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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."

Working only in small batches under 7 pounds, Rubin-Mahon uses wild-crafted and rare heirloom fruit like Carnelian cherries to make jams for her own Forestville company, Artisan Preserves, which supplies places like Les Mars Hotel in Healdsburg.

She also serves as the master jammer for Quivira Vineyards in Healdsburg, creating unique preserves from the estate-grown fruit, such as figs and honey.

In addition to high heat and micro-batches, she uses a variety of fruit at the correct ripeness. Like wine and olive oil, the best jams come from some green fruit, most at 90 percent ripeness, and just a small amount of really ripe fruit.

"Mostly-ripe fruit holds its texture better, develops flavor as it cooks, and it has (natural) pectin and acid," she said. "You need to add acid for the pectin to work, and to get it to set, all you need to add is sugar."

During the class, Rubin-Mahon demonstrated her method of making strawberry preserves, one of the most memorable treats of her childhood.

"I love making strawberry jam, and the smell of it," she said. "I had an aunt who grew strawberries, and she would bring her jam, so I have a strong connection to it."

Of course, it's crucial to start out with high-quality fruit. Rubin-Mahon sources all her strawberries from Lou Preston of Preston Vineyards and Ranch in Dry Creek Valley.

Her recommended equipment includes a kitchen scale to weigh the berries, a bird's-beak knife to trim berries (from chefscatalog.com), and a 22-gauge, 6-inch steam pan for cooking the strawberries (available at Castino's in Rohnert Park).

After hulling the strawberries, the master jam maker adds sugar to the berries then lets the mixture stand, covered with a towel, until the juices thoroughly dissolve the sugar.

"The sugar will pull the juice out of the berries," she said. "When you see that the sugar has turned into a syrup, that's the right time to start heating the mixture."

Over high heat, the mixture is then brought to a brisk boil, while being constantly stirred with a blunt-edge spoon (available from JB Prince at jbprince.com) for about six minutes.

"The spoon gets into the corners and keeps the jam from sticking," she said. "You stir methodically back and forth, and keep it moving all the time."

At this point, Rubin-Mahon takes the mixture off the heat, covers it with a towel, and lets it rest on the kitchen counter overnight.

The next day, after she has prepared the jars by sterilizing them in boiling water and simmering the lids and rings in a sauce pan, she heats up the mixture again to a hard boil, adds a generous amount of lemon juice and cooks it constantly, until it reaches 220-225 degrees.

"I like tart fruit," she said. "Lemon is a preservative, and I like the tart finish. It keeps it from being cloying."

At this point, the mixture will have thickened and grown heavy, while the bubbles will have grown bigger and separated from the foam. After skimming off the foam, she fills the jars using a canning funnel, being careful to wipe the lip of each jar with a paper towel.

The jars should be filled nearly to the top, up to the lowest ring of the rim, she said.

The next step — sterilizing the jar in hot water or steam, to create a vacuum seal — can be done either with a traditional hot-water bath in a canning kettle or with a steam bath in a steamer (available from Harmony Farm Supply in Sebastopol).

Like steamers used to make tamales, canning steamers should have a penny added to the water, so that when it stops rattling, you know the water has steamed away and needs to be replenished.

In the mid-June class on summer fruit, Rubin-Mahon also demonstrated an easy recipe for Home Canned Apricots, which she packs raw in a glass jar with some light, simple syrup.

She sourced the slightly underripe Blenheim apricots from a local family's ranch in Oroville. After cutting them in half, the class cut out the black spots on the skin and kept a few of the seeds in, to add a bitter-almond flavor.

Next, they placed a lemon slice in the bottom of the sterilized jars and layered the apricot halves snug tight on top of each other, cavity side down, and poured the hot syrup over the fruit until it reached a half-inch from the rim.

After running a knife around the jar to remove air bubbles, the class wiped the jar rims carefully, then sealed them tightly — but not too tightly — with a hot lid and ring.

The jars were then boiled in a water bath for 20 minutes, lifted out with a jar lifter, and allowed to cool on the counter.

Rubin-Mahon likes to serve the flavorful apricots as a poached fruit dessert, with a little cookie on the side.

For jams and sauces, she suggests using small-mouth jars, because they have less seal failure. For bigger pieces of fruit like the apricots, she prefers a large-mouth jar.

This recipe can be doubled or tripled, Rubin-Mahon said. If you use 4 pounds of fruit, increase the cooking time to 8 minutes. If you use 6 pounds of fruit, increase the cooking time to 10 minutes.

If you are short on time, you can use the quick method, but Rubin-Mahon prefers the two-day method.

Required equipment: large pot with wire rack and lid, or a steam canner, kitchen tongs, jar lifter, ladle, canning funnel, dinner knife, paring knife, kitchen scale, preserve or candy thermometer (instant read preferred), heavy wide-bottomed pan large enough that preserves will not boil over, 5 half-pint regular canning jars with rings and new lids.

