Friday, July 12, 2013

we be jammin' - a canning story

If you've read this before, and it sounds different, that's because it is - I've done a little editing. If you've never canned, or you know me, think of this as the family vacation you went on with the best of intentions, everything that went wrong did so the whole think became a running joke and you kept a smile on your face for the duration and now you laugh about it, sometimes hysterically. These are the sorts of things that make for the best stories.
But seriously, if you've never canned, read this and learn from my mistakes if you're serious about doing this. Or read it and laugh at me, schadenfreuda being what it is. ; )

And, in case you were wondering, we put up strawberry, black raspberry, blueberry lime, mango raspberry and peach jams, peach-apricot and mango-peach-apricot butter and grape jelly.

Canning is a bit like riding a bicycle - you do remember what you're doing once you get on, if you haven't done it in a while - the last time I canned was over holiday break the first semester of graduate school. I actually had an abundance of time, I didn't have crippling migraines and I wasn't in a mad panic about starting student teaching. It was also the dead of winter, and I was at my parent's house, and we were very interested in keeping the kitchen toasty. My mother smiled that knowing sort of mother smile that says I'm going put the training wheels on, step back and watch you do this by yourself. You'd think I'd recognise that smile by now.

The Ball canning website describes canning with something of an idealistic air with that perfect model kitchen modeling their canning products- which, if you're doing it in the heat of the summer in an air conditioned house, and you don't have small children around hanging on you, yes, is pretty fabulous. I did it in my friend's galley kitchen with the back door hanging open, watching a thunderstorm rolling in, watching as her golden retriever paced up and down the basement stairs, and the roommate's lab weaved under our feet, hoping for a smackerel of something. Canning seems remarkably easy at first blush. I'll just cook this and voila, how hard can it be? Like Snow White and her Cute Creatures of the Forest, everything will magically take care of itself. Because what might not be abundantly obvious from the recipe is that you have to first clean and then sterilize your jars and your lids. And they aren't sterile if they aren't hot, which means they have to stay hot. And you're going to have, if you didn't go out and buy the fancy electric jam maker [who has money for that?!], three pots on the stove going full bore, or have a roasting pan in your stove full of water with your jars in it, if you don't have a dish washer [Nigella Lawson says jars straight out of a dishwasher are sterile, and I believe her. But we didn't have a dishwasher] And more sugar than you ever thought you would ever have to purchase in one go in your life - grape jelly, for instance, calls for 7 cups of sugar for one batch. Depending on what recipe you chose to use. Oh, to be blissfully ignorant again.

Canning isn't for the faint of heart. Its more possibly for the slightly masochistic. Or for those that, for a double dose of redundancy, enjoy schadenfreude [especially if you're reading this and have no interest in actually canning yourself ; ) ].  Truly - it's a hot, sticky business in the summer time without A/C, so if you get faint easily, beg borrow and steal a cool kitchen. It's also not something to be undertaken at 7 PM with work the next morning and 8 varieties of fruit to be put away. All that said, the results can be epic. By epic I mean the best thing you ever ate. Because after all that work, it will be the best thing you ever ate. In small doses. The grape jelly? heaven in a jar.

I had most of the things you need to can properly when I did most of my canning with a friend at 7 PM with work the next morning and 8 varieties of fruit to be put away. Thankfully she is a night owl and was able to finish up the last batch of jam while I went home to saw logs at 12:30 AM. We're the kind of people who enthusiastically undertake a project and then realize there might be more to it than we first thought. Maybe don't try to can 8 varieties of fruit starting at 7PM. Maybe only try to can 2. A for enthusiasm, right? After the first canning adventure I decided to finish up my remaining quart bag of strawberries. I did the smart thing and brought the recipe book to the store with me, so I'd know how much to buy when I got there, since strawberry picking season is over. And lo, mangos were $1 each. And I had made [accidently] a smashing mango-peach butter a few years ago. So I bought peaches. And apricots, since they were there.

I said that when I was canning with my friend, I had mostly everything I needed to can properly. I mean that I had access to a canning bath [read: giant pot] to put the jars in for the water bath and the cage [it keeps the cans from banging into each other in the boiling water bath] for the jars and all the et ceteras. Read on.

Second Round...

I started canning at the saner hour of 9:30 this morning, and I started with strawberry jam. And I decided to put it up in large jars because who doesn't like strawberry jam? In the war of the best PB&J, it's either grape jelly or strawberry jam; of the two, there's never enough. There's no going wrong with the big jars.

Except that I don't have a canning bath; I left it at my parent's house and I borrowed the friend's. I don't even have a tall stock [read:spaghetti] pot. I had to borrow something from Upstairs that barely covered my tall jars. I put a cotton dishcloth in the bottom of the stock pot, filled it with water and set it to boil. The cotton cloth was to keep the jars from sliding around on the bottom of the pan when the water began to boil. When the going gets tough, the tough improvise.

canning operations in the worksRemember when I mentioned the three pots on the stove? This would be it. I would have put a roasting pan filled with boiling water in the stove to keep jars warm and sterile, but at 12:30 AM, I was too tired to think straight, and I left it at my friend's house. So no roasting pan. : P Roasting pan, full of hot boiling water inside the stove, would have kept sterile about a dozen of the half pint jars, or anything that was smaller than that. Alas...

