Sealing in Summer

strawberries

I’ve really gotten in to canning recently. I tried, for the first time in my life (well, the first time alone; I used to help my mom when I was little) last fall when I made pumpkin butter, thinking I would bring it to the States as gifts. Turned out, I didn’t seal it properly, and by the time we made it to Montreal with the jars, it had fermented. Ugh. Not a nice gift. I knew I should be able to figure this out. I didn’t have, or want to have, a bunch of fancy canning supplies. People have been preserving food this way for centuries. My Great Aunt Pearl (may she rest in peace) was some kind of canning wizard (I guess “witch” is gender-appropriate, but that has a connotation I don’t want to associate with her). She lived on a Christmas tree farm in rural North Carolina, and I remember the root cellar under house being full, always, of shelves and shelves of home-canned goodies. I’ve started with the obvious—if maybe not the easiest—canned product: fruit jam. She canned everything, sweet and savory, cooked and uncooked, fruit and vegetable alike. As I get more comfortable, I may branch out into the savory world, but for now, I’m enjoying mastering the preservation of fruit preserves.

Balancing the Sweet

You know that feeling when you bite into something too sweet, and it kind of makes your gums pull back from your teeth and your tongue sort of fills your whole mouth and your eyes water a bit? That’s not really a nice feeling. What we’re talking about doing here is taking a naturally sweet item (fruit) and then adding more sweetness to it (sugar). You have to be careful you don’t overdo it. For example, I would never add brown sugar to summer jams; brown sugar is a mix of sugar and molasses…talk about too much sweet. As a rule, I NEVER use high fructose corn syrup in anything. The bottom line is you still want to be able to taste the fruit; everything you add should serve to enhance, not mask, the natural taste. I’m finding recently that I’m really getting great results by adding an unusual savory ingredient to my jam mixes. I’ve used different vinegars, ginger, and cardamom with fantastic outcomes. Try adding basil to peach jam. Splash some red wine in with your blackberries. Add the sourness of rhubarb in with your raspberries to pull out their sweetness.

The Gelling of Jelly

First of all, you can choose to add no additional gelling agent when you make your jam. Fruit has naturally-occurring pectin. You may notice that most jam recipes call for some lemon juice. This is because citrus contains large amounts of pectin, and by using the right combinations of fruit with citrus juice, you can coax out a decent amount of natural pectin to help your jam solidify. Still, I’ve found that without adding extra pectin, my jam never reaches a gelled-enough consistency for my liking, so I use a 2-1 ratio 25 gram sachet of powdered pectin, which requires twice the amount of fruit to sugar. Pectin and gelatin can both be used to make jam, but since pectin is a natural plant byproduct (whereas gelatin is derived from animal feet and bones,) it makes more sense to include it in a plant dish like jam. Also, pectin requires sugar to activate, so by using it in the right amounts with your fruit and sugar, you will get a more natural congealing effect. Gelatin will make your jam too gelled, in my opinion, kind of like the texture of a rubber band. If you want to get fancy with some molecular gastronomy, you can also use xantham gum to increase the viscosity of your jam. I’ve never worked with it, so I can’t give you any tips on that one.

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What’s That Fancy Contraption?

Oh, it’s a canning kit. Oh no, I don’t have one of those! Shit, this will be a disaster! Quick, I need special tongs, funnels, pressure cookers, wire racks, thermometers, scrapers, rubber seals, strainers, eye of newt, hair from the chin of a yeti…
NOT! Other than the glass jam jars themselves, I have not one special tool that is so canning-specific that I didn’t already have it on hand. Here’s a list of the daunting items you must have to make jam the way I do: a big metal pot with a lid, a big metal pot without a lid, a pair of regular tongs, an oven mitt, a mixing bowl, a colander, a rubber spatula, a knife, a cutting board, measuring cups/spoons, and a kitchen scale. Seriously, that’s all my tools for the entire process (plus the glass jam jars, I already said that.) I guess I have some little, old, Southern-lady resourcefulness tucked into my genes somewhere, because once I got the hang of it, I haven’t had a single problem with sealing my cans. You don’t need fancy equipment!
It can be a bit nerve-wracking, because if the jars don’t seal properly, it’s sort of a wasted effort (although you can always put unsealed jars in the freezer, and thaw them when you know you’ll finish the contents with two weeks.) The biggest consideration that was new to me in this process was my altitude. You do need to vary your boiling time according to how high above sea level you are located. Here’s a good rule of thumb: start with a minimum processing time of 10 minutes in high boiling water, and add five minutes for every 1,000 feet above sea level you are. Since Geneva is at 1,200 feet, I boil my jars for 15 minutes.

