Canning isn't actually that scary. August 03, 2014 17:10
I'd always been a little iffy on the idea of canning. I'd wanted to like it, and I'd spent ages coveting the photos of tidy shelves filled with brightly coloured jams and preserves I'd seen online, daydreaming about the day I would have a pantry like that of my own, and the ability to give away personalized jars of tasty food. It just seemed so intimidating.
I love to bake and cook, but those who know me know that I am pathologically incapable of following a recipe. I make my own spice blends, design my own cakes and muffins, mix all sorts of weird and interesting flavours into eggwhites to make custom meringues, and even make up my own knitting patterns rather than following someone else's directions. If I made it up myself, any mistakes I made were just a part of the creative process, not actual errors. I also sense a slight issue with authority rearing its head here, but whatever.Anyway, there's the problem: canning means following a recipe. You can make jam any old way you like, but the moment you want to put it up and expect it to be safe and shelf-stable, you need to be using a tried and true formula. You need the correct amount of acidity to prevent botulism from growing, you need the correct amount of sugar to make the jam firm, and you need the right amount of cooking and processing time to protect against food-borne illness. No experimenting, no “I'll just add a bit of this...”, no substitutions, no forgetting to add an ingredient. I wasn't sure I could do it! And then, magic happened. I started reading a canning book that used Pomona's Pectin.
Pomona's doesn't rely on a specific amount of sugar in order to gel the jam, and their recipes allow you to use a range of sweeteners, in a range of amounts. If I wanted, I could mix brown sugar, honey, and maple syrup into my plum jam. I could use stevia, or even make a diabetic friendly jam with artificial sweeteners! It doesn't allow me a large amount of free reign, but it's just enough to make me enjoy canning. I can personalize the recipes, and I can play with the flavours til I have something that is both tasty and safe. How fun is that?
So I decided to start that snazzy looking pantry I'd always dreamed of.In one weekend I put up 5lbs of blueberries (using a mix of honey and plain white sugar), 6lbs of plums (with brown sugar and maple syrup), 4lbs of pears (with honey, maple, and molasses), and 5lbs of green beans made into dilly beans (not using pectin – that would be weird.). I discovered that the most handy tool in my arsenal is the jar lifter, that boiling and processing the jars is actually rather easy and satisfying, that the recommended amount of lemon juice in blueberry jam actually makes it taste better anyway, and that the most wonderful sound in the world is that distinctive “pop, pop, pop” that means your jars have sealed safely.
I learned that doing a mad hunt for a dish rag to wipe down my filled jar rims - while balancing a ladle of hot jam and a canning funnel – is not fun, and that there's nothing more frustrating than not prepping enough jars and having leftover jam with nowhere to put it. Give yourself lots of space and lay your tools out ahead of time, so you know where everything is. You'll be much happier.
The plum jam was my favourite, and also the first one I made. I sat down in front of the tv and watched a movie while halving and pitting all 6lbs of plums. An alternative way to make this chore suck less is to invite some unsuspecting friends over for drinks and then hand them a paring knife and tell them to get to work. The whole jam process, from prepping to that lovely “pop” sound, took me about 3 hours, and I only got faster from there.
So, I'm well on my way to that rad looking set of pantry shelves, and local fruit all year round. And it wasn't nearly as scary as I thought!