Back to Basics – Home Canning

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I avoided any sort of canning for years. I had a picture in my head of vats of boiling water and steam clouded windows, rows and rows of jars, bushels of fruit and me, toiling over the hot stove with sweat streaming down my brow. Canning doesn’t have to be like this. It certainly isn’t when I do it. I finally ventured into canning several years ago and wondered why I had waited so long.

The first time I made blackberry jam and canned it was a revelation. I had seedless, slightly tart blackberry jam that I was unlike anything I could buy in the stores, and I could eat it in January. The canning process wasn’t hard, once I understood what I was doing. Since then I mostly have canned fruit based products that are exactly what I want – peach butter that is preserved summer sunshine in a jar, sweet-tart plum jam, spiced pear preserves and the blackberry jam, when my parents’ blackberry vines have a good year.

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Canning is not hard. And you don’t have to can huge amounts of vegetables or fruit at a time. And it isn’t a mysterious process. It basically boils down (see the pun here?) to cooking your filled canning jars in boiling water until they are germ free and vacuum-sealed.

I usually can a few jars of jam or preserves at a time. I can make the jam and can it in an afternoon. I can even make the jam one day and can it another day, as long as I heat up the jam again before filling the hot jars (so they don’t break from the difference in temperatures).

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A Note on Sources
You can find umpteen sites online that give you directions and recipes for canning. Make sure you are reading reputable sites with up-to-date information. There are a lot of unsafe and outdated canning methods out there. The National Center for Home Food Preservation, university extension services and the Ball canning site all have information you can trust. I use all of them for reference.

To Buy a Canning Kettle or Not
You need a canning kettle or other large pot that is deep enough to hold your jars and water to cover the tops of them by at least an inch. If you are using something other than a canning kettle, which comes with a rack insert, you need a rack or trivet in the bottom of the pot to elevate the jars a bit. I don’t have a canning kettle – I use my giant pasta pot with a rack in the bottom. There are kits that have a rack or jar caddy, and other canning tools. They are nice, but you can get by perfectly well with a big pot, a rack, a pair of tongs and a ladle.

I recommend canning in pint, half-pint or even smaller jars. I like the smaller jars for gift giving and so that we can finish each jar relatively quickly. If you decide to can in quart jars, you probably will want a canning kettle, since it will be tall enough to get the water deep enough. You might not want to invest in a canning kettle if you aren’t going to be canning a lot, or if you aren’t going to be canning quart jars.

Sterilizing
Most sources say you don’t need to sterilize jars for foods that are going to be processed in a hot water bath for more than ten minutes. I tend to err on the side of caution and sterilize mine anyway. Even if you don’t sterilize your jars, you need to heat them up in hot water so you aren’t adding hot food to room temperature jars, which could lead to broken jars. I have never (so far) canned a batch of jam or preserves that has molded, so I think I will stick with my method. I would rather play it on the safe side than have to throw away a batch of moldy preserves.

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A Note on Jars and Lids
Be sure to use jars and lids made for canning. Don’t reuse jars from commercial products. You can reuse glass canning jars and the threaded lid bands, but you can’t reuse the flat lids. Once they have been used once, the rubber seals won’t form a proper seal again. You can buy packages of just the flat lids if you are reusing jars and bands.

The Actual Canning Process
Wash your jars, flat lids and bands in hot soapy water.

If you aren’t sterilizing your jars, keep them hot until you are ready to use them. If you are sterilizing your jars, put them in the kettle or pot and fill it with water to cover the jars. Bring it to a boil over high heat, covered. Boil the jars in the water for 15 minutes to sterilize them. Boil the flat lids and threaded rings in a smaller pot, also covered, for the same amount of time. Throw the ladle that you are going to use to fill the jars into one of the pots.

When your jars are sterilized, leave them in the hot water until right before you are ready to use them. Lift them out of the water with tongs and drain the water out. The jars will be hot – use an oven mitt to handle the jars. Don’t dump out the hot water in the kettle – you will use it again for the actual canning process.

