What did you do this summer? Go camping? Visit family? Backpack through Europe?
Me, I tasted jam. Curious about all the new preserves appearing on the shelves of my local gourmet market, I wondered whether all those cute-labeled jars were just fancy packaging with nothing special within. I asked food pros around the country about their favorites and started gathering a massive collection. But as I tasted my way through 88 different jams (yes, 88!), I got pretty darn excited about the quality of fruit preserves you can buy these days. We're in something of a golden era: today's jams are better than they ever were before.
There was a time when most jam-making was a homespun endeavor: folks filled jars with preserves made from the wild blackberries they found, or the harvest of a garden strawberry patch, canning the summer's bounty for colder months. But the rise of mass-market production meant that jams for supermarkets were made from fruit that was available in bulk and easily transportable—the flavor could be rounded out with a heavy dose of sugar.
Today, though, many jam makers are choosing local fruit for its vibrant flavor alone—and sometimes even growing their own. Some small batch producers specialize in rare fruit, such as youngberries, lesser-known plums, and the almost-extinct Blenheim apricot.
Today's best jams are fresh and bright rather than cooked and dull. Jam makers have dialed the sugar down considerably. Some producers use a mix of ripe and less-ripe fruit to bring a balanced tartness and avoid using added pectin. Others select only ripe fruit but add some low-sugar pectin, which allows the jam to gel quickly without much cooking, avoiding a stewed flavor.
As the harvest season winds down, it's time to start feeling grateful that someone captured the flavor of summer in a jar. These are our picks for the country's best jams, preserves, conserves, and more—the jars we'd buy for gifts and hoard for our own scone-topping.
I'm sorry to say that the best jam in the country isn't that easy to get. The Matthiasson family makes some of California's most delicious wines—and they've gotten tons of accolades for those bottles—but they should really be just as famous for their incredible preserves. Jill and Steve Matthiasson grow 10 different varieties of peaches, five varieties of nectarines, 10 different types of plums, and four different types of pluots, selling the fruit (all organic) at the Napa Valley Farmers Market and sharing the jam with their wine club members. (Some jars are also sold at Oakville Grocery in Napa.)
"The cool nights and warm days we have in Napa give us the balance of acidity and sugar in our stone fruit, just like they do for the wine grapes," says Jill Matthiasson. The Matthiasson Peregrine Peach jam is simply some of the best peach jam we've ever tasted: a punch of fragrant, vibrant fruit and tangy sweetness, perfectly capturing the full, rounded flavor of summer's best eat-over-the-sink peaches. They also work miracles with rich Royal Blenheim apricots and sweet-tart, almost chocolatey Santa Rosa plums—these jams make your mouth water and all your synapses fire. Matthiasson jams are stellar across the board; if we had to pick one favorite producer, this is it.
Jessica Koslow of SQIRL has a way with berries. She captures the best in lesser-known varieties, teasing the winey flavors of ollalieberries into a jam that's deep and rich and bringing out a surprisingly bright and herbal side of boysenberries sourced from a one-acre plot in Redlands, CA. The vibrant boysenberry jam was our all-time favorite...perhaps our favorite berry jam ever...until we tasted the rare Youngberry version, which tastes like a dream where blackberries and blueberries merge into one incredible fruit.
Rare Bird Preserves
Okay, our favorite offerings from Rare Bird Preserves aren't jams: they're dessert spreads (enriched with egg and flavored with fruit). But whatever the label, you won't be able to get these out of your mind. The Meyer Lemon Curd is the full lemon bar experience: buttery and silky, with the soft floral tang of Meyer lemons cushioned in rich egg yolk. It needs no crust. The Passionfruit Curd really grabs your attention: it's exotic stuff, luscious custard imbued with a shocking dose of tropical fruit. A dollop on a chocolate wafer is sublime, but it could also fill meringues or punch up a layer cake.
Dafna Kory of INNA says her goal is to "highlight and preserve the fresh fruit flavor" of the locally-sourced fruits she uses in her jams, and she definitely succeeds. Her Blenheim Apricot is a knockout, and our favorite of all the apricot jams we tried. It's fantastically tangy and concentrated, capturing the platonic ideal of apricot. You could put it on a scone, but we've finished our jar straight up spoon-to-mouth. And while we wouldn't recommend digging right into her 'Plenty Spicy Jalapeno' jam, this sweet (and pretty darn hot) spread is great on a turkey sandwich or used as a glaze for grilled chicken.
Ayako & Family
The texture of the damson plum jam from this Seattle-based producer is one you won't soon forget: luscious, even creamy, delivering seriously potent flavor. It's winelike and full of bass notes but still strikingly fresh-tasting, capturing all the bright and deep personality of the fruit, all sourced from Mair Farm Taki in Yakima, Washington. It's one of the best plum jams we've ever tried.
Happy Girl Kitchen
We love a jam with fruit vivid and bright enough to make our mouths water. Happy Girl Kitchen does it: their tangy plum jam is wonderfully intense, their strawberry jam balances fresh flavor with cooked richness, and their apricot is more packed with flavor than any fresh apricots we've tried. If you crave preserves with lively tartness and not too much sweetness, seek these out.
