I have decided to write a spring and summer series on canning, preserving, and pickling. I figure as I absorb all of this wonderfully useful information from sources ranging from family, friends, reference guides, the Internet, and experience, the least I can do is pass along the condensed version for all of my faithful readers.
For many of us, there are treasured memories of preserving and canning. When time grows short in our everyday lives not everyone has the time to grow a garden, tend to herbs, and “put up” the bounty of the seasons harvests. I feel it’s high time my generation and those interested, learn a bit about a dying art that can bring a wholesome beauty back to our tables.
My grandmother started my canning and preserving education at an early age, but over the years I had forgotten much of what I’d learned. I also wasn’t as careful about writing down family recipes as I am today. Some of my fondest memories revolve around the beautiful jars of jams and preserves in my grandmother’s pantry, the smell of cooking berries, or the bright warm flavor of her pepper jelly.
Last year, I made what I thought was both bell pepper, hot pepper jelly and Muscadine, hot pepper jelly. I was down for five weeks with repairs to the truck I was driving, and I get antsy without much to do. I have always wanted to have the time to learn how to can and preserve. Though I didn’t have a ton of disposable income at the time, I set forth on my journey to learn all that I could.
Now, after some research and some lovely reference guides, I’ve learned that what I made was jam, not jelly. Jam is chopped, crushed, and whole bits of fruits (and in this case vegetables) cooked with sugar, and sometimes added pectin. Jelly is jelled fruit or vegetable juice with added sugar and pectin if needed.
With basic fruit spreads and jellies, the key is the balance of the basic ingredients. Without writing a book, I’ll share the five key elements I have learned along my journey.
The first key element in any kind of canning is the freshness of your product. Your jam, jelly, preserves, etc. are only going to be as amazing as your produce, so hunting for the best seasonal produce available is vitally important.
The best source is obviously your garden or trees, but a good second is your local farmers’ market, or organic market. Here you’ll be able to taste before you buy and ask the growers or helpful sales staff when different varieties will be available. Some will even sell off-grade fruits (small fruits or misshapen) for a reduced price.
I’ve found that underripe fruit has more acid and pectin, essential for making fruit spreads, but that they don’t impart much flavor. Overripe fruit should be avoided because as the fruit ages it loses pectin content. The best preserves come from a good mix of both ripe and underripe fruits to get that delicate balance of flavor, pectin, and acid necessary to success.
The second element is pectin. Pectin is a natural carbohydrate that’s concentrated in the skin and seeds of fruit. Pectin levels vary tremendously in different types of fruit, and in a single fruit depending on the ripeness. Apples and citrus have the highest pectin content and are the base for many packaged pectins.
This is where natural vs. packaged differ; packaged pectins require less cooking, ensuring a fresher flavor, but take a generous amount of sugar or sweetener to jell. Natural pectin require a longer cooking process, but while it does require a good bit of sugar or sweetener, it’s still less that the commercially packaged brands.
Your best bet is to always follow the either the package instructions or the recipe to the letter, while learning to ensure success. You’ll get confident enough to experiment later. This is a good time to remind you to work in small batches, that way if you make a mistake, you can either try to fix said mistake or if it’s a lost cause, you’re not out a huge amount of produce and supplies. I recommend starting with jams as a beginner. They’re not terribly complicated and if it doesn’t process and seal correctly, you can store them in the fridge for up to a month.
The third key is sweetener. All fruits contain sugar, but extra sugar is vital to preserving. It helps the natural pectin do its job. Refined white sugar is the most common because it doesn’t add much flavor and won’t overpower the fruit. You can substitute organic sugar, evaporated cane juice, or experiment with light agave syrup. There are even recipes that call for brown sugar to achieve a deeper caramel flavor. I generally stay away from honey, maple, or artificial sweeteners for the sugar in recipes, as these flavors tend to overpower the fruit.
The fourth integral key is acid. The delicate balance between acid and sugar ensures that you’ll get not only a good gel set, but a great flavor too. Lemon juice is the most common, use Lisbon or Eureka lemons. They have higher acid levels than Meyer lemons, and are the most common.
As a general rule of thumb, ¼ cup lemon juice per pound of fruit works well, but don’t forget to taste your product and adjust as you see fit. As you move along in your canning journey, you can try citric acid or a mix of citric and ascorbic acid available in most natural foods stores in a crystallized form.
Last but not least, the fifth element is flavorings. Fresh herbs and flavorful spices can add a layered depth to your spreads. Be careful not to overpower the star of the show, by adding too much. I had some lovely apricot lavender jam that had just a hint of lavender flavor. It was amazing with fresh goat’s milk cream cheese, on crackers.
On to tools of the trade. While I started my experimentation the way home canners did back in the day, with nothing but long tongs, Mason jars, a huge stockpot, and kitchen toweling in the bottom, I DO NOT recommend this for everyone. I have the burn marks from splashed boiling water to prove it.
