting the cookie sheet in a freezer for about an hour or so. After they freeze, I store them in quart freezer bags until I need them to make smoothies or margaritas. You do not need to core fresh-picked strawberries because – if you only pick ripe ones – there are no white tips or white cores. They are red all the way through (a major difference between picking your own berries and buying them at grocery stores).
Strawberry jam is more complicated. You take 2 quarts of strawberries. Wash and cut off the tops. Smash them up and put them in a very large stock pot. Mix in a package of pectin and ¼ cup lemon juice and bring to a boil. Take off the heat and mix in 7 cups of sugar. Put back on the heat and bring back to a rolling boil for 1-2 minutes while constantly stirring. (This is seriously hot work). Skim foam off the jam as necessary. Then you ladle the hot jam mixture into hot jars (which you've already prepared along with the lids and caps). Process in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes. You should have 8 half-pint jars when finished. Don't panic if the jam takes a few days to set. You could always re-cook it or just use it as strawberry syrup (over ice cream or pancakes). You also have the option of foregoing the pectin (and using less sugar), using lemon rinds instead of pectin, and/or not processing in a canner by putting the jam in freezer containers and freezing it until you need it. I've never made freezer jam, but I suspect that Beth is going to try it this year.
Preserves are more complicated still because you keep the strawberries whole and it involves letting the mixture sit for 8-12 hours at room temperature. It's still very hot work.
I've tried to make jam without pectin, but I am not that patient and had trouble getting my mixture hot enough to jell without spilling over (and making a big mess under the burners). I have lots of respect for those cooks who can.