I’m a big believer in real vanilla beans as a jam ingredient. Vanilla extract has some disadvantages. It’s alcohol based, so when you add it to the jam, much of its flavor and aroma evaporates with the alcohol. One could add more to compensate, but I feel you can get some odd flavors with too much vanilla extract. Vanilla beans, on the other hand, are oily, so the flavor doesn’t evaporate so fast. They also have those wonderful little seeds that you can see in the jam as tiny black specks. Vanilla has the effect of making jam taste sweet – so kids and stoners usually love it.
Vanilla beans can be more expensive, especially if you buy them packaged in a glass tube at the neighborhood store, I priced them at $10 a bean at my neighborhood Quality Food Center. I get mine in bulk at Whole Foods, and they usually come in at less than a buck a bean. I looked on Amazon yesterday, and they had a wide variety at about the same price.
Vanilla beans do dry out, so keep them in a jar (empty pint jam jar works great), tightly covered, until you use them. I usually buy just enough, because struggling with an old dried out vanilla bean is disheartening.
To use a vanilla bean, get a paring knife, and split the bean down the middle. Using the back side of the knife, press down on the bean and scrape out all the little seeds. Stick the seeds and the rest of the bean in the pot with your fruit and go on to make jam. At the end, fish out the beans before you jar your jam. You can wash them off and save them. Christine Ferber says to use them to decorate the outside of your jam jars. I think they’re too ugly for decoration, instead, I have a big jar of sugar at home for my oatmeal in the winter. I wash off the beans, dry them out, stick them in the sugar jar and let them sit there. Voila! “Vanilla sugar” a lovely gourmet treat.
The recipe: Apricot Jam with Vanilla Bean.
Yield, 8 to 10 ½ pint jars
– 7 Cups organic sugar
– 5 Cups finely chopped apricots (about 2&1/2 pounds, more or less)
– One package powdered pectin
– Organic lemon – for juice
– 3 vanilla beans, split and seeded
1. Prepare your canning jars and lids. Heat up the jars in boiling water, lids and rings to a simmer in water. I like to pull the jars out of the canner and keep them upside down on a clean towel while I make the jam.
2. Measure 7 cups of organic sugar and set aside.
3. I chop my apricots by hand, and like them finely chopped. You could use an old fashioned meat grinder if you have one. Don’t use your food processor, as it will turn the apricots into mush. I also don’t peel my apricots, although many recipes call for peeled apricots.
4. Add the apricots, about two tablespoons of lemon juice, the split vanilla beans and their seeds to your canning pot. Mix the pectin with about ¼ cup of sugar from your measured sugar, mix it together and add to the apricots in your canning pot. Add about ½ cup of water.
5. Heat while stirring on low to medium heat until just boiling. Be careful not to let the pectin stick to the bottom and burn.
6. Turn up the heat to nuclear and gradually add the sugar while stirring constantly. Bring to a full rolling boil (I look for bubbles in the middle as well as the edges of the pot) glance at the second hand of your watch, and boil for exactly one minute. A full rolling boil of a pot of jam should look a little scary.
7. Take the pot off the heat. Pull out the vanilla beans with a pair of tongs and set aside. Pour into jars, carefully wipe the rims, put two-piece lids on finger tight and process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes.
Sometimes apricot jam takes a week or two to set up firm, but adding the lemon juice helps make a firmer set. This is a delicious jam, not only on toast, but on ice cream, as a layer in a cake, or heated, strained and used as a glaze on a tart.