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 There are a lot of unsafe and outdated canning methods out there.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.

Cookies for Breakfast

I can’t believe I am advocating cookies for breakfast, but these really are healthy enough that I have been letting Calvin eat them for breakfast. They are certainly healthier than a commercial granola bar or cereal bar. If you aren’t ready to sanction cookies for breakfast, they also make a great snack, and just one leaves you more satisfied than a handful of pretzels, with a whole lot more nutrition.

I first saw the recipe on Emmy Cooks, which is worth a look, if you have time to check it out. Emmy got the recipe from another blog, Blue Kale Road, which she links to in her post. Another good read. Emmy made a couple of changes to the recipe and I made a few of my own.

The original recipe called for filling these with jam or preserves, as in a traditional thumbprint cookie. That sounded good to me, but I knew Calvin wouldn’t be crazy about them, so I filled some with raspberry jam, some with peanut butter and some with dark chocolate chips. Calvin prefers the chocolate and peanut butter ones, Rich the raspberry. I like them all.

These go together in minutes, and you only need a bowl and a wooden spoon. If you don’t keep whole wheat flour or oats on hand, these cookies are worth a trip to the store.

Play with these and see what you like the best, or what adaptations you want to make. Maybe more spices, no spices, almond extract instead of vanilla or no extract. Make changes, or make them as is, but make them. These are too good and too easy to go in the “someday” file. Post back and let me know how you like them when you try them.

Breakfast Thumbprint Cookies
Makes 24-30 cookies

I have used both imitation and real maple syrup in these. Use what you have on hand.

1 ½ cups rolled oats, old fashioned preferred
¾ cup oat flour*
1 ½ cups whole wheat flour (I used white whole wheat)
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ cup maple syrup
½ cup oil, olive or canola or a combo of the two
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Filling suggestions:
Jam
Peanut butter mixed with honey or maple syrup
Chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease two cookie sheets, or line them with parchment. Set aside.

In a large bowl, mix the rolled oats, oat flour, whole wheat flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon. Add maple syrup, oil and vanilla and mix well, until there are no dry pockets of flour or oats. You might not think it will come together, but keep mixing and you will get a stiff dough.

Use a small cookie scoop (mine holds a scant 2 tablespoons) or your damp hands to make  balls of dough. Flatten each ball slightly and use your thumb and fingers to make a well in the middle, building up the edges to hold the filling. If the cookies crumble, just press the edges back together with your fingers. Keep your hands damp and the dough won’t stick to them.

Now it is decision time: If you are using jam, fill each depression with about a teaspoon of jam at this point.

If you want to use peanut butter or chocolate, you will fill the cookies about halfway through the baking time. Bake them empty for the first 5 minutes and then fill. While they are beginning to bake, mix the peanut butter with a little honey or more maple syrup to loosen it just a bit. I used about 3 parts peanut butter to one part honey. Fill the cookies with about a teaspoon of your peanut butter mixture. Spread the filling out with a damp finger – it won’t change shape in the oven.

Or use about 5 chocolate chips per cookie. The chips will melt during the second half of the baking time. After the cookies come out of the oven, use the tip of a spoon or knife to gently smooth the chocolate.

Bake the cookies for 10-12 minutes, or until the tops are just starting to brown. If you are using peanut butter or chocolate, fill the cookies after 5 minutes in the oven.

Carefully remove cookies from baking sheets and allow to cool completely on racks. These keep well at room temperature, or you can freeze them for longer storage. The chocolate ones are good warmed in the microwave for a few seconds to melt the chocolate.

*If you don’t keep oat flour on hand (and I don’t) you can make it by grinding oats finely in a food processor, blender or coffee grinder. I find that ¾ cup of oats makes slightly more than ¾ cup of oat flour. Grind the oats, then measure the oat flour. Use any leftovers in pancakes, muffins or cookies.

Download the recipe here.

Taste of Spring Jam

I made jam again today. I know I did a post on jam a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t resist the strawberries and rhubarb at the local produce farm. I have been wanting to do something with rhubarb for a while, but I wasn’t sure I really even liked it. So I combined it with strawberries and made jam. Why mess with a classic combination?

