Putting up

It’s been ages since I’ve posted anything here. I’m not sure why I got out of the habit … maybe  we  were getting a little tired of animal fat;  maybe it was with the heat of summer, as I wasn’t as keen on spending hours on end in the kitchen. It was probably a combination of the two.

Our heat wave broke this week–but to be honest,  Leslie, an old friend of Daniel’s, remarked that she enjoyed my entries  and was hoping to see something new soon.. there ‘s nothing like a little positive feedback to get you going again!

Recently,  here in Toronto. the produce shops and supermarkets were spilling over with the best of what the growing season has to offer here. So maybe it’s some weird instinct I have, but the call to start preserving things is generally something I can’t resist. I get these twee images in my head of shelves filled with jars filled with wonderful looking things, like some latter-day pioneer, who feels compelled to “put up” foods lest starvation set in mid-way through the winter.   Every year, when I pass by piles of peaches, or cherries or tomatoes, I buy enough to feed an army, drag my bounty home, and then … I feel tears well up in my eyes as the understanding of how much work I have ahead of me sinks in.

Preserving fruits and vegetables IS labour-intensive and time consuming. Some years, it feels like all the work is worth it, particularly if things go smoothly. Other years (like this one), I find I want to just throw everything into the composter mid-way through the process. But at least this year, I figured out that the secret to success is probably careful planning and organization. Or at least, I’ve chalked up my recent frustrations to my lack of either this time around.

I’m usually pretty good at “winging it” in the kitchen. It drives Daniel crazy that I will attempt to prepare a moderately elaborate meal without first tidying the kitchen of whatever project was underway earlier in the day. I can work with pretty much whatever ingredients and counter space are available.   But winging it is not ideal when you’re preserving fruits and vegetables. For example, if you’re going to make some brandied peaches, make sure you get the right peaches. I screwed up twice. The first time, I bought “Baby Gold” peaches, which are like grenades, but which, I was assured by the produce clerk, are great for cooking … if you like cooked grenades, I soon learned. And as much as the skin stubbornly refused to come off after the usual trick of dunking the peaches in a pan of simmering water, the pit was embedded in the flesh as surely as the electron of a hydrogen atom is bound to its nucleus. So, the idea of having neatly quartered peaches went out the window, and I ended up making a rather chunky chutney with these puppies instead.

On the second attempt, I came home with some beautiful, fragrant peaches that were perfectly ripe. The peels slipped off like a charm. But … it turns out they were cling, not freestone peaches, meaning the pit is impossible to get out without completely crushing the peach flesh. So now I’m making some peach jam (which I’m not all that fond of, but it might make good gifts).

If you do feel overcome, as I was, with the urge to channel a mid-twentieth century farm wife, I highly recommend that you do the following:

1. Decide what you want to make, find a modern, tested recipe for it, and then and only then, go shopping for your ingredients

Avoid the temptation of buying three bushels of tomatoes before you’ve figured out what you’re going to do with them. You might find you haven’t bought enough, or bought far more than you want or need. Remember, all those tomatoes need to be peeled and cored by hand, unless you’ve got a fancy electric gizmo for grinding them up.   Also, you don’t want to find yourself substituting ingredients that will affect the outcome of all your work. When I made my chutney, I didn’t have yellow mustard seeds or golden raisins. So I used black mustard seed and currants. The chutney tastes great, but it sort of has the appearance of something that might spill out of the Keystone oil pipeline, if it ever gets built.

2. Use a recipe you trust

It’s not  the taste and texture of the final product that I’m concerned about here – though these are important considerations; rather, you need to be more concerned that you’re not going to kill whomever you feed your preserved food to. Botulism can form easily in improperly preserved foods, and it can be lethal. The good thing is that it’s easy to prevent, provided you follow a method that’s been tested for safety. You want to see at least one of the following two steps in a recipe: (1) immersing the sealed jars in a boiling water for a period of time to ensure that bad microbes in the jar’s contents are killed, or (2) for recipes that do not call for the boiling water bath (typically for cooked foods that are high in sugar, and thus boil at a temperature higher than that of water, and that are bottled while boiling hot, like jams), sterilizing the jars in boiling water. A dishwasher does NOT sterilize. Not even a fancy European one that lights up in side and plays “Sweet Lass of Richmond Hill” when you open the door.  (Note: Sterilizing jars is not necessary if you process the sealed jars in boiling water for 10 minutes or longer but then, it can’t hurt either.) If the recipe you’re using doesn’t call for either of these steps, then look for another one. You might be able to adapt your great-grandmother’s recipe, say, by boiling the sealed jars for a period of time, but you run the risk of over-cooking the contents, and it might not turn out as you expected.

