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The first time you try the berries of an Oregon grape (the plant that bears our state flower), you’ll probably be a bit disappointed. They are sour, seedy, and not at all what anyone would call delicious. But, Oregon grape berries have a secret, hidden from all the people who see them as a landscape shrub and nothing else. Oregon grape berries are, in fact, delicious when made into jam or jelly! Oregon grape jelly is complex, fruity and a real treat.
Go out and gather some Oregon grape berries—they’re ripe right now. They’re a snap to pick, growing in clusters on easy-to-reach parts of the bushes. However, the plants are prickly, so bring gloves. They’re tough berries — unlike blackberries and raspberries that fall apart in your hands — so Oregon grape berries can be manhandled. Don’t worry about taking them off the stems, just yank the clusters off the bushes. Were it not for the spikey leaves, these might well be one of the easiest berries to pick in quantity.
Once you have the berries, it’s time to make jelly.
Wash your Oregon grape berries thoroughly. I like to fill a bucket half-full of berries and then top off the container with water. After letting the bucket sit for five or ten minutes, I find that things that creep, like spiders, either float or exit via the top, and things that crawl, like caterpillars, sink to the bottom. (I have nothing against these creatures, they are perfect in their own milieu, but I don’t want them in my jelly.) I skim anything unwanted off the top, lift out the berries, and leave the debris in the bottom of the bucket.
Put the berries into a sauce pan or a stock pot. Add just enough water to cover them and bring to a boil, boiling for ten minutes. As they boil, mash the berries to extract the juice. Then strain them for at least an hour.
Return the juice to the pot and add sugar. The ratio of sugar to berry juice should be 2:3. After you combine the sugar and juice, it’s time to boil the mixture into a jelly. Oregon grape has enough natural pectin to jell by itself, no need to add any extra. Before you do, however, put two metal spoons in ice water. We’ll use them to test the doneness of the jelly.
Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring occasionally, and turn it down to a simmer. Be careful. Though a watched pot never boils, an unwatched one always boils over, leaving a mess that will never come clean.
After the mixture has been boiling for 20 minutes, begin testing. Pull one of the spoons out of the ice water and dry it. Dribble 4 to 5 drops of the jelly mixture into it. Wait a couple of minutes until the spoon has warmed to room temperature. Check the consistency of the jelly in the spoon. If it’s good, you’re ready to pour it into jars. After only 20 minutes, though, it probably won’t be ready. Put the spoon back into the glass and test again every 10 minutes, until you get the proper jell.
Next, carefully ladle the jelly into sterilized jars, wiping any drops off the edges before closing the lid. After tightly closing the jars, lower them into a pot of rapidly boiling water for ten minutes. Carefully remove them. They are very hot, so be careful. Place them on a mat or cutting board on the counter to cool. As they cool, you’ll hear loud popping sounds. That’s the jars sealing.
The next day, your jelly should be ready. Examine every jar to make certain they have all sealed and the jelly in each has jelled and not just made syrup (though that’s a delicious option, too). Any jars that have not sealed or jelled can be opened and reboiled.