A couple of folks have asked me for a quick how-to on making jam. I realized I couldn’t jump straight into recipes & tips until I covered some basics on canning itself. What is home canning and how does it work? What do you need to get started? Do you really need to take a Master Food Preservation class before you can start? Do you need a pressure-canner? Well, here are my thoughts, as someone who has been canning for close to ten years now…
What is Home Canning?
Home canning is the process of vacuum sealing food into glass jars using bit pot of hot water, oodles of clear glass jars, and time spent stirring and ladling food into those jars. The air is forced out of the jars as the jars sit in a bath of boiling water (the “canning bath”) and as the jars cool, the disposable lids, which have a heat-activated sealant, seal tight to keep the food inside fresh for up to a year (OK, that’s the official story–I have no problem using food that I myself have canned and that looks and smells fine for up to two years).
There is a lot of great information on CSU’s Nutrition Resources Pages if you want to learn more from the experts in addition to what I’ve put together below.
How do you can food?
First, I am not a high-tech canner. I do not own a pressure canner, which means that anything low-acid (like green beans or carrots, for example) gets dried or frozen, not canned. Texture is better anyway, in my opinion. So I primarily can things like jam, pickles & high-acid fruits and use a very simple and inexpensive canning bath that came in a kit like this one. Some of the kits are upwards of $50 now, so watch for sales, borrow from a friend, or look for a used set if you’re looking to invest less at the beginning.
The great thing about these kits, though, is that they also come with the Ball Blue Book, which is essentially the canner’s Bible. If, like me, you have one of your Grandma’s old copies from 1952 hanging out on your bookshelf, keep it for posterity, but double-check the recipes from a newer edition. The kits also typically have a pair of canning tongs for moving hot jars, a funnel for getting hot food into the jars, a nifty magnet for lifting hot lids onto the tops of the jars, and, depending on whether you get the simple or deluxe kit, some canning jars, canning lids, and some plastic lids to use once you’ve opened a jar of canned food.
Although most grocery stores carry lids and jars, you can often find them at thrift stores, on Craig’s List, or even Freecycle. As long as the jars are not chipped and the canning bands are not rusty, you might as well get the freebies, because once you’re obsessed with canning, you’ll need lots of jars in lots of different sizes (wide mouth quart jars for canning peaches, for example, narrow mouth quart jars for apple cider and grape juice, wide mouth pint jars for pickles, and narrow mouth pint & half-pint jars for jam).
Selecting food & recipes
Once you’ve got the supplies assembled, it’s time to consider a recipe. While I think the Blue Book has the best overview of canning and is a great resource, many of the recipes are the traditional ones you might have eaten years ago (adjusted for the additional safety guidelines that now exist, of course), but are not, perhaps, as contemporary as your palate. So poke around on the Internet for recipes or consider one of several great new canning books that are out there (I personally have not ventured much beyond the Blue Book because I mainly can staple foods like jam & fruits).
When selecting food to can or preserve, the fresher, the better. If you can get it picked the day you’re going to can it, do. Our canning season starts with strawberry jam in late June/early July, then moves on to apricots for both jam and canned halves, cucumbers & onions for pickles, and the first of the peaches (also jam & canned halves) in July, then plums, grapes, tomatoes and more peaches in August, and wraps up with pears & apples in September & October. While you can preserve the very last tomatoes you pull from the vine in October, the ones you pick at the peak of ripeness in August will last longer and taste better.
The quality of the fruits & vegetables you select is the most important factor in the success of your canning. A tie for close second goes to the recipe you choose and the techniques you use in canning, which I’ll touch on in part 2 tomorrow.