Sunday, September 8, 2013

Wild Grape Juice

The wild grapes in my area are ripe! When I was a kid, our family picked wild grapes and my mom made juice and jelly. Now I do the same thing for my kids. If you've got access to wild grapes too, and you aren't sure what to do next, read on!

From picking wild grapes to jelly on toast is a time-consuming process that I usually complete over the course of a couple of days, so first I'll show you how to make grape juice.
I'm lucky to have a few different places to pick grapes in late summer.
If you have never foraged for wild grapes before, I urge you to do some research first, or enlist an experienced plant person for help. This counts as my disclaimer: Please know what you are doing before eating anything you harvest from the wild! Many wild edibles closely resemble poisonous plants, so you must be careful.

Okay! Pick your grapes. You can break the clusters off pretty easily by hand, but a plant clipper is really useful. You'll need ice cream pails, bowls, or buckets to collect the fruit.
Because the grapes grow on vines, you will often find them climbing higher than you can comfortably reach from the ground.
Some of the grapes at my parents' house this year had climbed a pine tree and were unreachable! We reached others with a ladder and even parked my dad's pickup truck under one bunch and stood in the bed to gather grapes.

How many should you collect? To make one batch of grape jelly, you need two cups of juice. Your yield will vary, but my three ice cream pails of grapes (on stems as shown below) made almost two quarts of juice. Count on gathering at least an ice cream pail full for one batch (about 7 pints) of jelly.

A warning for spider haters: When you bring your grapes home, you will also bring spiders. I've tried everything to avoid this, but they always go into the buckets unseen and only seem to appear in my kitchen.

I don't have a picture, because I deal with them immediately. They are spiders.

Wash the grapes. I put them in a colander and rinse over the sink. Eradicate spiders as needed.
Next comes the tedious job of plucking the grapes off the stems. If you employ minions or have children, I suggest insisting that they help at this time.
If any of the wee fingers attached to your helpers begin to swell and itch, take a break to administer antihistamines.

Continue to pluck grapes by yourself while your sensitive-skinned minions and/or children recover.

A word about staining: Grapes. More words about staining: Grapes stain! Wear a shirt you don't mind sprinkled with purple spots, or an apron. You may want to lay down plastic bags to protect a precious counter top. Any wash cloths or towels you use will be stained. I have kitchen things that are dedicated to this kind of work, so I don't worry too much about stain removal. 

Where you must remove stains, hydrogen peroxide is excellent. All the purple marks on my almost-white counters disappeared after a spritz of peroxide and few minutes to sit. Even juice that had sat for an hour or so came away without a trace.

Next put the plucked grapes into a pot and just barely cover them with water. I don't have exact numbers here. For my first batch of juice, I started with three ice cream pails heaping full, which when removed from the stems yielded approximately four pounds of grapes.
So pretty!
Put the pot on medium heat and bring to a simmer. 

As the water heats up, you will notice that the water becomes dark purple (that's grape juice!) and the grapes swell. The smell is incredible!

The pink foam you see floating on top of the pot is just air bubbles. It doesn't hurt your finished product at all, but you may skim it away if it bothers you. 
Let it cook about 15 minutes, until the grapes are glossy and bursting, and the juice is a tad thicker and super dark.

You'll see little seeds floating around. That's okay! We deal with them next.

I have this cool vintage fruit mill, and it works perfectly for removing the skins and seeds of the grapes. (WearEver number 8, if you're curious.) This is what it looks like all taken apart:
 Set up a fruit mill (or a fine mesh sieve; see photos below) over a large bowl or pitcher. I love the spaceship legs!
Scoop the cooked grapes into the mill. It's okay if they're still hot.

I didn't measure here. I just do a few ladles full at a time. 

Then swirl the wooden plunger around to crush the grapes. I like to mash them pretty well so as to use as much of the fruit as I can. That means that I'm really making more of a juice-and-pulp mixture than true juice. Therefore, this mixture makes more of a jam than a true jelly. You may study the difference at your leisure.
The juice and pulp will run down into the bowl.
I don't know if this is part of the design of the fruit mill, but when you're done stirring, the seeds and skins magically cling to the wooden plunger! It makes it so easy to quickly scrape that stuff into the compost bowl and keep making juice.

Now if you don't have a fancy device like this, use a fine-mesh sieve over a bowl or pitcher:

The back of a large spoon works well for crushing here.
Either way, you'll end up with gorgeous, intensely-flavored, dark purple wild grape juice. 

Full of antioxidants, this juice is nutritious, too. You could drink it now, but it's so tart that you'll probably want a sweetener. I use plain sugar and sometimes I add water to thin it a little.

At this point, you can freeze the juice, can it so it's shelf stable, or stay tuned for Wild Grape Juice and Jelly: Tutorial Part Two to use the juice for making jelly!