low-sugar strawberry balsamic jam
Strawberry jam is one of those foods that punctuates so many moments throughout my life. I remember eating toast with peanut butter and homemade strawberry jam on Sunday mornings at the kitchen table with my parents as a kid. I remember the first time I went and bought strawberry jam from the store (not until college!) and thought, something tastes weird, why doesn’t this taste like I remember? And I remember working over bubbling hot batches of strawberry jam with my parents and my (now) husband as we made jam for our wedding favors.
The first time I really made jam on my own, I was totally flabbergasted at the sheer volume of sugar that goes into a normal batch. I kept double and triple checking the recipe to make sure that it really did call for that many cups of sugar. The end result is the delicious, syrupy sweet jam that we all know (and love!) but I just couldn’t really get on board with using that much sugar to preserve a food that is otherwise perfectly sweet on its own. We picked our strawberries at the prime of sweetness, and it seemed like such a shame to mask all of that by dumping 5+ cups of white sugar into the batch.
So I decided to go the low-sugar route with my jam, which requires an added dose of all-natural pectin. Pectin is a naturally occurring substance in fruit that, combined with sugar, helps jams, jellies and preserves “set” or “gel” into the jiggly, wiggly deliciousness you find on store shelves. You might be wondering, if pectin is found in all fruits, why add it? Well, that’s because pectin levels vary greatly depending on the type of fruit and the ripeness. Say, for example, you want to make some apple jelly. Apples are chock full of pectin (and are actually what the powdered pectin you buy in the store is made from). No need to add pectin. Unfortunately, strawberries are way low on the pectin scale. And the riper the strawberries are, the lower their pectin amounts.
Now, folks have been making strawberry jam for way longer than I’ve been around, but even I’ve been around the jam-making world long enough to that strawberry jam-makers fall into two distinct categories—those who add pectin and those who don’t.
For those that don’t want to add pectin to strawberries, you have a few options. First up, the method that most of our great-grandparents used—make the recipe using barely ripe (or even slightly unripe) berries which will help up the pectin levels. The issue with this is obvious—unripe berries aren’t nearly as delicious and sweet as their ripe brothers and sisters! By going this route, not only do you have to add a lot of sugar to make up for the unripeness of the berries, but you also have to cook the living beejeebus out of the jam to get it to the gel point. Which means cooking out most of the nutrients, minerals and general deliciousness. Womp. Womp.
If you aren’t digging the unripe berry route, you can also made a hybrid jam that uses strawberries in combination with a higher-pectin fruit like kiwi, cranberries or apples. I have yet to try this method, but I’ve heard really good things about the flavor and gelling-quality of tossing in a kiwi or two with a batch of strawberry jam. Maybe next year!
But, for me, I take the slacker route and use added, store-bought pectin. It kinda goes against my life M.O. of trying to do things the way my great-grandmother would, but this is one case where I feel like innovation is a really good thing. By using all-natural pectin specifically designed for low and no sugar recipes, I can lower the sugar amounts to what I feel like is a more “reasonable” amount. I can avoid cooking the heck out of the strawberries and still retain some of the flavor, color and nutrients. Oh, and it’s just flippin’ easier. And Mama likes easier.
This specific strawberry jam recipe has a little extra something-something added to it—balsamic vinegar. It may sound weird, but I promise the end results doesn’t taste vinegary. I doubt you could ever serve this to someone and they’d say, “By George! I believe you put balsamic vinegar in this jam!” But they might say, “Wow, the flavor of this strawberry jam is so complex and interesting!” That is, if people actually said stuff like that in real life.
The vinegar just gives it a hint of tang and rich flavor that helps balance out the sweet flavor of the berries. Honestly, you could probably just call this “strawberry jam” and no one would ever notice. But hey, doesn’t “strawberry balsamic” sound so much fancier?
Feel free to tweak and adjust the sweetener amounts and types in the recipe. I ended up using about 1/2 cup of our own maple syrup, and I found that it was the perfect amount for us—slightly sweet, but still tangy and inherently strawberry-y. But if you’re used to sweeter jams and jelly, you might want to try even a little more sweetener or, if you’re totally hardcore (and your berries are nice and ripe), you can leave out the sweetener all together. Just make sure to pick up pectin that is specifically made for low or no-sugar jam recipes. If you snag the regular kind instead, you’ll make strawberry balsamic soup instead of jam (which, has its own benefits—ice cream topping, yogurt swirls, fruit leathers!).
Low-Sugar Strawberry Balsamic Jam
Prep Time: 10 minutes | Cook Time: 20 minutes | Makes: 8 half-pint (8 ounce) jars
- 6 cups mashed, ripe strawberries (about 2 pounds whole)
- 1 cup unsweetened apple juice
- 1/4 cup + 1/2 tablespoon low or no-sugar pectin
- 1 tablespoon butter (optional)
- 1/2 cup honey or maple syrup
- Pinch of salt
- 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
- Prepare and sterilize jars and lids according to jar manufacturer’s instructions (we just run them through the “sterilize” mode in our dishwasher). Set aside.
- In a large, heavy-bottom sauce pan, combine the berries and apple juice over medium heat. Slowly whisk in the pectin until mixed through. Turn the heat to high and bring to a rolling boil that cannot be stirred down. If the mixture begins to foam, you can add the butter to help reduce the foaming.
- Once mixture is at a full rolling boil, add in the honey or syrup and the pinch of salt. Bring the mixture back up to a boil and boil hard for one full minute. Remove from heat and stir in the vinegar.
- Ladle the mixture into hot jars using a funnel. With a clean, damp cloth, wipe off the rim of the jar, place on lids and then tighten rings until just secure.
- Flip the jars over and let them rest on their lids for 15-20 minutes (the heat from the cooked jam helps seal the jar this way). Flip the jars back over and let cool completely. A jar is sealed when you press in the middle of the lid and the lid doesn’t flex up and down. Any jars that aren’t sealed can be stashed in the fridge and eaten within 3 weeks.
Note: More modern canning directions have called for a 10 minute water bath after you’ve filled and closed the jars of strawberry jam. We’ve never done this in my family (and have yet to have any issues), but if you want to be extra cautious, you can.
Serving Size: About 2 tablespoons | Servings Per Recipe: About 64