I’ve been thinking, as the season gets going, and I make a few batches of jam and pickles, just to flex my muscles before teaching. And a few more batches to test some recipes. As I go through the motions, get my natural rhythms and instinctive moves fired up, as I doe-si-doe in my kitchen, I realize I’ve developed a whole choreography over the years, and I bet you will, or have already, too.
1. Time management. Don’t try to can when you are rushed. If you get slammed at work and can’t get home to make the jam, don’t fret – that fruit can macerate longer. In fact, I’ve let it go for five days with no adverse effect. All that time, it’s preserving in syrup, while resting, waiting it out, in the refrigerator. The sugar has already started to work its magic. After six, seven, eight days, it could ferment and you’ll make booze. Not such a bad thing. Or it may turn to vinegar. Also not a bad thing. So, relax. This is supposed to be fun, remember?
It’s possible to go from macerated fruit to finished jam-in-jars in one hour and forty five minutes. Two and half hours is a better estimate, providing the leeway for things to go awry. I can promise that multi-tasking while canning will result in something going terribly wrong. If you’ve never canned before, have all your notes and sites available so you can double and triple check. And don’t plan on chattering on the phone, doing laundry, running to the store, or anything else while jam is cooking on the stove, none of that. Focus, people.
2. Gather all your goods. Canning pot, saucepan, jam pot, funnels, cup measures, scale, thermometer, lid lifter, bubbler, jars, lids, rings, ladle, towels. By the way, if the flat lids have been warmed and the rubber softened, in preparation for processing, then are not placed on a jar – perhaps you heated too many lids? – they can still be used. Not until the seal forms, the ping happens, is the lid considered USED. I realize there is some confusion. Gather your mis en place – all the ingredients for your recipe. Be organized.
Fill the canning pot with water almost as soon as you think about canning and get it on the stove; it always takes so much longer to come to a boil when you’re waiting. Once the water boils, reduce the heat, cover, and keep it at a simmer until you’re ready to process. Sometimes this will mean the water has evaporated and might not fully cover the jars. This is one of the best reasons to have a separate saucepan for the lids and rings, full of already hot water. Top off the water in your canning pot with the saucepan water. Still not enough? Add the hottest water you can get out of the faucet. And don’t start counting processing minutes until the water has come back to a full boil.
3. Canning will not improve tasteless produce. Preserve the very best, at the very height of ripeness. Take a moment to smell your ingredients. Taste them. Do not buy inferior food. The fruit should smell so ripe, and so fruity, it’s almost like perfume.. Anything to be pickled should be firm and freshly picked. Tomatoes must not be mealy, but they can be very soft. Seconds are fine, but not rotten, underripe, or tasteless. Color is important, too. Green rhubarb will not make rosy rhubarb jam. To give you some context, I’ve read that Christine Ferber only uses fruit picked in the morning, after the dew rises, never after or during a rainstorm. Adopt this care to your produce, and your canned goods will be remarkable. Do your canning when the produce is ready, not when you are.
4. Dress for success. I have a favorite canning outfit. Light as air pants, long, to protect me from flying hot sugar. A well worn t shirt, so well worn, it must be worn OVER another shirt when I am around other people. Comfortable, sturdy shoes. I tie up my hair. I wear old glasses. It’s going to get hot and sweaty. And then it’s going to get hotter still. So get your uniform, and let the very act of putting on those clothes get you in the mood for canning. I have a favorite apron with a good pocket. A favorite thermometer. A spoon. But I’m silly and sentimental that way.
5. Put your left foot in, put your left foot out. Have a rhythm, a set way of doing things. Do you fill all the jars, then wipe all the rims clean, then attach all the lids? Or do you finish one jar at a time? I fuss with each jar, one after the other. By doing this the same way every time, I build in a physical act that feels familiar, so if something interrupts me, I won’t forget any steps. It’s in me.
6. Give back. Share your treats. You’ll thrill even the most hard-hearted. And then encourage these lucky recipients of your homemade goods to return the jars. Reusing jars is responsible, after all, and makes this whole preservation thing green and good for the planet. Tell your friends returns guarantee refills. Jar etiquettte.
7. Set the scene. You’ll want some inspirational, dancing, sing along background music. Or a book on tape (I find it’s really easy to give my full concentration while dutifully stirring preserves.) Or something to get you through the boring times. Ever mandoline ten pounds of jalapenos? Sometihing to distract the mind somehow brings focus to repetitive tasks.
You may be happiest with a canning companion – so find a friend. I love my alone time, so most of my recipe development comes from time spent in the kitchen by myself. But I’m also happy to share the experience, as I do with friends, and with students, for the frivolity and joy that swirls around the canning kitchen.
8. Pretty presentation. It’s lovely to use herbs to flavor jam, but most do not hold up well to canning, turning avocado green or black in the jar. Use whole, washed stalks, add them during maceration and remove before jarring. Vanilla bean, on the other hand, if used as a primary ingredient, looks very smart inside the jar, so cut it into short lengths and press a piece on the inside of the jar before filling. The same is true of a very thin lemon wheel. Slim orange zest. Or a seeded chile ring. If it’s in the recipe, and looks pretty, decorate away. Use whole seeds and herb stalks in pickling brine, or use a cheesecloth bag, then remove it before jarring. Powdered or dried herbs will make a brine cloudy and unattractive. If your processed jars have mineral deposits from hard water, add 2 Tbls. white vinegar to the boiling water bath to make your jars sparkle.
9. Be creative, and safe. Use your canned goods up within a year. Jam is so much more than something for toast. Try filling cookies, spooning into yogurt, add a spoonful to a cocktail. Warm fruit preserves and spoon it over pancakes. Mix jam with mustard and herbs and wine for a glaze for chicken or tofu. Use pickle juice when building a brine for chicken or pork. It has the same elements of acid and salt. Or add some chopped pickles to your next grilled cheese. Stir hot pickled peppers into mayonnaise for a kickin’ sandwich spread. Cure mustard, then loosen with wine and herbs and yogurt for a dip or sandwich topper. Use your foods. And if you are the recipient of a friend’s jar of goodness, please open it, taste it, tell your friend how much you loved it. Or give honest feedback. But don’t just stick it on your shelf and forget it.
10. Celebrate. After all the hot canning, the steam, the sugar is over, take out pretty plates and tea cups and have tea and crumpets to test your jam. Or cheese and salami to partner with pickles. Or a cold beer. Or a cocktail. Or celebrate by making adorable labels. Just make sure to spend some time admiring your work. And when you’re invited somewhere, take a jar of your creation, it will start a conversation, inspire a cheese plate, ensure a great breakfast.
Happy Canning! If you’re all rarin’ and ready to go, try Strawberry Rhubarb Confiture and Pickled Asparagus and Spring Onions, from my recent New York Times article. And another favorite, back in blog time, to my favorite Strawberry Jam recipe.