My Recipes

You’ll notice a similarity in the amounts of all the following recipes. I’ve found a pectin brand that is easy for me to use, and it requires a set and specific weight ratio, as mentioned above. You may find a product that requires a different ratio than mine. Any of these recipes can be easily adapted, and aside from the fruit-to-sugar-to-pectin amounts, all other ingredient amounts can be tweaked to taste. Also, note that the fruit should be weighed in its prepared state, meaning that you should have 1 kilogram of peaches after you’ve peeled and pitted them, so buy a bit more than you think you need. An extra peach lying around won’t go to waste. 😉

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Strawberry Jam
Yield: 4 8 oz. (250 ml) jars

900 grams strawberries, leaves removed, rinsed, halved or quartered (depending on size)
100 grams cherries, stemmed, rinsed, pitted, and chopped
500 grams white granulated sugar
2 tsp. ground cardamom
1 whole vanilla bean, split
⅓ cup lemon juice
1 sachet pectin
¼ cup balsamic vinegar

In a large bowl…they always say “non-reactive bowl” which means glass, stainless steel, plastic, or ceramic, not a weird reactive metal like copper, but seriously, who even has copper mixing bowls anymore?! This isn’t 1565. Anyway, in a large normal bowl, mix your chopped fruit with the sugar and ground cardamom. Gently combine with a rubber spatula and leave to sit at room temperature for two to four hours, depending on how much time you can spare and if you have anything exciting to do while you wait.
When you can’t think of anything else to do to pass the time, dump the fruit mixture into a large pot on the stove set over medium-medium high heat (I put mine at six out of nine). Add your split vanilla bean (I even cut mine into two pieces; I felt like it would infuse more surface area that way) to the pot and stir occasionally, until just coming to a boil. MEANWHILE…
Have a large pot of water with a lid boiling on the back of your stove. Put your clean jars and lids into the water and leave them simmering in the pot while your jam cooks.image
Now that your jam has come to a rolling boil, remove the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds and add them back to the jam. You can toss the bean husk. Now add the lemon juice and pectin, stirring well to combine, and let boil for another three minutes. Stir regularly. After three minutes, add your balsamic vinegar, and let that cook down for just another minute or two. Turn off the heat under your jam, but keep it on under your water pot.
With your tongs and probably an oven mitt, because HOLY LORD THAT’S SOME FIERCELY BOILING WATER, carefully remove your hot glass jars and lids and line them up next to your pot of jam. Using a measuring cup for easier distribution, pour the hot jam into each of the jars. With a damp paper towel, wipe the rims of all the jam jars before screwing on the lids (this is important to insure a good seal; you must make sure there is no jam residue between the rims and the lids.) Screw the lids on tightly (c’mon, tighter than that!) and then very gently, using the tongs and oven mitt again, lower the filled jars back into their Jacuzzi. Because the jars are now filled with jam instead of water, you may have to scoop out a bit of the displaced water to make sure the pot doesn’t overflow. Do not put a lid on the pot, but keep it at a fairly high boil. Figure out your boiling time from the altitude equation I gave you earlier.
Once the jars have finished processing in the water bath, turn off the heat, carefully remove the hot jars (using?…tongs and oven mitt, good job) and set them on a towel in the corner of your counter. Now you leave them alone for 24 hours. You will (should) hear popping sounds intermittently; this is exactly what they need to do. The pop is the final stage of the seal settling into place. If you are away and don’t hear it, you can check that they’ve popped by pressing on the center of the lid and seeing if there’s any give. If they are taut, it means they’ve sealed. If they don’t pop, you can try to re-process them in a new water bath, maybe for a few minutes longer. If that still doesn’t work, then they become freezer jam instead!

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Raspberry Jam
Yield: 4 8 oz. (250 ml) jars

1.1 kilograms raspberries, rinsed gently*
500 grams white granulated sugar
⅓ cup lemon juice
1 sachet pectin
¼ cup sweet wine vinegar

The rest of the recipes play out very similar to the first. Mix your raspberries with the sugar, and let sit for a few hours. Bring it to a boil, add the lemon juice and pectin, boil some more. Finish with the sweet wine vinegar, boiling a few extra minutes at the end. Pour the hot jam into the prepared hot jars, seal them, and process them for the correct amount of time. Pull them out and let them pop.

peach jam

Peach Jam
Yield: 4 8 oz. (250 ml) jars

1 kilogram peaches, rinsed, peeled, pitted, and diced
500 grams white granulated sugar
1 heaping Tbsp. grated candied ginger
⅓ cup lemon juice
1 sachet pectin

You still need help at this point? Here, we mix peaches, sugar, and grated candied ginger, and let that stand for a while. Bring to a boil, add juice, add pectin, boil for three minutes. Ladle into hot jars, close them up, boil the jars. Remove the jars from the water, wait for the music.

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Blackberry Jam
Yield: 4 8 oz. (250 ml) jars

1.1 kilograms blackberries, rinsed gently*
500 grams white granulated sugar
2 tsp. ground cardamom
⅓ cup lemon juice
1 sachet pectin
¼ cup zinfandel

Mix, sit, boil, add, boil, add, boil, fill, seal, boil, remove, sit. Ta-da. Enjoy!

*I use a bit more than 1 kg of these more fragile berries because they will fall apart when cooking and shrink in volume slightly.

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One response to “Sealing in Summer

  1. Pingback: Figgy Gooding | Bohemeander·

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