Frog Hollow Farm
Frog Hollow Farm is known for selling stellar fresh stone fruit at the Ferry Plaza Farmer's Market in San Francisco, but their jarred goods are worth seeking out when peach season is over. It's hard to pick a favorite, though we're partial to the nectarine and plum conserve, chewy-thick and rich with sunny fruit flavor. It's perfect on wheat toast. Others might pick the apricot, which has big chunks of fruit and a mellow sweetness. Their Seville Orange Marmalade is also excellent, woven with fine ribbons of the bitter orange suspended in a jelly that contributes a lovely fresh orange flavor and just enough sugar.
This Bay Area-based small batch operation offers a dizzying array of unusual preserves. We like their velvety elephant heart plum jam and enjoy their tangy raspberry-mango-passionfruit concoction. Their tart-and-bitter limequat marmalade is definitely worth seeking out if you have a thing for condiments that make you pucker. (We do.) But we fell the hardest for their tart cherry-apricot jam, which is sweet and ripe but balanced wonderful juicy tartness and the slightest hint of almondy flavor. Make a cheesecake and put this on top. (Or just layer it on a cream-cheese smeared cracker.)
Mountain Fruit Co.
Allyn and Joyce Johnston of Mountain Fruit Co. in Chico, CA make their jam in forty quart stainless pots that sit in large double boilers, cooking slowly for several hours, aiming to preserve a "fresh, alive, and intense" fruit flavor in the soft fruit spreads. The flavor that results is remarkably vibrant: their 'Raspberry Tart' makes your mouth water, capturing the full experience of tart berries in a way we've rarely tasted. The 'Rhubarb & Berry' (made with rhubarb and Northwest strawberries) is mellower, perfect for spooning over yogurt.
If you get frustrated with how short sour cherry season is, seek out Mountain Fruit Co's tangy 'Sour Power' made with sour cherries and rhubarb and put it on ice cream or spoon over waffles. The deep maroon 'Red Duet' perfectly melds the flavors of strawberries and raspberries, reminding us of the scent of a just-picked flat of berries warming in the sun. Grab a scone and dig in.
It's easy to like June Taylor's cherry almond conserve. Reminiscent of linzer cookies, it's flavored with a touch of noyaux brandy and almond extract. It's perfect for spreading on a graham cracker or spooning over yogurt. But if your taste runs toward things that are tangy, seek out the rhubarb blood orange conserve, a rich and tart spread that's both luscious and bright. We also love their tayberry lemon verbena conserve for its punch of concentrated fresh berry flavor.
Robert Lambert's jams tend to be enhanced with a little something extra: a touch of vinegar, a bit of cognac, spices, herbs. But the point is still the fruit, which comes through loud and clear. His lightly floral apricot jam is exceptionally bright and tangy, thanks to a touch of Sauvignon Blanc and a little Champagne vinegar. Robert Lambert's pear ginger jam is packed with spicy ginger and cardamom, plus a little Champagne vinegar to keep the sweetness in check. Many examples of pear preserves taste a bit like baby food, but not this one. It captures fall on a spoon...or a scone. His fig jam is supple, concentrated and deep, made from a mix of Turkish and Black Mission figs from old trees in Napa. It's rich and slightly nutty, with a subtle touch of spice that grounds the fruit without overpowering it.
Blue Chair Fruit Company
Blue Chair's boysenberry jam is deep and winey but still manages a freshness that gets your mouth watering. Their tasty spiced bourbon tomato conserve straddles the sweet/savory boundary, bringing together tomatoes with the deep flavors of brown sugar, bourbon, candied ginger, candied orange, and raisins. Serve with good cheddar or aged gouda, or as an accompaniment to ham or pork chops.
Lemon Bird Preserves
Within Lemon Bird's calligraphy-labeled jars are unexpected concoctions that bring together herbs, fruit, and spice in usual ways. The sweet tomato with vanilla bean may be a little too bizarre for some, but the satsuma plum with Sichuan pepper is lovely, dreamy stuff, somehow evoking earthy, savory black tea even though it only contains fruit, sugar, and the peppercorns. The luscious apricot with sage honey and whole pistachios is dessert enough on its own, but would be incredible with cheese or unsweetened whipped cream.
Katz Napa Valley
Katz makes lovely apricot preserves and a nice strawberry jam, but the standout of the bunch is the Laroda plum preserves, a smooth spreader with lush, deep flavor balanced by a bright tang. The fruit—a Japanese variety similar to Santa Rosa plums—is sourced from nearby Erickson Ranch and offers exceptional richness. Sold in big 16-ounce jars, this would make a fantastic gift alongside a basket of homemade biscuits.
Nervous Nellie's Jams and Jellies
The name is cute enough to pique our interest, but it's the extra-rich raspberry jam that made us fall for this coastal Maine company. It's pure and simple, an old-fashioned pleasure. This is the jam we'd choose for spreading on a shortbread crust or serving on graham crackers as an afternoon snack.
Quince & Apple
We have a weakness for all things tart cherry, and Quince & Apple's tart cherry and white tea preserve hits all the right buttons. Tangy tart cherries from Door County, Wisconsin float in a delicate jelly made with white tea and jasmine. It's not overly floral, just delicate and popping with fresh fruit. Their apple and cranberry preserve is holiday-ready: it has a nice tart flavor and hint of bitterness from the cranberries, plus a touch of wintry spice from a combination of ginger, orange zest, and bay leaves.
Note: All jams and preserves provided as tasting samples for review consideration with the exception of SQIRL.