Some note that home canning takes a lot of time; others, a plethora of equipment. I resolve that “putting up” — to can or preserve vegetables, fruits, jams, jellies, pickles, etc. — is just not for me. Then another autumn comes and goes, and I’m openly pining for summer savors in December’s depths. I should put up or shut up.
Once, long ago, I tried making a batch of jars of zucchini pickles. It was a bad scene. Apparently, the “principles of liquid displacement” lesson in high school had been lost on me. My filled jars overflowed with hot water, sending the boiling liquid to sear me like it would have a medieval castle-stormer. It also punched out my pilot lights.
Last month, I had the great fortune to get the goods on canning from two local experts for another assignment. Special thanks are due to Diana Henry Quimby of Quimby Farms in Marlboro, and Susan Loxley-Friedle, who runs the biannual canning class at the Phillies Bridge Farm project in Gardiner, for teaching me everything I know.
The first and best thing to know is that you don’t necessarily need the hot-water bath. This exemption comes with a large caveat: it only goes for foods on the upper end of the acidic spectrum. Jams and jellies, for example, can skip the dip; pickled anything will be safe on account of the vinegar. Tomatoes are on the borderline; you might want to add a few squeezes of lemon and employ the bath. But do not try this method for canned sweet corn or beans. To can those, you must graduate from hot-water bath to pressure canner, which ensures high temperatures through steam and gauges, lest ye become one of the 110 with this year’s botulism.
To can a jam without the hot-water bath, wash your jars, lids and bands with hot, soapy water, and place them on a clean cookie sheet in an oven preheated to 200 degrees F. When your jam is prepared and still very hot, remove the cookie sheet from the over. Using a ladle, quickly fill the jars to within a quarter-inch of their tops. Put on the lids and tighten the bands. Turn the jars upside down on a countertop and give them all a thump on the bottom with the palm of your hand.
Voilà! You know you’ve done it right when you press the center of the lid and it doesn’t flex or make a sound — the way you’d test any screw-top lid at the supermarket.
The second most important tip is to assemble all your equipment ahead of time. In addition to your sterilized jars, you’ll need: a heavy pot for cooking the jam; ingredients, measured (fruit, fruit juice, pectin, lemon juice, water, flavorings, etc.); a ladle; several side towels or pot holders and spoons. Tongs would be nice. A funnel is a luxury. A strainer or cheesecloth if you’re making jelly.
Third is to follow the recipe. I made a ground cherry jam that never set because the ratio of pectin to fruit was off. Don’t worry: you can just re-label it “[fruit] syrup” and use it in cocktails.
Allow me a sidebar: ground cherries. I had my first one at a restaurant this summer, nestled at the top of a cocktail, coincidentally. The bartender told me it was a gooseberry. It’s not — though it may be called a “Cape gooseberry” by South Africans.
It’s actually the cutest member of the nightshade family, resembling a tiny tomatillo. Encapsulated in a thin, protective paper lantern is a fruit about the size of a cranberry, but more supple. In degrees of ripeness, it will be green, chartreuse then yellow, though all have their distinct charms. A green ground cherry is hardly sweet, vaguely sour and very umami (the fifth flavor, meaning “deliciousness”). Yellow is sweet and tastes like pineapple-pear-orange rind to me. It may taste like a weird tomato to you. It widely varies. All I know is it makes excellent jam, which tastes like quince-pear-lemon. Maybe. I used this recipe: http://www.cdkitchen.com/recipes/recs/7/Ground-Cherry-Jam100879.shtml.
What else can I tell you? If you drip hot jam on the rims of your jars when filling, make sure to wipe it off with a damp cloth before placing your lids. Otherwise, it could interrupt a safe seal. Properly canned foods keep very well in a pantry or cabinet for one year, and three weeks in the refrigerator once opened. And use common sense. If you open a jar and see the contents of a petri dish topping your jelly, please do throw it out. It’s easy enough to make another batch.