Monday, September 15, 2008
Posted by Mike of Mike's Table
As my interest in food and cooking has grown, so has my love for fruit. Growing up, I was never all that into it, but now, I just can't get by without it. I love baking, but 9 times out of 10, its all about the fruit. My proverbial brown bag lunch isn't complete without two servings of fruit. The produce section of the grocery store is one of the most enjoyable sections for me, and when something new and exotic shows up, well, I can't help myself. What can I say, I have a problem...but its a pretty good problem, so I don't plan on changing it any time soon.
Of course, there's a tricky thing about fruit: those darn seasons. Sure, we can have things like apples year-round thanks to the miracle of globalization, but not every fruit is going to be on the shelves all year. If you're a fig fiend like myself, as you gorge yourself on these fruits during the autumn months, you dread the coming winter and spring months. And what about blueberries--just when I got comfortable and took them for granted, they're gone! So what's a fruit lover to do? I tend to do three things:
- Over-indulge as if I'll never see the fruit again. This may not be the best strategy long-term, but short-term, you'll feel like you're doing your part.
- Make ice cream. This buys you some time since it will sit happily in your freezer for quite some time. I think you can never have too many flavors of ice cream handy in the freezer--hey, I like options!
- What our forefathers have been doing for ages: preserve them. Jams, jellies, and the countless other fun ways to put fruit into jars.
Number three is what I'd like to focus on today. Its one of those things that used to really scare me. We've all been taught the dangers of canned food, what with scary things like botulism and its highly toxic friends. Canned food gone bad can be pretty serious stuff. However, as I'd learned more about it, I'd come to appreciate the simple precautions that one can take to do things right. With the basics on proper procedure, canning is actually an amazingly simple thing to add to your kitchen repertoire, and soon, you'll be making more preserves than you can keep up with (I told you I have a problem ;-) ). Plus, you can try something more exciting than the usual concord grape jelly (and make delicious things you won't find at the grocery store), enjoy more vibrant flavors, save money, and spare yourself more preservatives with names you can't pronounce.
The first thing you'll need is some good looking fruit and wash it well. If the idea of canning/preserving is to keep something for a long time until you can get to it, why go to the trouble of keeping something subpar around (and more importantly, why voluntarily introduce mold or who knows what into your jar?). Then, you're going to need some good jars. When I first started, I thought I could just re-use some empty jars from other stuff in my pantry. Don't do that. Go out and buy some mason jars. These jars come in various sizes, they're sturdy, and they can be properly sealed so as to form a vacuum. Junky jars can cause you real problems (e.g. shattering during the heating process, forming a poor seal leading to contamination, corroding and tainting the flavor of your preserves, etc). The jars themselves are re-usable, but the lids are not (but don't worry--they're cheap!).
So now that you have the two vital ingredients, usually, there's not much else to it recipe-wise. Basic jams and jellies often are a simple mix of fruit, sugar, and pectin. Pectin is a gelling agent that gives jelly that jiggly, jelly texture. It naturally occurs in some fruits (e.g. apples have a lot of it), so for the fruits that are low in it, you can simply add it in powdered form for the same effect. This very simple trio of ingredients can yield a variety of delicious flavors. Some are even as simple to prepare as using the microwave.
As simple as the recipes are though, like I've mentioned, good practice is important. Firstly, you've cleaned your fruit, but you also need to clean your jars. There are many suggestions about how to properly sterilize a jar out there (e.g. dishwasher, oven, etc), but I go with something I am certain of: boiling water. Simply fill a large stock pot with enough water to cover the jar(s) about an inch taller than the height of the jar, get it boiling, and then boil the empty, open jars in the water for at least 10 minutes. While the jars are sterilizing, you can prepare your preserve (which is usually a fairly quick process).
The other piece you need to clean: the jar lids. While these are mostly made of metal, they also usually have a rubber seal. As such, you don't want to boil the lids to sterilize them as well or you risk ruining the rubber seal. So instead, 5 minutes prior to when you expect to be canning, you can simply put the lids in hot (but not boiling) water. This will soften the rubber a bit, making for a better seal later.
Once the jars have finished sterilizing, carefully remove them from the boiling water (with tongs or some sturdy tool), empty the water from the jar as best you can, and set them on a towel on your countertop. Don't wipe them down or go handling them very much--you don't want to undo all of that sterilizing you just did. Simply pour in your preserves, leaving about 1/4 inch of the jar empty, and put the lid on tightly.
Depending on what you're canning, there might very well still be another step remaining: more boiling! While you sterilized the jar earlier, your jam isn't exactly sterile, and maybe in that brief period where your jar was out in the open, it happened to catch a bunch of junk that was floating around in the air. So the idea is that with your jar sealed, you put it back into the boiling water and continue to cook it for about 10 minutes or so (this depends on what you're preserving) to kill any contaminants that might have found their way into your jar. This also ought to truly seal the lid to your jar.
Once time is up, you should carefully remove your jar from the water and let it slowly come back to room temperature for about a day before you do anything with it. At this point, you can probably put it in your pantry and come back to it some time during the next few months. Before you do though, take a look at the lid of the jar. Does it seem sealed? Does the center of the lid bulge or is it sucked down and inwards? If you're not absolutely sure of the seal quality, put the jar in the fridge and try to use your preserve soonish like you would any open jar of jelly. Otherwise, you ought to be set for some time, but of course, when you do finally open the jar, again, inspect the lid. Is it bulging? Do the contents still have the right color? If things look at all spoiled, toss it. If things went bad in the jar, it can be a serious health risk. Luckily, I haven't experienced this yet, and hopefully you haven't either (and neither of us ever will!).
Now unfortunately, this technique isn't a one size fits all solution. For instance, if you were preserving a chutney vs a jam vs pickles vs sauce, etc, there a few differences you need to account for. For instance, in jellies, the high amount of sugar is the preservative that keeps the fruit in an edible state for months to come, whereas in other recipes, you'll add something like vinegar (or some other acid), in others, salt, and some times, even alcohol. Other recipes require special equipment for canning so that you can pressurize the can. This all depends on the final goal and what you're preserving (e.g. some fruits are very low in sugar and acid, so you might need to add that). Since I am no expert and am still relatively new to the canning world myself, I unfortunately don't have all the answers, but I'm having a lot of fun learning about them, and I hope that you do, too. If you're considering canning for the first time, take some time to do some further reading from more official sources than me--better safe than sorry, right?
If you'd like a ton of mouth-watering canning ideas, check out "Putting Up," a preserves-oriented food event that Pixie of You Say Tomato I Say Tomato hosted a few months ago. There's a ton of gems on there. Also included is an interview with a food blogger, Rosie, who is more versed in canning with several tips.
Do any of you more experienced canners have any tips, tricks, or favorites? Let us all know about it in the comments.
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This Post was written by Mike from Mike's Table