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ingredients and techniques

Canning and Preserving 101

meg's picture

John and I are stalwart and undeterred cooks. Generally speaking, provided a recipe or project doesn't require expensive ingredients or equipment, we're game.

It's not that we don't have failures in the kitchen. We're just over it. There's nothing to be afraid of, or at least nothing so fearsome it should keep you from trying something you want to try.

I feel this way especially towards jams and preserves. When I embarked upon my first canning project, I remember doing a lot of reading and thinking that it was all a bit much. There was so much information, so many steps, and a lot of frightening DO NOT STRAY FROM THIS RECIPE advice that my enthusiasm morphed into apprehension.

This is a real shame, because now that I've been at it for a few years, I know there's nothing to be scared of. It's really all about procedure. This is a simple list of tips for those of you who may be having the same reaction to preserving that I had. Obviously, individual recipes vary, so read through the one you're following several times before you get started. Also bear in mind that this post is geared towards making jams, jellies, preserves, and conserves. Pickles, relishes, and acidified foods are very dependent upon acidity to be shelf-stable. Never decrease the amount of vinegar or citrus juice called for in these recipes.

Have the right tools on hand.

This sounds obvious, but you'd be amazed at how many batches of jam I've started only to reach the final stage and realize that I didn't have the right tool for the job. Each time, I have overcome my own unpreparedness, but I would have been so much better off if I'd had everything where it needed to be.

For basic canning, you will need a large pot for sterilizing jars and processing in a water bath. You will also need a circular rack that fits snugly inside this big pot. You can use a dish towel to keep your jars off the bottom of the pot, but a rack is really ideal. 

You will also need a jar lifter and a canning funnel. These two items are really necessary and inexpensive. The jar lifter will enable you to submerge your jars safely in boiling water and to take them out. Do not try to use tongs for this. Trust me. A canning funnel simply makes life easier when it comes to filling your jars. Ever tried to smash a chunky berry jam through a regular, narrow-necked funnel? Not a good time.

Also be sure to have enough lids and rings. Jars and rings can be reused time and time again, but lids cannot. Always start out with new lids when embarking on a canning project.

Prepare your mise en place.

Mise en place is the French term for having things laid out and organized. Wash your jars, lids, and rings and sterilize them in boiling water, or wash them and stick them in a 225F oven to sterilize and keep them hot. 

Have your big processing pot full of water and ready to go. I like to set up a canning station next to the stove so everything is in the right place when the action happens. I lay down a kitchen towel and have my funnel, jar lifter, rings, and lids on it. I also keep a wet cloth or paper towel on hand for wiping off the edges of the jars after filling them.

This towel setup is nice for two reasons. You can fill jars without getting jam all over your kitchen counter, and the towel soaks up any hot water lingering on your jars and lids. When you're done, just toss the towel into the laundry hamper.

Expect the unexpected.

Canning is done by the book, but I've found that given recipe yields are approximations. This is due to the natural variability in fruits and vegetables (as a for-instance, fruit picked shortly after a lot of rain will contain more water, so you may have to boil it down longer to get it to reach the jelling point, resulting in lower final yields). This is why I always prepare more jars than I think I'll need. Usually, the yield plus two is what I aim for. So if a recipe says it makes five 1/2-pint jars, go ahead and have seven 1/2-pint jars ready. It's always better to have more jars ready than needed.

Also bear in mind that depending on certain variables--the water content of your fruit, humidity, etc.--the process may be relatively quick or take much longer than expected. Many canning recipes don't even give estimates for how long it will take to reach the jelling point because this is so variable.

Finally, there is always the possibility that your jam or jelly will not set or that it may set a little too well. Do not despair. Runny jam is fabulous on ice cream or yogurt, on desserts (think cheesecake or a trifle or between cake layers), or even in cocktails. Very gelatinous jam (this happens if you use too much pectin) can be removed from its jar in one piece (à la the traditional canned cranberry sauce) and sliced to accompany a cheese plate. Or simply heat it gently in a pan with a little water before serving to get it to loosen up.

Don't rush the process.

I find that it's best to just set aside an afternoon to make a batch of jam rather than trying to shoehorn it into your busy schedule. Canning is labor intensive and time consuming, and the last thing you want to do is rush the process because you have other things scheduled and your jam just won't seem to set. You'll be doing yourself a serious solid by allowing for plenty of time.

If you're still feeling a bit befuddled, check out the very detailed and helpful page on canning queries on the Food In Jars website. Don't hesitate to comment on this post if you have a question.

Other articles you might enjoy: Canning Tomatoes, Pickled Okra, Red Red Strawberry Jam

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