The first time I tried preserving I was broke. I had my first real job, my first real apartment and I was feeling like a grown-up. I wanted to find an affordable way to give Christmas gifts to all those loved-ones, aunts and uncles mostly, who had steadfastly remembered me through the years with gifts for all my major milestones. I stumbled upon a recipe for cranberry chutney and instructions for preserving it. I was motivated to action by the idea that my hand-labeled gifts might hang around their kitchens for a while, greeting my relatives like a postcard from me.
I borrowed an old enameled crab steamer from my crazy cat-lady neighbor, made a meager investment in supplies,
and using an old soup ladle and wobbly tongs, got to work. After a steamy afternoon in my cramped kitchen, I had 18 jars of ruby-red deliciousness. A surprising thing happened that winter; I got subtle requests along with thank-you notes. I had started a tradition!
A few years and a few recipes down the road; I moved to Georgia and inherited a very fertile peach tree. Its branches became so heavy with fruit they would droop to the ground and sometimes break during summer storms. I tried every peach recipe on hand, but couldn’t quite keep up with the profusion of produce. My dog grew fat eating peaches from the yard; later he got drunk eating them after they fermented in the sun. Ginger-peach marmalade put those peaches to year-round use and kept my dog from a 12-step program.
Over time, I’ve experimented with recipes using in-season produce like strawberries in spring, zucchini in summer and apples in the fall. Local farmer’s markets continue through October, and should provide an abundant source of fresh fruits, vegetables and inspiration.
When the time comes for gifting (with your personal stash safe in the pantry), jars look festive adorned with scraps of fabric from gingham to organza and tied with raffia or ribbon. But why not take creativity a step further? Cut squares from craft-store fishnet and add beachy gift tags tied with kitchen twine. For more local flavor, reproduce area maps complete with a star locating your home place. Cut the paper to size and place under the jar’s screwband.
As a “recreational” canner, I stick with the water-bath canning method, which is used for preserving high-acid foods such as jam, jelly, most fruits, pickles, and tomatoes that have been acidified (packed with vinegar for instance). Food that is very sweet, very salty, or very acidic is intimidating to bacteria and is preserved safely and easily with the boiling-water process.
Today, any grocery store in America is filled with a large selection of commercially-preserved products at affordable prices. Why would anyone want to can or preserve?
Perhaps the simplest reason is that no gardener wants to let that bumper crop go to waste. Or, if you prepare and preserve it yourself, you know what’s IN it. Eating locally is also a worthy goal. The last of this season’s homegrown tomatoes would be especially savory in the dead of winter.
But the best reason, I think, the best reason for anything really, is for love. It’s about patience, anticipation, attention and optimism. What could be more satisfying than giving a bit of yourself—making and sharing tasty, quirky recipes preserved in gleaming jars of goodness? Who wouldn’t smile thinking of dear ones doling out a little love, one spoonful at a time?
- You don’t have to stock up on fancy equipment to try water-bath canning. Any tall, heavy stockpot or seafood steamer will do. It must, however, have some sort of rack on the bottom to keep jars out of direct contact with the heat source. A round cake rack can do the job. Or, in a pinch, place extra jar bands on the bottom of your pot. Kitchen tongs or a “jar lifter” are necessary for removing jars from very hot water. If you want to invest in some basic tools, canning starter sets are available for $50 or less at many stores (even some grocery stores).
- Wash jars, lids and bands in hot soapy water, or run them through the dishwasher.
- Preheat the water in the canner to almost a simmer.
- If the recipe calls for a processing time of ten minutes or longer, you do not have to sterilize jars. They will be sterilized during processing. If the recipe has a processing time of less than 10 minutes, boil the lids and jars in the canner for ten minutes before filling with food. Keep them in the hot water until ready to use.
- Whether sterilized or not, the jars and lids need to be hot before filling. Place them in the water-bath canner and let them heat up while the recipe cooks, or keep them hot in the dishwasher.
- For proper sealing, fill the jars leaving the headspace specified in the recipe. Follow the recipe directions exactly.
- Wipe jar rims with a damp paper towel to remove drips. Place the flat lid on the jar and secure with a screw band. The band should be “finger tight.” Do not over tighten—steam needs to escape from the jar during processing and sealing.
- Place jars in the canner and make sure they remain upright. Water should be one to two inches above the tops of the jars. With canner lid in place, heat until the water boils vigorously for the time recommended in the recipe.
- Once the correct time has elapsed, turn off heat, remove canner lid and wait five minutes before removing jars.
- Remove jars from canner and allow to cool and seal. A “pop” indicates a successful seal. Check seals after 12 to 24 hours by pushing down on the center of lid, it should be slightly concave with no sound or movement. If any jar fails to seal, put it in the refrigerator and eat the contents within a few weeks. All sealed jars can be stored for up to a year.