Preserving a taste of summer: Saskatoon Berry Jam
Author & Photographer: Jane Fraipont
The summer after my first year at UChicago was spent in Hyde Park, and on numerous occasions, I saw people gathering small, reddish-purple berries from small trees all around campus. The trees they grew on had matte, pale green leaves with a reddish tinge, were oval-shaped and about the size of a soup spoon. They certainly weren’t blueberries, though they bore a slight resemblance, nor were they black currants or lingonberries. They had to be edible or at least have some other use to make them worth picking. Failing to run into anyone I could ask about the berries, I took it upon myself to figure out what this mystery fruit was. After comparing berry color and leaf shape with as many midwestern berry plants as I could find, I eventually decided that the mystery fruits were most likely Saskatoon berries, also known as serviceberries, sarvisberries, or juneberries.
Unassuming and practically invisible for most of the year, Saskatoon berry bushes are found in great abundance throughout Hyde Park. They range from scruffy, six-foot shrubs to graceful and fan-like small trees, bearing small, purple, edible berries in the midsummer. Saskatoon shrub bushes are native to the west and midwest of Canada and the northern United States and grow in a diverse range of habitats. Despite resembling blueberries in appearance, they are closely related to apples and can be recognized by their thin, deep-purple skin and large seeds that both look and taste a bit like almonds. In Chicago, the berries ripen in late June over the course of one to two weeks.
This relatively small window of ripeness, combined with the large number of Saskatoon bushes in Hyde Park, means that a great amount of fruit becomes available all at once. Taking advantage of it requires planning in advance — thankfully, Saskatoons are extremely versatile and it’s not hard to use them up! Like blueberries, Saskatoons are great baked into muffins, pies, or cobblers and can be kept frozen or preserved.
Jam is a lovely way to make these versatile berries last long after their season has ended, as it only takes an hour or so to make and can be stored for up to a year. This past June, I adapted a blueberry jam recipe using low-sugar pectin to preserve berries picked from a bush on my block , increasing the amount of fruit by about 25% in volume to account for Saskatoon berries’ lower water content. In total, about ten cups of berries yielded eight 8oz jars of deep red jam that was thick but not bracingly sweet.
The berries have a delicate flavor, and the reduced sugar prevents them from being wholly overcome by sweetness. The primary flavor of the jam, surprisingly, ended up being that of the seeds. Suspended throughout the jam, the seeds have a light, nutty flavor that gives the jam a soft, but rich taste.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Hyde Park while these berries are ripe, take advantage and pick some for yourself!