Strawberry Preserves

Makes 4 to 5 half-pint jars

2pounds hulled strawberries (small berries kept whole, others halved or quartered)

1?pounds granulated cane sugar

3tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Quick method:

Combine sugar and strawberries in a heavy, wide-bottomed pan and place on a burner over high heat (about 10 to 15 minutes). Stirring constantly, bring to boil and add the lemon juice. Continue cooking and stirring until the mixture reaches 220 to 225 degrees on a candy or preserving thermometer. Turn off the heat and skim any foam that remains.

Two-day method:

Combine sugar and strawberries in a heavy, wide-bottomed pan. Allow the mixture to stand, covered with a towel, for 3 hours or until juice thoroughly dissolves the sugar. Bring mixture to a brisk boil, and cook for 6 minutes, stirring constantly. Cover with a towel and allow to sit overnight or for at least 8 hours.

When ready to can, uncover the strawberries and put on a burner over high heat. Add the lemon juice and return to a hard boil and cook, stirring constantly, until it reaches 220-225 degrees on a candy or preserving thermometer. Turn off the heat and skim any foam that remains.

Preparing and filling the jars:

Wash the jars in hot soapy water and rinse well. If the jars have been previously used, check them for cracks or chips on the rim. Discard if damaged. Place them in a large pot with a wire rack in the bottom and fill the pot to the rim of the jars. Cover and bring to a boil. Boil the jars for 10 minutes to sterilize and keep in the hot water until ready to use. Put the lids and rings into a sauce pan and simmer for 5 minutes to soften the rubber seal. Hold in the hot water until ready to use.

Place hot jars on a towel and fill with preserves, using a canning funnel, to within a half-inch of the top. Run a table knife on the inside of the jar to allow bubbles to escape. Use a damp cloth or paper towel to wipe the lip of the jar to ensure a clean contact. Place the hot lid and ring on the jar and tighten "finger tight." Return jars to the water bath. Bring to a moderate boil and process for 5 minutes. This will give a good seal to the jars but not impact the jell set.

Remove from the canner and place on a clean towel, about 1 inch apart. Allow to rest until completely cool, overnight. The natural pectin takes about 12 hours to a day to develop, so a long rest is best.

"If you wish to prepare the apricots all at once, place the apricot halves in acidulated water to prevent darkening," Rubin-Mahon said. "I prefer to prepare the fruit a jar at a time so that apricots that are not needed are kept whole, for later consumption."

Required equipment: Large pot with wire rack and lid or a steam canner, kitchen tongs, cutting board, paring knife, jar lifter, canning funnel, ladle, dinner knife, small saucepan to heat jar lids, 6 wide-mouth pint canning jars with new lids and rings.

Home Canned Apricots

Yields 6 plus pints

6small lemon slices (preferably Meyer lemon)

6 to 8cups light syrup (6 cups water + 3 cups sugar)

9 to 12pounds apricots, slightly under-ripe (preferably Blenheims)

Prepare jars:

Wash jars and lid rings in hot soapy water. If jars have been previously used, check carefully for cracks or chips on the rim. Discard if damaged. Place jars in a large pot with a wire rack in the bottom and fill the pot to the rim of the jars. Cover and bring to a boil. Boil the jars for 10 minutes to sterilize and hold in the hot water until ready to use.

Put lids and rings into a saucepan and simmer for 5 minutes to soften the rubber seal. Hold in the hot water until ready to use.

For light syrup:

Combine 6 cups water and 3 cups sugar in a saucepan. Cook over medium heat until it simmers and the sugar is dissolved.

For fruit:

Wash fruit well and remove blemishes, if desired. Cut a portion of prepared apricots in half, remove pits from most of the apricots. Leave some because they add flavor to the fruit as it cooks.

Canning procedure:

Remove jars, one at a time from the canning kettle. Add a lemon slice to the bottom of the hot pint jar. Pack the apricot halves into the jar, cavity side down, as tightly as possible to within a half-inch of the rim. Using a canning funnel, ladle hot syrup to the top of the fruit. Remove the funnel. Run a dinner knife around the inside of the jar to remove air bubbles. If necessary, replace the funnel and add syrup to bring its level to one-half inch from the rim.

With a damp cloth or paper towel, carefully wipe the rim of the jar and place a hot lid and ring on the jar. Hand tighten until it is firmly closed. Place in the canner. Check and make sure that the water is about 1 inch or more above the tops of the jars. Repeat the process until all jars are filled.

Bring the water bath to a full boil, with the lid on. Boil for 20 minutes.

Use a jar lifter to remove jars from the water bath. Place on a clean towel, with at least an inch of space between the jars to allow air to circulate. Allow to stand, undisturbed, for at least 6 hours so as not to disturb seal while the jars cool. Label and store in a cool dry place.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.