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:
*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:
*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.
Yield: Approximately 6 1/2 pints
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 ♠