Finally, summer is here! Evenings are getting longer and more and more beautiful produce is showing up in stores and farmers markets every week. So much that you almost can’t eat it fast enough. That is where canning comes in. Making your own jams and pickles may sound intimidating, but with a few simple tips you can turn the abundance of summer produce into preserves that will last the rest of the year.
The Basics of Water-Bath Canning
There are two primary ways of home canning, water-bath and pressure canning. We’re going to stick with water-bath canning here because it is the easiest place to start and will allow you to can a variety of things with the least special equipment. While there is a lot of special equipment available, you can water-bath can with just:
- Home canning jars, rings, and lids.
- A large pot that has space for water to cover the jars by at least an inch and still have room to boil. It is preferable for the pot to have a rack in the bottom.
- Sturdy tongs for transferring jars from the pot to the counter.
Water-bath canning is appropriate for high acid items, like fruits and pickles. Meats and (un-pickled) vegetables should only be canned in a pressure canner. The short version of water-bath canning safety is: (1) always make sure your jars are sterilized, (2) put hot liquid into hot jars, and (3) process in boiling water for the appropriate amount of time.
To prepare for any water-bath canning:
- Start with clean jars, rings, and new lids. Rings (and jars) can be re-used multiple times, but lids must be new each time to form a seal.
- Place the jars in a large pot. Place the rings and lids in a separate sauce pan.
- Fill the jars and pot with water, cover, and bring to a boil. Do the same for the rings and lids.
- Let the jars boil for 10 minutes. Turn off heat (leave water in the pot).
- Remove jars from the boiling water using tongs and place on a dish towel.
- Fill hot jars with hot jam or pickles (see tips below). This is key: Always fill hot jars with hot liquid. (There are some recipes for canning whole fruits that call for placing room temperature fruit into room temperate jars, but we’ll leave that for another day…)
- With a very clean, damp cloth wipe any drips from the rims of the jars. Without touching the seal, place boiled lids on top of filled jars, and then screw on rings.
- Carefully transfer jars back to water and return to a boil. Once the water is boiling, “process” half-pint or pint jars for 10 minutes.
- When processing time is over remove the jars of jam and place them somewhere they can sit without being disturbed for the next 24 hours. Over the next few minutes the lids will “pop” as they cool and seal. After a few hours, test the lids to make sure they’ve sealed by pressing down gently on the top. If you can push the middle of the lid down with your finger then it isn’t sealed. If this happens, either replace the lid and process again, or simple refrigerate and enjoy over the next few weeks.
Jam is possibly the easiest place to start canning. Jam makes irresistible fruit possibly become even better, and opening a jar in the winter is like a mini time machine back to the warm days of summer. After growing up making jam with fruit, sugar, and pectin, I recently discovered my new absolute favorite way of making jam, with no pectin. If you’re going through the trouble of making your own jam, why not make it as pure and perfect as possible? There are numerous recipes for jam, but here are a few tips that will help you through every time:
- Since jam has very few ingredients the key to great flavor is to start with high quality, ripe fruit. I personally am a big fan of “u-pick” farms.
- Wash, peel (if necessary), and chop fruit before measuring or weighing it.
- Once you’ve cut and measured your fruit, add sugar. This can be done immediately before cooking if using a jam recipe that calls for pectin, but should be done at least 12 hours in advance if you’re not using pectin.
- Cook jam according to recipe instructions. The wider the pot the more quickly the jam will thicken. Adding about a half tablespoon of butter per 2-3 pounds of fruit will discourage foam from forming as the fruit cooks.
- Once fruit is done cooking, taste and adjust sugar to taste. Often if it seems like a little something is missing – the thing that the jam needs is a dash of lemon juice.
- Place hot jam into hot jars, skim off any remaining foam, and process according to instructions above. Or keep in the fridge and eat within the next week or two.
I love to make jam in small batches and experiment with additional add-ins and flavors. For every 2 pounds of fruit you can easily add up to 1/4 teaspoon spices or herbs and 1 tablespoon of fruit juice, liquor, or extract. Some of my personal favorite combinations are Plum-Thyme-Balsamic Vinegar, Strawberry-Cardamom-Lemon, Peach-White Wine, Plum-Cinnamon-Whiskey, Blackberry-Mint-Red Wine, and Strawberry-Bay Leaf (picture below). Feel free to experiment and have fun! Of course, sometimes the simplicity of beautiful fresh fruit is all you need, so feel free to just leave the natural perfection alone with a simple recipe.
While most people associate pickling with pickles made from cucumbers, the truth is that you can pickle most vegetables, and even fruits. Recipes vary widely depending on the vegetable or fruit being pickled, based on the natural acidity of the item. For example, since most vegetables naturally have a very low acidity, vinegar and salt are used to increase the acidity to a point where it is safe to water-bath can them — so follow recipes carefully!
If crispy dill pickles are what you are craving, I would recommend skipping the water-bath canning and and instead make refrigerator dill pickles.
Canning is a great way to continue to enjoy the bounty of summer year round. I make enough jam that I eat it on everything from the traditional toast and PB&J’s, to oatmeal, cheese plates, ice cream, and as a glaze on roasted or grilled meats.