3. Make sure you have all the equipment you need.

Here’s what you NEED:

  • Glass Mason jars of the appropriate size for what you are bottling. Quarts are ideal for dill pickles, but they’re too big for jam, unless you’re making institutional quantities. Pint jars are ideal for most fruit preserves, such as peaches or pears. 8-oz. jars are great for jams and jellies.  Jars with sloped necks (where the opening at the top is narrower than the lower part of the jar) are best for food that retains more or less it’s original shape when you bottle it.  Think dill pickles, peaches, whole tomatoes, etc.  This is because the sloping neck of the jar helps to keep pieces of food submerged in whatever liquid (e.g. brine, sugar syrup) you’re using as a preservative.  Even for food that is cut into smaller pieces, like bread-and-butter pickles, or quarter peaches, the sloped neck helps.  Save the wide-mouth, wide-bodied jars for stuff that’s pourable while hot: jams,  jellies, chutneys, etc.
  • Brand new sealing or snap lids. Do not try to re-use lids; the gasket will almost certainly fail and your food will spoil. You can re-use the screw-bands that hold the lids down. Lids come in two standard sizes, regular (70mm), and wide-mouth (86mm); there is also the non-standard “Gem” size, which is 78mm wide.  Gem jars are no longer made, but they were popular many years ago, especially on the Canadian prairies.  The snap lids and rings are still made for people that still have these jars, and based on the quantity my local Canadian Tire had in stock there are lots of them out there still.
  • A canning kettle. You can make do with a large stock pot, but you must have a rack that covers the bottom of the pot. Jars should never sit directly on the pot bottom. You want to be able to fit several jars in a once, without them touching each other. The pot needs to be deep enough so that the jars are covered in 1” of water, and deep enough that you can have a full, rolling boil  without it slopping over the sides of the pot.
  • A jar lifter. Do not attempt to lift jars out of deep, boiling water unless you want to seriously scald yourself. I speak from personal experience.
  • Lots of clean, dry dishtowels to rest hot jars on. When you remove jars from the hot water bath, put them on towel-lined cookie sheet. The towel protects the jars from temperature changes that can cause the jar to crack, which will almost certainly happen if you put the jar onto a granite or marble counter. The cookie sheet makes it easier to move multiple jars at once.
  • For tomatoes, you need to add acidify the contents of the jar, using either bottled lemon juice, or citric acid. Your grandmother never added this to her bottled tomatoes or tomato sauce, but most tomatoes we get these days have been bred to be less acidic than those that were grown in the past. When preserving foods without a pressure canner, acidity is critical to preventing bad microorganisms from growing in your canned foods. Modern recipes for bottling tomatoes or tomato sauce will always advise you to increase the acidity by adding bottled lemon juice (not fresh – the acidity isn’t consistent) or powdered citric acid. I found citric acid at my local supermarket; health food stores or bulk stores also carry it.  For more information see http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_03/tomato_intro.html.

These things are nice to have:

  • A canning funnel. This is particularly useful when you are ladling hot food into jars. You want the food IN the jar, not spilling down the sides of it. Without a funnel, you will have more mess to clean up, and you can potentially waste a lot of food that would otherwise go into the jar. They are available in almost any store that sells canning supplies.
  • A pressure canner. Definitely in the category of nice-to-have, by no means is this necessary unless you plan to preserve low-acid foods, like most vegetables, soups, or meats or fish. I love mine mainly because it is big; it will hold two layers of jars, stacked, which is great when you are bottling large quantities of something. For example, I use it when I do a bushel of tomatoes. You don’t need to use it as a pressurized canner, even though it has that capability. If you have a vegetable garden that gives you a bumper crop of green beans, peas, carrots or corn (among other things), the pressure canner makes it easy to safely preserve these so that you can eat them months later. If you make large batches of beef or chicken stock, you can bottle it so that it can be stored at room temperature, at a fraction of the price of the tetra-paks of stock from the supermarket.

In the end, I’m still not sure whether the effort I put in this year was worth it. I have a lot of different things in jars now: peach jam, peach chutney, brandied peaches, brandied cherries, my mother-in-law’s bread-and-butter pickles, dill pickles (vinegar-brined and fermented), pickled okra (wonderful as an alternative to olives in a martini!), and a few jars of tomato sauce. I guess I won’t know until several weeks from now, when I open my first jar … but I’m guessing brandied fruit over ice cream will make the worst winter day just a little bit better.

Copyright (C) 2015, Allan Risk. All rights reserved.

4 thoughts on “Putting up

  1. I know it seems like that. I used to have a Crock Pot, which I stored on top of the fridge. But one day it fell off and the ceramic crock broke. So since then I haven’t had one. I find I can make do with my porcelain-enamelled dutch oven … I just put it into my oven at a very low temperature (like 200 degrees), and I can replicate a slow cooker’s action.

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