Nothing tastes better on a home-baked biscuit than homemade jam. But these days, when you start adding up the cost of jars, sugar, pectin and the fresh produce, it’s more a gourmet treat than the humble pantry staple of our grandmothers’ day.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Home cooks can resurrect what has become a lost domestic art, and still stay within the monthly grocery budget. All it takes is a little smart shopping and some old-fashioned thrift.
I took up jamming many years ago, born out of December desperation.
I wanted meaningful holiday gifts for neighbors and teachers. But with two school-age kids and a baby, I didn’t have a lot of time to devote to these gifts, and I sure didn’t have a lot of extra money to spend.
Those first few years, I purchased my gifts of jam from a farmer friend of mine.
Eventually, I got organized enough – and brave enough – to start making my own jam.
Along the way, I learned how to trim my costs so that I’m not only making jam for gifts, I’m making enough to stock my pantry for a year. It may still be cheaper to toss a jar of Smucker’s in the cart, but what you gain in flavor and satisfaction is worth the difference.
Here are multiple tips for jamming on the cheap:
• Don’t let the startup costs scare you away. A granite-ware water-bath canner with a rack will cost $15 to $21 on Amazon.com. But canners frequently show up at thrift stores and yard sales. If you have canning commitment issues, borrow one from a neighbor or friend. Don’t forget to borrow the tools, the most essential being the jar lifter and the funnel. The Amazon price on a canning tool kit is $14 to $18, but I’ve seen them cheaper at Ace and Town & Country hardware stores.
• Improvise by making your own water-bath canner. Use a large stock pot and employ several canning jar lids to form a make-shift rack on the bottom of your pot, suggests Andrea Weigl, whose Savor the South cookbook, “Pickles & Preserves,” was published earlier this year.
• Skip the supermarket produce department and go directly to the source. Ask your farmer for bruised or blemished fruit. Remember, you’re going to be mashing it, so it’s OK if it’s a day or two past its prime. It helps to know the lingo, which varies according to fruit. Culls, jam berries, ice cream peaches and drops are all commonly used by farmers for their less-than-perfect fruits.
• Stop by a farmers market or stand near the end of the day and ask if any markdowns are available. While I will inquire about late-in-the-day specials, I stop short of haggling over price. Farming is hard work.
• Use less expensive fruits to make your jam. Peaches, for instance, are far less per pound than blueberries, making the price per jar far more affordable.
• Shop around for the best prices on jars. A dozen jars with rings and seals range from $9 to $12. I’ve found the best prices at Town & Country and Kroger, but also be on the lookout for jars at yard sales and thrift stores. I once found six unopened boxes of jars at a garage sale. I paid $2 per box.
• Use coupons to buy sugar. Domino and C&H brands frequently release cents-off coupons for granulated sugar.
• Consider using store-brand pectin, which is considerably less than the $3 to $4 you’ll pay for Sure-Jell or Certo brands in the grocery store. Or order pectin online in bulk.
• Look for recipes that don’t require pectin. Search online for “jam recipes without pectin.” Weigl’s book suggests several, including strawberry preserves, peach-orange marmalade, Damson plum preserves and Muscadine jam.
• Skip the canning all together and make freezer jam. You won’t need the equipment – just a few containers and a little room in your freezer.
• Always use new seals, but jars and rings can be reused so whenever giving a gift of jam, kindly request that the jar be returned. Many a time, I’ve come home to an empty jar on my front porch with a note tucked inside hinting at a refill.