Saturday, November 21, 2009

Canning for the First Time

My mother's post about eco-smart gift wrapping reminded me of the holiday gifts I plan to give this year: jams, jellies, and spiced peaches. (And speaking of green--edible gifts in reusable mason jars are about as good as they get.) This train of thought reminded me that I haven't shared with you my first foray into canning! Sheesh.

My family, while wonderful cooks/bakers/crafters/knitters, has not to my knowledge included canners. But I seem to be falling down the delicious rabbit hole of artisan, local, organic food, and I was determined to try canning for the first time. The Seattle growing season is rather short, and summer produce is fleeting. If I want to eat berries in January, I had to do something to preserve them in September. Imagine the delight of opening a jar of pure summer when you've been eating primarily root vegetables and you'll see what I mean.

Home canning has taken off this year, particularly among younger people. Whether it's the recession or the trend towards homemade goods or the rise of local and organic produce, a lot more people are preserving the harvest than ever before. For example, the Seattle-based website Canning Across America began in August as a small project among a few friends and has ballooned to a national movement. Join the canvolution!

So although I knew I wanted to can, I didn't have any of the knowledge, skills, or tools to do it. The Ball website was a great resource, as was my roommate Torian who has made jam with her mother all her life. In an amazing stroke of luck, I found a complete canning set on Craigslist for $75, including a big pot, a rack, assorted accessories, four dozen jars, and the Ball Blue Book--the holy bible of beginning canning.

A word of caution: Improperly canned food can be very dangerous. Botulism is a deadly neurotoxin that can live even after your food is boiled, so just throwing things willy nilly into a jar and putting it in a water-bath canner is not safe. The only way to stay safe is to process your cans above boiling (i.e., in a pressure canner) or make the food acidic enough to kill the toxin. Never can without a scientifically tested recipe (such as from Ball or a good university), and never change recipes to be less acidic.

My home canning weekend began with a trip to my local farmers market. Many vendors had discounts on large volumes of produce, specifically for canning purposes. Also keep a lookout for "seconds" produce--these have spots, bruises, or other imperfections that make them less expensive. Because if you're turning them into mush, who cares if your fruit is bruised? I'm not big on pickles or pickled vegetables, so I stuck to fruits.

First up: raspberry jam.

Mmm, how I love raspberry jam. And raspberries themselves. And pretty much anything having to do with raspberries.

This was a lot of raspberries. (Are you drooling yet, Lauren?)

The best way to wash delicate berries is to swish them gently in a bowl of water, then scoop them out and let them drain in a colander.

It was a bit emotionally painful to mush up so many perfect raspberries, but Torian has nerves of steel. No berry went unsmushed by her potato masher of death. (Notice how clean the kitchen is at this point! Didn't stay that way for long.)

We followed the recipe for fresh raspberry jam, adding a bit of pectin for the right consistency. Berries are a very high-acid food, so you don't need to worry about acidifying to prevent botulism. This is why most people begin canning with berry jams; they almost do all the work for you.

Our cans went into the boiling water-bath canner...

...and then when they were done Torian fished them out with a special can picker-upper. This rubber-coated metal utensil came with my canning supplies, but I didn't know what it was. I probably would have tried to use tongs to get the cans out if Tor wasn't there to show me how much easier this was.

The finished cans look like shining jewels. It's really hard for me to leave them alone, but you can't touch them as they cool or the lid won't seal right.

We didn't have quite enough raspberry mush to make a full rack of jars, so we smashed some blueberries into the last two to make a combination raspberry-blueberry jam. I think I liked it even more than the pure raspberry! It's also a beautiful deep purple color.

Once we got the hang of jam, we moved on to harder projects. I attempted a pomegranate champagne jelly, but I didn't put the pectin in on time and it never set. So now I have pomegranate champagne syrup? Oh well, I didn't expect perfection on my first try. I'm sure it will be great for cocktails.

I was pretty pleased, though, at how the spiced peaches turned out. We blanched and peeled the peaches, quartered them, cooked them briefly in a spiced syrup, and then packed them into jars with lemon juice, a cinnamon stick, star anise, and cloves. Don't they look pretty?

I gave my first can away yesterday, to a housemate's friend who was lamenting not having his mom's canned peaches this winter. And the verdict? Delicious.

In total, I canned:
5 pints raspberry jam
2 pints raspberry blueberry jam (one of which my boyfriend has already claimed)
2 pints failed pomegranate champagne jelly
2 pints peach butter (hot damn this is good)
2 quarts whole blueberries
2 quarts tomatoes
8 quarts spiced peaches

Not bad for my first time. Next up: pears!


  1. Yay you! I hear that canned peaches (without the skins!) would be a great gift for your father....

  2. GREAT, beautiful posting! I'm REALLY interested in one on pears, since it is the only fruit I can eat! (Save some for me!) xoxo



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