Friday, June 28, 2013

Canning and Preserving 101

Canning and preserving: our mothers did it, our grandmothers did it, and many of us wistfully dream of capturing the best of every season ourselves. But it seems a bit intimidating at first glance.
Before we can begin, we must assemble our equipment.
First we start with our pressure canner, a necessity for canning many foods and a time saver for all foods. If you've got a modern flattop ceramic stove, pay close attention and make sure to buy a canner approved for ceramic tops (the selected canner MUST have a completely flat bottom) like the Presto 16 quart aluminum one that we own.

You’ll also need equipment to handle the jars during the canning process and both Presto and Ball make a nice 7 piece kit that includes a funnel, jar holder, and other items.

Of course you’ll need canning jars, and I recommend, at minimum, a set of half-pints (for jam), pints (for salsa, bbq sauce, pickles, and fruit in syrup), and quarts (for tomato sauce). If you’re going to be giving away your preserves as gifts, Ball makes handy dissolvable jar labels as well.

So you’ve purchased your equipment, but what will you preserve and how will you preserve it?
Christine Ferber is a jam aficionado from France whose creations are distributed in small batches via the finest hotels, shops, and restaurants across Europe, bringing in over 2 million dollars a year in profit. From jam! Priced typically at 10 euros or more for a jar, her preserves are quite a luxury and highly regarded in culinary circles. Fortunately she’s released a cookbook, Mes Confitures, that details her recipes and techniques so that we can affordably enjoy her jams without having to purchase them retail. No pectin powders here! Every jam takes two to three days to make with each recipe calling for the fruit to be cooked down multiple times to create a thick jam consistency. Earlier this month we held our first annual canning party and we prepared a couple of jams from Ferber’s book. Some of them set (the honey rhubarb rosemary is amazing as is the carrot cardamom), but unfortunately the largest batch of strawberry that we attempted did not reach jam thickness because I tried to shortcut the method when pressed for time, macerating the strawberries for a much shorter time than called for and only draining and boiling the syrup once. This resulted in strawberries going into the final jam that were much more watery than they should have been, preventing the jam from setting properly. Luckily we enjoy strawberries in syrup just as much as we enjoy strawberry jam so all is not lost. A lot of delicious cakes, bowls of ice cream, and crepes will be adorned with the 9 pints of strawberry jam syrup we created. Note that Ferber does not include any detailed instructions on how to process the jars of jam for storage, so if you’re new to canning you’ll need some standard “how-to” canning books in addition to her cookbook. We found that processing jams from Mes Confitures at 10 minutes at 10 pounds of pressure after the canner had been emptied of excess air (10 minutes of boiling with the lid on and locked) and brought up to pressure did the trick.

In addition to the very time consuming recipes provided by Ferber, we also leaned heavily on a preserving cookbook that I recently received an advanced review copy of titled Put em Up!, by Sherri Brooks Vinton. Vinton walks readers through preparing various types of preserved foods (including dried and frozen recipes) and then also provides useful recipes that incorporate the items. During our canning party we tried our hand at her recipes for thyme jelly and early grey tea jelly. Like Ferber, Vinton eschews industrial pectin; instead she recommends creating homemade pectin concentrate by boiling down tart apples, skin, seeds, and all. The thyme jelly set perfectly but the earl grey is a bit loose. Both were easy to make.

And lets not forget the old standby, Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, by Lauren Devine. This is the gold standard in preserving “how-to” covering all manner of foods from jams to pickles, to meats, and it provides explicit details on both the water bath and pressure cooker methods. A bit pedestrian in nature (you won’t find any rose petal jam or honey thyme rhubarb here), this cookbook nevertheless is an indispensable asset in home canning. And I’ll admit that sometimes you just want plain old-fashioned ordinary jam instead of something highbrow and fru-fru. During our recent canning party we didn’t rely on this book for recipes, but we used it heavily for advice on technique.

Next month brings ripe currants (black, red, and white), peaches, blackberries, cherries, and tomatoes to our door. We have our second canning party scheduled for July 13th and everyone is looking forward to it. Getting together with a group of women (and some earnest fellas) is a lot of fun when it’s done in the spirit of recreation and fellowship and viewed as a choice. It’s especially nice when you review the cost savings over buying similar products at the store. Bonus: no artificial preservatives, flavors, or colors!  I do imagine the laborious efforts required (six of us spent 5 hours working diligently in our last canning session) would prove tedious and a lot less entertaining if these canning sessions were not merely optional but mandatory to ensure we didn’t starve over the long winter, as was the case in the old days.
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