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L.A. in a Jar

illustration of peaches, apricots, cherries and plums
(Marianna Fierro / For The Times)
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“L.A. in a Jar” is a four -part series on preserving fruit at home throughout the seasons in Southern California, complete with helpful tips and guidance on everything you need to know about making and using fruit preserves, plus master recipes for stone fruit jam, apple butter, citrus marmalade and berry jelly.

Making jam is how I like to relax. Others may get massages, go hiking or do yoga. I prefer meditatively chopping, and then lazily stirring, fruit in a big pot until it’s thick and takes on the sheen of silk. I got into jam-making as a kid because I loved eating it so much. Whether it was strawberry Smuckers, muscadine jelly from an artisan near my home town in Mississippi, or an apple butter or peach jam from that “country store” restaurant, my sweet tooth called for preserves, so I yearned to learn to make them myself.

I’ve learned a lot about making preserves from years of cooking. I’ve made great preserves and really bad preserves — ones that set too soft and ones that were completely burned on the bottom. I’ve read just about every book on the subject and used their recipes to see how each approaches the art of mixing raw fruit, sugar and lemon juice into a luscious, spreadable fruit preserve.

Preserving fruit may seem like an intimidating undertaking akin to baking bread, but, well, you learned all about sourdough last year during the pandemic, so why not learn how to make the best stuff to spread on it and see how much easier it is to make than bread? Whether it’s a stone fruit jam with lots of tart chunks of fruit, a smooth and rich apple butter, a bitter marmalade mottled with citrus peel, or a glistening jewel-like berry jelly, preserving fruit is the best way to keep the best produce in the country around a little longer in your kitchen than it does in the markets.

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In Los Angeles, we track the seasons not by looking at the sky or thermometer, but by looking at the produce stands at the markets. Through the year, most of the produce changes so much and so quickly that it may seem as if you’re shopping at a totally new site with each visit to your neighborhood market. And whether you live here or are visiting, you’ve no doubt stopped by a farmers market to gasp and gawk at the wonderful fruit and bought a lot more than you can deal with on an impulse, drugged by all the heady aromas and beautiful colors. That’s where making preserves comes into play. And it’s a California pastime that everyone, no matter the skill level or interest, should experience at least once in their life.

To show you how easy it is for the home cook to make, we’re creating four issues over the next year that highlight different forms of fruit preserves — stone fruit jam in July, apple butter in October, citrus marmalade in January and berry jelly in April — complete with the basic steps and tips to get it done, but without all the extra information that can make preserving fruit seem intimidating or boring.

My hope is to convince you that preserving is actually quite easy, enjoyable and as low-maintenance as cooking a marinara sauce. The best part? You control the ingredients, which is important in a homemade version of a store-bought product typically rife with artificial sweeteners and subpar fruit. I’ll tell you what equipment you need to make preserves (I can practically guarantee you already own it all), how to make it with no recipe (you can memorize it) and how the preserves you make will last a long time without having to can them (your fridge is your friend!).

This is not a manual for the professional business owner or anyone looking to sell their product. This is a no-nonsense guide for casual home cooks, curious market shoppers, novice fruit fanatics and anyone else who just wants to learn a new, delicious skill that’s more fun and rewarding than making your 100th loaf of sourdough.

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Seasons of Preserves: Stone Fruit

While I love preserving fruit of all kinds, the best and most interesting preserves ones for me are made with stone fruit. There’s something in their balance of sweetness and tartness, and their meaty texture, that makes for a some seriously delicious, fragrant and intoxicating outcome.
Read more >>>

A selection of stone fruit - plums, pluots, nectarines, apricots, and peaches
(Silvia Razgova/For The Times)

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The only equipment you need to make jam

Before you go shopping or bring the fruit home, make sure you’re prepared with the proper equipment — you most likely already own it all.
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Essential equipment - an enameled cast-iron pot, a wooden spoon, a large spoon with a small bowl
(Silvia Razgova/For The Times)

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Picking fruit at the market for making jam

When it comes to picking fruit for your jam, select what’s available, what’s fresh and what’s within your spending power.
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A selection of stone fruit - plums, pluots, nectarines, apricots, and peaches
(Silvia Razgova/For The Times)

Why cherries aren’t great for making jam (even though you can).

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Preparations for making jam

You’ve got your equipment ready to go and you’ve brought your fruit home from the market. Now what?
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Spices like vanilla bean, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaf, which can be used as flavoring in jams
(Silvia Razgova/For The Times)

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A step-by-step guide to cooking stone fruit jam

There are really only four steps in the jam-making process. Here’s a pictorial guide to show you what the fruit should like at each stage.
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Step-by-step jam-cooking guide: step four - what does a mixture of chopped fruit, sugar, lemon juice
(Silvia Razgova/For The Times)

A primer on why knowing about pectin doesn’t matter for making stone fruit jam.

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What to look for while cooking jam

While cooking your jam, you’ll want to use all your senses to be aware of what’s going on. Here’s what you’ll observe during the jam-making process and what it means.
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Step-by-step jam-cooking guide: step four - what does a mixture of chopped fruit, sugar, lemon juice
(Silvia Razgova/For The Times)

Why you don’t need to know about the plate test to make great stone fruit jam.

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What to do after cooking jam

Don’t worry: Making jam does not equal having to can it.
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LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 7: A jar of peach jam with vanilla. (Cody Long/Los Angeles Times)
(Cody Long / Los Angeles Times)

Get the recipe:

Master Stone Fruit Jam

Time 2 hours 30 minutes
Yields Makes 5 half-pint jars, or 5 cups

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How to can your jam (if you want)

This guide is all about giving you the tools to make small batches of jam for you and your family that can stay in the fridge and that you can enjoy together. However, if you’re committed to go all the way with the canning process, I’m going to explain to you what I do to make my jams shelf-stable.
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Equipment one trully needs - a canning pot with rack, a jar funnel, a jar clamp/tong, banded jars, and gloves
(Silvia Razgova/For The Times)

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What to do with the jam you make

Whether you make it or buy it, you’re going to want to eat your jam all the time. But aside from toast, what can you use it for?
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illustration of different ways to use jam
(Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times)

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7 stone fruit jams to buy in L.A. now

If all this talk of jam has you scrambling for a spoon and a jar, here are some of the best stone fruit varieties you can buy in the Los Angeles area from restaurants, farmers markets or directly from the makers online.
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Jams to buy
(Silvia Razgova/For The Times)

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