I decided to can the jam since I am still eating the peach and strawberry preserves I made a few weeks back. I didn’t want to take up freezer space with the jam, so the only choice was canning. And then I would also have the option of using the jam for Christmas presents. Canning is relatively easy, even if you have never done it before. It really is a matter of boiling your filled jars in a water bath for the recommended time. Now this holds true for jams, jellies and pickles. Some things can’t be canned safely without a pressure canner, which I don’t have. If you are exploring canning, check a reliable source, like your local university extension or the Ball canning website to make sure you are using reliable and up-to-date directions. You don’t want to make anyone sick with your kitchen efforts.

I diced up my rhubarb and sliced the strawberries and mixed them with sugar. I think I might have used too much sugar, but I was afraid the rhubarb would be too sour without it. I must say I wasn’t too fond of the smell of the rhubarb cooking, but once the strawberries got going, everything smelled like roses strawberries. My jam wasn’t getting thick, and I forgot to get any pectin at the store (not that I have any experience with pectin, but I know what it is supposed to do). I know apples have pectin, especially in the peels, and I already had two kinds of fruit in my jam, so I chopped an apple in my mini food processor and added it to the mix. Another 15 minutes’ cooking and I was happy with my jam. It was sweet and tart and thick enough to spread on toast, though not as thick as commercial jam.

I washed and sterilized the jars while the jam was cooking and then filled the hot jars with the hot jam. I used my stockpot to process them, since I don’t have a canner (and forgot to borrow my mom’s last time I saw my parents). This was easier since I was using short, half-pint jars, which didn’t require the depth of the canner to make sure they were covered in water. Ten minutes to come to a boil, ten minutes boiling and my jam is now (hopefully) germ-free and vacuum-sealed to be shelf safe. Now it just needs to cool its heels in the basement and wait to be a taste of spring in the winter. I also made a few jars of plain strawberry jam to enjoy right now, as soon as fresh strawberry season is over. I canned those too, but I don’t think they will make it to winter!

Strawberry Rhubarb Jam
from The Cook’s Life
5-6 ½-pint jars

3 large stalks rhubarb, diced (about 3 cups of ½-inch pieces)
2 pints strawberries, sliced (about 6 cups)
½-1 cup sugar, to taste
1 apple, UNPEELED, cored and chopped fine in a food processor

Combine rhubarb, strawberries and ½ cup sugar in a 3-quart, or larger, saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat and cook uncovered for 30 minutes. Add the chopped apple and continue cooking for another 15 minutes, or until desired thickness.Taste for sweetness and add up to ½ cup more sugar, if desired. Jam will taste less sweet when cool.

If eating within a week or two, you don’t need to can the jam. Ladle the hot jam into clean canning jars and close the lids. Let the jars cool on the counter until they are room temperature. The lids may pop, which signals a vacuum seal has formed, but they aren’t shelf stable unless you process them in a boiling water bath. Store in the refrigerator once the jars are cool. Or store in the freezer for longer storage.

*To can your jam:

Wash your canning jars, lids and rings. Sterilize the jars by boiling them in water for 10 minutes. Use your canner or stockpot to sterilize the jars and then you can use the same water for the processing water bath later. Leave the jars in the hot water until you are ready to fill them. Boil the flat lids for 10 minutes and leave them in the hot water until you are ready to use them.

Ladle the hot jam into the hot jars and wipe the edges clean of any spilled jam. Put the lids on top, and screw the rings onto the jars, but only finger tight. Place the jars in a canner or a stockpot and fill it with water until the jars are submerged by at least an inch.

Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Keep the water at a steady boil for 10 minutes. Keep the lid on so your water doesn’t evaporate below the tops of the jars. Carefully remove hot jars and place on a towel to cool, undisturbed. Once the jars are cool, the lids should not move up and down when you press on them, indicating the vacuum has been formed. If any jars have not formed a seal, store them in the fridge and eat them within a week or two, just like unprocessed jam. Your canned jam should last about a year, stored in a cool dark place. Refrigerate the jam after opening.

*Check out the Ball canning website for all the details on home canning.

Download the recipe here.

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?