Your grandmother's solution to an abundance of food at harvest time is making a comeback in the age of sustainability

  • Class assistant Kim Krueger steaming jars of Patterson apricots during the final process of canning at Relish Culinary Adventures in Healdsburg. Sunday June 20, 2010.

    (Photo: Erik Castro/for The Press Democrat)

Preserving berries and other fresh fruit is not rocket science, but if you're new to the art of canning, it can be a bit of a sticky wicket.

Those who don't follow the directions carefully — and don't understand the science behind the methodology — can blunder into all kinds of problem, from bland jams to overly runny textures.

And with today's emphasis on local, home-grown and sustainable foods, more and more home cooks and gardeners are turning to their grandmothers' day to learn ways to keep all that fresh-grown produce delicious and useful long after their backyard harvest is over.

"It's about experience and learning what works," artisan jam maker Elissa Rubin-Mahon told a dozen students at her natural-canning class at Relish Culinary Center in Healdsburg last month.

Rubin-Mahon's mom grew up on a farm in Minnesota, then moved to Southern California to raise her family. That's where Rubin-Mahon launched her lifelong quest to create high-flavor, all-natural jams.

"In Southern California, we had a massive Blenheim apricot tree, and we made preserves," she said. "Early on, I became aware of the difference between home canned and commercially canned products."

Along the way, Rubin-Mahon discovered a way to firm up the jam without the addition of pectin, a thickening additive. Her natural method involves applying high heat, very quickly, to small batches of fruit in order to preserve the natural flavor.

"It's a combination of sugar, fruit and acid, cooked to reach 220 to 225 degrees," she said. "I stop cooking at 220, because the flavor goes away after that. You want to cook as hard and fast as you can."

Without the interference of the extra pectin, the preserves come out boasting an intense flavor reminiscent of grandma's jam. Slathered on a piece of toast with butter, it doesn't get much better than this carefully cooked, slightly runny strawberry jam.

"Pectin came about with the advent of commercial jam-making," Rubin-Mahon explained. "It was developed as a short-cut method, but it compromises the flavor."

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