Most big stores like Lowe’s, Walmart, and Target have the essential start-up kit for around $20. Included are a stockpot with wire jar rack, a funnel for filling jars, a magnetic wand for jar lids, a jar lifter, and a spatula. Home canning jars will be found by the case, and come in ½ pint, pint, and quart sizes. You always want to make sure that your jars have enough space between them to circulate the water evenly, and that they can be covered with at least two inches of water over the tops.
Depending on your skill set and what you’re making, other useful tools include:
- Jelly bag suspended on a simple metal frame
- Blender, food processor, or food mill
- Citrus juicer or reamer
- Citrus zester
- Clean Kitchen towels
- Cutting board
- Sharp knives in varying sizes
- Food scale
- Sturdy ladle, non- reactive
- Kitchen timer
- Larger colander or sieve (like a China cap)
- Long handled spoons, slotted and solid
- Measuring cups and spoons
- Mixing bowls
- Pans, different sizes
- Pot holders, oven mitts, or heat proof gloves
- Sturdy rubber gloves (For handling hot jars, and giving the lids a good twist.)
*Please remember when using metal while canning, to only use non-reactive metals. This means stay away from metals like aluminum as they can react with the acids in the fruit.
Also, a few helpful websites for step-by-step instruction on how to prepare to can, i.e. sterilization of jars, food handling safety, and great recipes, are:
- Better Homes and Gardens http://www.bhg.com/recipes/how-to/preserving-canning/
- Food Network http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes-and-cooking/how-to-preserve/pictures/index.html
- Ball Jars http://www.freshpreserving.com/home.aspx
*Also, some of the best information I’ve given you here has come from a book I like to call my bible, The Art of Preserving, by Rick Field, Lisa Atwood, and Rebecca Courchesne. It’s available for purchase on Amazon.com and similar sites for around $20. It has invaluable tips, great recipes, and is a perfect reference guide for beginners and advanced canners alike.
Gypsy Gourmet’s Hot Pepper Jam Yield: Approximately 6 1/2 pints
8 cups minced bell peppers (green is a must, but I like red as well for color contrast, food processor works well on pulse)
6 jalapenos stems removed, but seeds and ribs included, pulsed with a food processor or minced fine
3 cups apple cider vinegar
2 boxes Sure Jell pectin, pink box no-sugar
Start by prepping the vegetables. I made it quick by using my food processor on pulse until the peppers resembled a relish consistency. Set aside. Gather the sugar, vinegar, and pectin, and set that next to the vegetables. Place three small plates in the freezer to test your jam when you’re ready to can. It will gel quickly and jiggle a little when placed on the plate.
The trick here is to sterilize all the tools you will use before you begin the jam. I was new at this and sterilized the tongs, ladle, jars, and when it came to the lids, I put them in a sauce pot and covered them with boiling water; letting them simmer until just before I was ready for them. I also made sure to never touch them with my naked fingers. The magnetic lid wand is a handy-dandy tool for that.
Fill the canning stock pot two-thirds full of water (so that when the jars are added for processing there’s at least two inches above each jar), and have your tea kettle on simmer in case you need to add additional water. On medium-high heat, let this come to a gentle boil.
In a heavy-bottomed, non- reactive, canning stock pot, add peppers, vinegar, and sugar. Good tip, add one teaspoon butter to reduce foaming. Bring to a gentle boil stirring as you go. Once at a boil add the two packets of pectin, stirring well, and boil for an additional minute. Remove pot from heat. This will be a thin mixture, but don’t worry. The pectin will help it gel as it sits. Check for consistency on a frozen plate. Line up the sterilized jars and ladle mixture into each, leaving ¼ inch headroom for each jar. Wearing your sturdy rubber gloves, wipe the rim of each jar clean with a clean kitchen towel, removing lids and screw-tops, one at a time, and assemble jars. Give each screw top a final twist to ensure seal and line up for processing.
Add the jars to the rack and carefully lower into boiling water. Allow to process for ten minutes at a rolling boil. Carefully remove jars and set aside on a kitchen towel to cool for at least eight hours to overnight. Once cool, check the jars for proper sealing by pressing a finger in the center of each top. If there is no movement, voila! Jam perfected by you, the home cook. This jam is suitable for Christmas gifts, hostess gifts, and a nice reminder of warmer weather for you and your family all winter long.
*Side note you can use a fancy jagged edge scissors to cut a 4×4 inch square of fabric to add a special touch to your homemade jams. Simply unscrew the top place the cut fabric over the lid, and replace and screw the top back on. Labels are available in most office supply stores and can be easily hand printed or customized however you like.
Now you’re informed and ready to begin! If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a bunch, mise en place, or everything in its place. The better you’re prepared with ingredients and tools at your fingertips, the easier any cooking process will be.
Have fun with it! Try out my bell pepper, hot pepper jam recipe, as it’s easy and delicious on everything from pork to cream cheese. Until our next segment, eat well, laugh often, be free, and be you. ♠
Gypsy Gourmet ♠