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Fill the jars with hot jam or preserves, leaving the headspace specified in the recipe you are using. Wipe the tops of the jars clean. Fish the flat lids and rings out of the hot water with tongs and put them on the jars. Tighten them only finger tight and put the jars back in the canning kettle or your large pot with a rack. If you over-tighten the bands air will not be able to escape and the vacuum seal might not form properly. Add hot water if necessary to cover the jars and reach an inch above their tops.

Bring the water back to a boil and keep it boiling for the time specified in the recipe you are using.

Remove the hot jars with tongs and place them on a folded towel or wooden cutting board. Let them rest, undisturbed, until they are room temperature. This will take several hours. You will hear the lids pop as the vacuum seal forms. If any of the jars don’t form a seal, which will vacuum the lid down, refrigerate and use them within a couple of weeks.

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When the jars are cool, label them and store them somewhere cool and dark. Give as gifts or open them one at a time over the months, gloating every time over your home canned, homemade jam.

Vanilla Granola

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Every time I make granola I wonder why I wait so long between batches. I like it with milk for breakfast, mixed with plain yogurt and honey for a snack and by the handful. It takes minutes to make and keeps in the pantry for several weeks. I usually have everything on hand to make it. But even if you aren’t a grain and nut enthusiast like me, one trip to the grocery store should get you everything you need.

I am still thinking about vanilla, so I decided to make vanilla granola this time. It also has orange juice and honey, but vanilla is the dominant flavor. If you wanted more of an orange kick you could add orange zest along with the juice. Or you could go another direction and add a couple of teaspoons of cinnamon. I left out the dried fruit from this batch, only adding a few raisins for the picture. You could add a mix of fruit, or just keep it simple with one kind, or none.

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I added rolled barley flakes to this batch, in addition to the rolled oats. You can get rolled barley, rolled rye and rolled grain mixes in the hot cereal section of the grocery store, or sometimes with the flours. They add another dimension to the granola, but feel free to keep it simple and use all oats. If you like the idea of rolled barley, you can also get it at some Asian markets. I get mine at a market that is heavy on Korean foods and it is all of .69 a pound, which is a steal.

If you have never made granola, give it a try. Make it as written, or try some of my suggestions for adapting it. As long as you keep the proportions of dry ingredients the same, you can mix it up anyway you like – replace the nuts with more oats, add rolled rye for some of the oats or go crazy with nuts and seeds. After it is cool, you can add any kind of dried fruit you like. Or jazz it up in your bowl, with extra honey, fresh fruit, yogurt or milk. How do you like your granola?

Download or print the recipe here.

Vanilla Granola
from The Cook’s Life
Makes about 8 cups granola
Serving size, about ½ cup

3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup rolled barley flakes (or 1 cup oats)
½ cup sliced almonds
½ cup wheat germ
¼ cup chopped pecans
¼ cup sunflower seeds
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup honey
2 tablespoons maple syrup (I used grade B – use what you have)
¼ cup canola oil
½ cup orange juice
4 teaspoons vanilla
1-2 cups dried fruit, optional

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees and grease a large baking sheet. Combine oats, barley, almonds, wheat germ, pecans, sunflower seeds and salt in a large bowl. Warm honey in the microwave for about 30 seconds, or until thin. Add maple syrup, canola oil, orange juice and vanilla and mix well. Pour over the oat mixture and mix well. Spread onto baking sheet in an even layer and bake for 15 minutes. Stir well, moving the toastier outside parts to the middle and spread in an even layer again. Bake another 10 minutes and stir again. Turn the oven off and return the granola to the still hot oven for another 5-10 minutes, until golden brown and toasty, but not browned.

Remove granola from the oven and let cool on the baking sheet on a rack until room temperature. Add dried fruit, if using. Store in an airtight container for a month, or in the freezer for longer storage. Serve as cereal with milk, over yogurt, or eat by the handful.

Food Trends for 2013

Rich sent me a link to an online article from USA Today about 2013 food trends from the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. I am not up on my food shows – a quick Google search told me that the Fancy Food Show is the largest specialty food show in North America. There is also a summer show in New York. Alas, only food professionals and press members can attend.