That yellow stuff in the red pot would be mango-apricot-peach butter. It's pretty fabulous - I followed a recipe for peace butter and made sure I had the right final puree amounts for the recipe. In the middle of all of this, Upstairs is having a window replaced, and the fellow replacing it knows of my endeavours and has brought me 5 more jars and a packet of lids. He has my undying gratitude. [I gave his family several varieties of jam for Christmas a few years ago; methinks they might be wanting more...]

keeping it hotbubble, bubble, toil and trouble.

Sorry the pictures are blurry - I'm a righty and alas, I only have one right hand, which is doing all the heavy lifting and stirring. The picture on the right side is an example of a hard or roiling boil - boiling even while being stirred - which is what jam needs to be doing before you can put it into sterile jars. The jar in the picture on the right is full of water and is helpful in keeping the sugar off the spatula and in turn off the inside of the pot. The left is my valiant attempt at keeping my lids and jars sterile until ready for use.

Things I have learned and/or are useful

have a tea kettle filled and boiling. This sounds counter productive, but water is evaporating out of pots that are boiling, and the jars have to be immersed - read: covered - by boiling water. Nothing is more irritating than dropping your jars into the bath and finding out that there isn't enough water in there. So you add some water. But now the water isn't boiling because it came out of the tap. Curses. So, tea kettle filled with boiling water saves the day. I have an electric tea kettle that shuts itself off when it's done doing it's thing; it was one less thing on the stove and it was great. Also, you can make yourself a cuppa when it's all done. Because you're going to need to replenish the fluids and want to collapse. So keep a pitcher of water in the fridge and pound the fluids.

Use a larger pot for cooking the jam than you think is necessary because cooked sugar has a habit of exploding. Not like boom-kapow action movie exploding but frothy bubbly Glinda the Good Witch of the North Kristin Chenoweth exploding. True story. Also, cooked sugar burns like none other. 

Ball Canning is in the business of selling things [duh]. I made do today with a knit cotton cloth on the bottom of a pot, and although a taller pot would have been much nicer for the big jars, the tiny jars were completely covered which was the end game. By reading multiple sources, I learned that some things can actually be made in your crock pot. And let's be real, it's jam. It's going to stick to everything no matter what the no-stick label claims, so be prepared to scrub after using upwards of 4 cups of sugar to a recipe.

Do your homework I have a master's degree, which means I have spent a lot of time doing homework. Like I said, some of those recipes called for 7 cups of sugar. 7 CUPS OF SUGAR!!! What if I don't have 7 cups of sugar? What if I don't have enough pectin or enough fruit or...? I discovered that there is no room for playing with the amounts in a recipe, but chances are there is another recipe out there with different amounts - so we'd consult the books before we got too far into an enterprise. One recipe for grape jelly may call for 7 cups of sugar and 5 cups of juice, another may call for 5 cups of sugar and 3 of juice plus a little pectin. Having the different sources was super helpful. It kept the kitchen panic down. My sources were the recipe section of Ball's canning website, my friend's recipe book and "Saving the Seasons" by Mary Clemens Meyer and Susanna Meyer. [The link should take you to]

The food processor is one of the best inventions for the kitchen. If you don't have a food mill. The Kitchenaid is also in my top five. Right up there with automatic coffee makers and dishwashers. I'm currently one for four. 

1 for 4 - the food processor

Think it through, think it through, think it through. Put the normal stuff in the big jars and the unusual stuff in the small jars, and what you consider the super fancy and/or really weird stuff in the really small jars. And then save a few small jars for the inevitable end of the batch that doesn't quite top of the jar. Which shouldn't happen, but frankly does, because that's Murphy's law. For example: the stuff you really like or your friends really like and you know that you/they're going to eat, put that in the big jar - pint, quart, what evs, because it won't be long for the world. [This is jar A]. The "I'm testing this recipe out for the very first time, and I don't know if I'll like it" or the "Jeeze, these were expensive ingredients!" put that in the tiny jars, the goofy fancy really tiny ones, or the half pints. [These are jar B]. Why? That way there isn't a ton of it open at one time. And if you're gifting it, use your judgement on the size of the jar based on A or B. If your friends love it, give them a bigger jar. Split the recipe over A and B size jars.

everyone needs a gel icy pack. everyone.
Add caption
Where there is a flame... there's hot stuff. You're bound to get burned, by say, boiling water splattering out of a pot. That kiddy gel ice pack with the soft, fuzzy character cover that your mom said you were way too old for? Way more handy than trying to wrap a wash cloth around an ice cube, easier to hold on to and softer than aforementioned ice cube in a dishcloth. This is what plausible deniability looks like... I may or may not own one that looks exactly like this

Put out the APB for jars. Seriously. Don't buy them if you don't have to. Get your friends to give them to you, because everyone has one or two laying around. So if five people give you 2 jars, you've got 10 already. Go buy a pack of lids and rings. That said, if you know me, and you're reading this... I could use some more jars...

1 comment:

smkyqtzxtl said...

And if you are reading this, you know I offered you a bigger pot LOL and said as you walked out the door, do you have everything? Canning pot it under your bed, waiting for your next batch. picking berries for you. Lots of love. Mom.