Monday, July 26, 2010

Oregon-grape Preserves

The state flower of Oregon looks like holly and grows throughout much of Cascadia. Anyone who spends time in the woods from Northern California up through British Columbia is familiar with its prickly green leaves, bright yellow blooms, and the tart berries that form in clusters in summer. It's not exactly trail food. Pick a few berries on a hike and you'll experience a lip-puckering flavor that gives new meaning to the term sour grapes. But tame it with sugar and you've got a whole realm of culinary possibilities.

Oregon-grape is not a true grape. Though its dark blue berries hang in grape-like clusters, that's where the comparison ends. Members of the family Berberidaceae, the various species of Oregon-grape are also known for their medicinal qualities. The two species commonly encountered in the forests of the Pacific Northwest are the tall Oregon-grape (Mahonia aquifolium) and low Oregon-grape (Mahonia nervosa). Some botanists consider them part of the Berberis genus, which includes a variety of species commonly called barberries and which are renowned for containing berberine, a compound with cancer-fighting and anti-depressant properties, among other medicinal benefits.

To make Oregon-grape preserves wear gloves and harvest a good quantity of the berries. I picked five pounds or so from a patch behind my daughter's pre-K, right in the center of Seattle. Use containers and utensils that won't stain. Wash the berries and remove any large stems or other leafy debris. Put the berries in a pot and add just enough water so that the berries are barely covered. Boil for 15 minutes until soft, then run through a food-mill in batches. The food-mill should separate the juice and pulp from the skins and seeds.

Now you have a choice: You can further strain the juice from the pulp by using cheese cloth or a fine mesh strainer, or you can leave the pulp in to make a preserve more aptly called a spread. Next measure your juice. I had a scant 5 cups. In general you'll want to add an equivalent amount of sugar, give or take depending on your taste. Try mixing in other fruits or berries, too, or even ginger. Bring your juice to a boil and stir in the optional lemon juice and pectin. I used about half of a 1.75 oz package. Next add the sugar, not all at once but slowly, tasting as you go until reaching your preferred balance between tart and sweet. Bring to a boil again, stirring thoroughly, and cook for a few minutes, then remove from heat and immediately ladle into sterilized jars. Process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

My measurements:

5 cups Oregon-grape juice and pulp
4 1/2 cups sugar
juice of 1 lemon (optional)
1 oz pectin

Yield: 3 1/2 pints

While Oregon-grape preserves look and taste a lot like your standard grape jelly, the flavor is more complex and full-bodied, with a sweetness that will please children and a tart edge suitable to a grown-up palate. I think it makes a terrific PB&J yet a dollop is equally at home on a fancy cheese plate.


Maria said...

I was with you until the last paragraph. I made a batch of this last year, and found it less "tart edge" and more "weirdly bitter". Works with lamb, but not on toast.

Is this a procedure you've refined over the years, or just a matter of taste? I'm wondering if my food mill didn't let in too many skins.

Garcon de Croissant said...

Your homemade PB&J looks yummy!

Langdon Cook said...

Maria - I would call our spread slightly tart but definitely not "weirdly bitter." Were your berries at peak ripeness? Maybe the food-mill is suspect. Ours did a bang-up job of culling out the seeds and skins. Give it another go this summer.

Garcon - Rudy's organic white, Trader Joe's creamy organic peanut butter, and wild Oregon-grapes from behind my daughter's pre-k. Simple and good!

Kimberley Hasselbrink said...

That's one of the prettiest images of PBJ ever. This recipe might just turn me on to grape jam.

Anonymous said...

Now that you've taken up hunting, you'll be able to see just how well oregon grape jelly goes with venison. Delicious. Also, we use a berry comb to harvest:,2120,33277

and a steam juicer to extract the juice, a little energy intensive, but beautiful clear juice.

Anonymous said...

i've seen oregon grapes around the city, but do you know they aren't using pesticides or just don't care? i'm just wondering how paranoid i need to be about foraging for things around the city

Jessa said...

We had some Oregon grapes growing in the backyard this year, but it seems the chickens are less willing to wait for full ripeness than I am. Every little berry has been expertly plucked right off the stem.

Guess that just means I'll have to keep an eye out for them elsewhere (and fence them off next year).

In the meantime, I plan on exploring some recipes with wild (actual)grapes which grow abundantly in some of my favorite late-summer camping areas. I'd assume a similar jelly can be made?

Heather said...

I've been in a canning way these days, and was actually thinking about Oregon grape jelly. Sour grapes, indeed - but removing the skins does help.

Farmboots said...

Thank you for this. Growing up my Mum wasn't sure they were edible so she told us, "Don't eat those." I recently learned my jam-making mother was missing out on tons of free berries. Oregon-grape is everywhere I turn where I live.

We will be picking this summer and trying out the jam recipe. Couple questions. I have read that they are at peak ripeness when they get the dusty look on them. Is this true?

Also, I was a bit confused about adding the sugar. You mention adding equal amounts and later say to add the sugar a bit at a time. I am assuming you do add about equal amounts, but not when you first mention it, but rather add slowly later. Yes? Thank you for the recipe. Excited to try it.

Have you tried making pancake syrup out of the berries?

Anonymous said...

I make Oregon Grape jelly every year, and I use my steamer pot..I just throw the grapes in, no crushing or anything..they steam for about 3 hours and the juice comes out clear, skin and seed free and not bitter at all...the pot I have has been a godsend this year it is called the Mehu-Liisa Steamer/Juicer from Lee Valley..made in Findland. I also make syrup as well from the juice... cheers from BC

Anonymous said...

We picked enough grapes to make 11 1/2 cups and I added 10 ounces of sweetened raspberries and the one for one cup of sugar, it was superb!! Thanks for a great recipe.

Emily's Farm- Our little slice of chaos said...


I was wondering if you have ever made juice from the Oregon grapes? I was going to attempt it this year after reading about all the benefits from this plant; however I didn't want to add any sugar. Do you think this would be safe enough to do as I cannot find any recipe's online for just juice.

Cheers from BC

Sarah said...

Gregory Tilford mentions Oregon Grape jelly in his book, so I had to give it a try. It really makes a great-tasting jelly, reminiscent of concord grape juice!
Just a note, though: maggots are sometimes in the Oregon Grapes, so pour a salt water mix over them to draw the critters out. 'Works wonders!

Langdon Cook said...

Ashley - I've only made jams & jellies with it, though I don't see why you couldn't use it for juice. I'd probably mix with with some sweeter berries or fruits.

Claire said...

Thanks for the recipe. :) Just finished making a batch (it's in the canner now, hoping it will jell). Great use for a berry i've always admired but never been able to use.

Unknown said...

I am the Education Manager at Mt. Pisgah Arboretum in Eugene, and I am looking to buy a jar of Oregon Grape Jelly as a good "interactive tour prop." We are teaching kids about the ethnobotany of the area. Do you have, or know anyone who has, a jar I could purchase? Thanks!
Fran Rosenthal

C4Potter said...

My foodmill left bits of seeds that broke when cooking. Weirdly bitter. Turned the jam to a jelly by reheating and straining thru a fine sieve very nice result