The article was an interesting read, and it led me to another article about the same food show that highlighted some of the same trends, but added some different ones too. I have no idea if the authors based their picks on the prevalence of products at the shows or on other factors, as they didn’t provide that level of detail. Their predictions included coconut and banana products, beer as an ingredient, botanical drinks (licorice mint almond water, anyone?), new oils, seeds in products, blue cheese and spicy sweet confections.

We are supposed to be behind the trends and times here in the middle of the country. And to some, the middle of the country is anything beyond the borders of California and New York. Yet I have seen some of these “new” trends here in St. Louis (you can’t get much more in the middle than here) for several years now, including spicy chocolate, seeds in everything, new water and juice flavors and exotic seed oils.

I hesitate to predict my own trends for the country, but I can safely predict the trends for my own family:

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We are going to be exploring more vegetable and fruit choices as we try to expand our palates. I hope this will manifest itself in a few side dish recipes I will be willing to share on the blog.

I want to break out of my perennial dinner rut and try new main dish recipes. I am hampered a bit by picky palates and a lack of adventurous spirits. We will have to see how far I can push the envelope and still keep everyone reasonably happy. Feel free to share any ideas you have with me and I will certainly think about trying them.

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I use a lot of olive oil. I am going to try to branch out a bit beyond my grocery store oil to see if I can find a better quality oil without a huge price increase. I listened to a Splendid Table podcast last week that highlighted some California olive oils that can be had for less than I pay for my current brand. I do like the idea of branching out into other kinds of oils, though that can get pricy. I might seek out stores where I can try the oils first, so I don’t end up with bottles of oils I’ll never use after the first taste.

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Chocolate is always a trend around our house. We have already done the chili and chocolate combination, and I don’t see that going away any time soon. We also will be looking into chocolate and vanilla, chocolate and coffee, chocolate and almond and chocolate and chocolate.

What trends do you see in your kitchen for 2013?

Spur of the Moment Jam

My grandmother (my mom’s mom) often made jelly, jam or preserves out of small bits of fruit she had leftover from something, or fruit that was starting to get too ripe. She often served these jams at Sunday dinner at her house, or gave us a jar when she had extra. These weren’t the results of a marathon summer canning session, but a jar or two to make use of fruit that would otherwise go to waste. These could range from strawberry or pear preserves, crab apple jelly from fruit from a friend’s tree, or blackberry jam from wild vines at the edge of the woods behind the house. They were always delicious and we always wished for more, since they were usually small jars.

I have often used her methods when I have had a half pint of strawberries that were starting to get soft or a few pears that were rapidly progressing from perfectly ripe to a haven for fruit flies. You don’t have to bother with processing the jars to can them, since you are only making one or two jars at most. Sometimes there isn’t even enough for a full jar, but just enough for a few days’ worth of toast or biscuits. Freeze part of your creation if you are afraid you won’t eat it within a week or so. Or share with your friends and neighbors.

I was rooting around in the deep freezer the other day, looking for pesto that I swear I made last summer. I didn’t find the pesto, probably because I need to clean out the freezer. I did find several containers of peaches from (blush) several summers ago. They are just peaches (as labeled) with, I think, a few squirts of lemon juice to keep them bright. I figured they had been in there long enough, so I pulled them out and plopped them, still frozen, into a pan. I cooked them down a bit, added some sugar and kept cooking. Then I tasted them, added a bit more sugar and cooked them until they were thick and syrupy. Now I have luscious peach preserves for toast or for topping plain yogurt for a snack. Yum!

I have no real recipe for these jams or preserves. Cut up your fruit; add a bit of water if the fruit isn’t juicy, sugar to taste and cook until syrupy and thick, maybe 30-60 minutes. Mine took over an hour, but my frozen peaches produced a lot of liquid that had to be cooked off. Fresh fruit won’t take as long. Grandma made jelly (which uses only the juice) sometimes from the fruit, but there is more waste, more skill involved and more fussing. I almost exclusively stick with preserves, or I mash the fruit a bit more and call it jam. By any name, the results are beautiful and impressive to anyone who has never made preserves or jam. Post back and let me know what fruits you try this with this summer.

What food memories do you have from your childhood?