Have you ever been driving down the road and spotted someone canning berry preserves out of their truck in the middle of nowhere? Probably not, because normal people don't do that. That's what I did though. As an experienced "trucklifer" and outdoors chef with a bit of a pioneering streak, it was surprisingly easy and felt like a fun science experiment. I was inspired to tell you all about how I picked berries and canned jam in the great outdoors!
On the last day of a road trip with friend and photographer Arpan Das a few weeks ago, we found a place to camp late in the evening on the east side of Mount Hood. The next morning as we packed up our tents, I looked around and was stupefied when I realized we were surrounded by shrubs with plump wild blueberries and huckleberries... blue and purple gold. We had to hurry to Portland to deliver him to the airport that morning, but a few days later, I returned and picked berries to my heart's content.
These tiny, potent, sweet-tart berries are individually hidden among the shrubbery, so collecting them is truly a time consuming labor of love--especially when half the berries accidentally end up in your mouth. However, it can be very meditative. I spent somewhere between three and five hours (like I said, it's very meditative and I completely lost track of time) and ended up with about eight cups of fresh berries.
From there, I kept the berries chilled in napkin lined containers for several days until I had time to do something with them. I've always wanted to bake a huckleberry pie over a campfire, but Oregon is still undergoing drought conditions, so instead I preserved them by making jam.
Although the actual process of making and canning the preserves only took an hour, it took longer to do all of the research and prep work to get ready first. Before cooking the jam, I washed all the pots, utensils, canning jars, and of course, the berries.
The biggest challenge of doing this out of my truck was that I only had one small propane burner to work with, and very little counter top space--and, I had to purchase an extra pot just for this project, because you need TWO pots: one to make the jam mixture in, and another one to sterilize the jars in. It also used nearly three gallons of water, which is a lot more than I would normally use in a day.
One more important thing: if you're picking berries on public land like the National Forest, you may need to get a permit to legally pick lots of berries to take home with you, and it usually doesn't cost anything. In Mount Hood National Forest (MHNF), a Free Use Forest Product Permit allows you to take home three gallons of berries per year. You can acquire the permit from a ranger station. MHNF permit info is here, or inquire with your local National Forest district: https://www.fs.usda.gov/main/mthood/passes-permits/forestproducts
Wild Berry Preserves in 5 Easy Steps (so easy, I made it in the woods without a real kitchen)
6 cups wild blueberries and/or huckleberries, washed and sorted for stems/leaves
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2-3 organic lemons)
2 teaspoons ghee or butter (optional)
3 teaspoons Pomona's Pectin (this includes a separate packet to make a "calcium water" solution, which you also need 3 teaspoons of)
2-3 cups of organic cane sugar (I used 3 cups, but next time I'll use a bit less for more tart preserves)
Other tools you'll need:
1 or 2 stove burners
2 large metal pots
12 four ounce glass jars with metal ring lids (or 6 eight ounce jars)
1 potato masher
Lots of potable water
Fill a large pot with your jars, lids and rings, fully submerged in water. Heat water to a boil, then cover the pot and set aside, leaving everything under the water.
In another pot, cover your berries with an inch of water and a few teaspoons of baking soda. Simmer for two minutes. This helps take away the bitterness of the berries. Watch out for any remaining debris or bugs that may float to the top so you can ladle them out (during this step, I found a few small grubs that floated to the top, so I definitely wouldn't skip this preliminary boiling). Lightly rinse and drain the berries.
Add lemon juice and 3 teaspoons of calcium water to the berries; mash to your preferred chunkiness over low heat. Add the sugar, pectin and butter, then increase heat and boil for 8 minutes while stirring constantly. After, allow mixture to cool for just a couple of minutes.
Remove a jar and lid from the pot of hot water. Ladle jam mixture into jar, leaving half an inch of room at the top. Wipe the mouth of the jar clean with a towel if things got messy. Then, place the flat top of the lid on, and screw the ring on very loosely, just until you've met resistance with a light grip. Place the jar back into the pot of hot water, and repeat this process for the rest of the jars. You'll want to do this step as quickly as possible because the jam mixture will thicken as it cools.
Boil the jars underwater (with at least an inch of water above the lids) for 10 minutes, then let the pot of water rest for a few minutes. Using tongs, carefully remove each jar and place them on a towel to cool. The metal lids should each make a snap over the next few hours as their seal sets. If any lids haven't sealed after several hours, repeat this ten minute boiling process again. Once they have sealed, tighten the lids all the way and store them in a cool, dark place. That's it!
Making preserves always seemed like an intimidating process but it was surprisingly easy and simple--even for truck life--and I would actually do it again. Now I'll be able to enjoy my handpicked berries well after the berry season has passed... in breakfasts, deserts, on toast, in PB&J sandwiches... and maybe even in some huckleberry barbecue sauce, when the campfire grilling season returns! It might also be fun to infuse the jam mixture with whole spices or herbs next time.
Although it might sound like a sticky situation, doing the dishes was also no different from usual. A collapsible bucket with hot water and a few drops of a plant based soap is usually enough to clean everything off! As always, the dishes should be washed away from any lakes or streams, because even the slightest bit of soap can be harmful to riparian areas if it drains back into the waterways.
Please leave a comment if you have any ideas or questions! I would love to hear about your own jam making experiences and recipes!
...and when life gives you too many huckleberries, eat huckleberry pancakes in a nice meadow somewhere. :)