Syrup made from ripe blackberries is a full-flavored summer treat.
When blackberries begin to ripen in August, it seems almost mandatory to preserve some of them in jars. Their arrival marks the beginning of the end of summer, and the urge to save some of the season’s essence is compelling. So every year, I try to put up a few jars of blackberry jam.
My favorite recipe calls for equal weights of blackberries and sugar with the juice of one lemon, and most years it turns out spectacularly well. But some years, for reasons that used to be mysterious to me, my jam didn’t jell. According to the “Ball Blue Book Guide to Home Canning, Freezing and Dehydration,” good jam depends on a perfect balance of fruit, pectin, acid and sugar. Some of these elements are easier to manage than others. Although the degree of ripeness would prove to be an issue, the fruit part was a given; I would use blackberries from my own backyard. I use minimally processed pure cane sugar in my jams, and the acid gets a boost from the fresh lemon juice.
Pectin was the wild card. “Pectin,” say the authors of the Ball canning guide, “is a natural substance of high molecular weight found in varying amounts in fruits. It is pectin that causes jelly to jell.” What is more, “Fruit that is slightly underripe contains more pectin than fully ripe fruit.” And finally, “Overripe fruit used in spreads will likely cause a runny final product.”
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Mystery solved. Because underripe fruit lacks some of the character of fully ripened fruit, I like to use ripe berries. Some years, to make up for the lack of pectin, I have resorted to adding commercial pectin to make the fragrant, fully ripened fruit jell. The trouble with this is that recipes using commercial pectin call for more sugar, typically six cups of sugar to four cups of fruit; so in the end, the jam has less concentrated fruit flavor anyway. More than once, failing to find balance on the horns of this dilemma — to add pectin or not — I ended up with flavorful but runny jam and decided to simply use it like syrup. But as the late English food authority Alan Davidson once said, “Blackberries make somewhat pippy jam.” When the abundant Himalaya blackberries are involved, it’s downright seedy.
There was another problem. When I tried using the runny jam like syrup to make Italian sodas, the sodas fell flat. I mean, they sparkled, but the flavor was dull, and I realized that another key element was missing, namely, acid. Last year, I decided to be more deliberate in transforming my late-season blackberries into the syrup they seemed destined to be. This time, with a little focused attention, it turned out infinitely better than the accidental versions I’d made in the past.
Because I was no longer worried about jelling, I could add as much or as little sugar and acid to the berries as I wanted, and what I wanted was a full-flavored, concentrated berry syrup that would transform a glass of sparkling water into an irresistible soda. Instead of adding lemon juice, which would have made the syrup taste more like lemons and less like blackberries, I used pure citric acid. Named for the citrus fruits in which it was originally discovered, citric acid is also produced by every cell in the body as a natural part of the energy cycle. It can be derived commercially from bacteria that produce it from sugar, and it’s sold in powdered form in grocery stores as an additive for home-canned fruits and tomatoes. Look for it beside the commercial pectin in the canning section.
With six ounces of sparkling water, an ounce of the syrup makes a great Italian soda. I also learned that with two ounces of vodka, an ounce of the syrup makes a tangy blackberry kamikaze. Shake it over ice and strain it into a martini glass to bring the warmth and light of summer into a dark winter evening.
Greg Atkinson is a chef instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Steve Ringman is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
If no scale is available, use a scant four cups of loosely packed, freshly picked blackberries to approximate the pound. A tablespoon of citric acid powder helps to balance the sweetness and adds a tangy punch to beverages made with the syrup. A pint of syrup makes 16 drinks.
1 pound fresh blackberries
1 ½ cups pure cane sugar, preferably organic
½ cup filtered water
1 tablespoon citric acid
1. Sterilize a clean 1-pint (16-ounce) swing-top beer bottle or an ordinary 1-pint canning jar by submerging it in a pot of boiling water. Cover the pot, turn off the heat and allow the bottle to stand in the covered pot while you make the syrup. Put a strainer over a large, heatproof measuring cup with a pouring spout and keep this setup near the stove.
2. Rinse and drain the berries and pile them into a 2-quart saucepan with the sugar, water and citric acid. Stir the berries over medium-high heat until they come to a full, rolling boil. Keep stirring to prevent the berries from boiling over, and let them cook at a steady boil for 1 minute.
3. Transfer the cooked berries to the strainer set over the measuring cup and stir the mixture in the strainer until only seeds and pulp remain in the strainer. You should have a generous two cups of syrup. Reheat the syrup to boiling temperature then pour the syrup into the sterilized bottle or jar and seal the bottle or jar. When the bottled syrup has cooled to room temperature, transfer it to the refrigerator.
4. Use 1 ounce of syrup with six ounces of sparkling water for an Italian soda. Or shake 1 ounce of syrup with 2 ounces of vodka and strain into a cocktail glass to make a blackberry kamikaze. The syrup will keep, covered and refrigerated, for up to one year.
Greg Atkinson, 2008