Each year I see all these wonderful recipes for canned goodies—homemade pickles, relishes, chutney, jams, marmalades, conserves, preserves, jellies, sun-dried tomatoes—and I SO long to make my own and try them out, give them as gifts to friends, and have a bit of summer sunshine stored for my own winter pantry.
But there’s been a problem: contemplating the process has caused great fear and trepidation in my soul. Even though it’s one of the most common ways to preserve homegrown foods, and is quite a simple process handed down through generations of folks, I just have not been able to bring myself to attempt it. So why all the angst? In three words: sterilization, pasteurization and the worst thought of all, botulism. Doing anything connected with those words made me want to run in the opposite direction.
So this year, as I’m seeing the new recipes in my favorite magazines, and reading amazing posts online of folks making luscious looking and sounding foods and preserving them, I’m feeling emboldened. Empowered. Possessed! I’m channeling the expertise of my maternal grandmother (Mamaw), who put up homemade jams, amazing pear conserves and sumptuous fig condiments from her very own trees, every single year. She would never have thought twice about this being a scary or difficult thing. I didn’t have the chance to learn canning from Mamaw before she died, but she would have been very proud of me yesterday. Here’s what I did.
My friend Wanda—one of two friends who actually do practice preserving—invited me to her house and her big kitchen to have a jam session. I searched for the best-sounding seasonal fruit recipes I could find, and, fully loaded with pounds of fruit and ready to cook, I landed in her kitchen at about 9:45 a.m., where we immediately went to work. I wanted to try out two recipes that didn’t require any additives and use cane sugar, and we also made two traditional jams with white sugar, and one using Sure-Jell. Our mission was to make a Cinnamon-Plum Chutney, a Peach-Orange Marmalade, a Drunken Fig Jam, and old-fashioned Blueberry Jam.
Some recipes call for letting the fruit macerate in the sugar before cooking—and also in the liquor if you’re using that—and while that is going on you can wash and sterilize your jars in the dishwasher or in boiling water, or do it while the mixture is cooking.
Once everything is in the pot, you bring it to a rolling boil which won’t stir down, then turn the heat to medium low and allow it to cook for the amount of time in the recipe, or until it gets to be thick and syrupy. Just before time for your product to be finished cooking, put your clean, sterilized and dry (be sure they are dry) jars out on a heatproof surface.
Some recipes require you to skim foam off of the cooked product before you put it into the jars. Our blueberry jam and the peach orange marmalade both required skimming. Once you’ve carefully ladled the jam or chutney into the jars, you’ll need to wipe off the rims with a wet paper towel. To sterilize the lids, heat a small bowl of water to boiling in the microwave, or pour some boiling water from a kettle into a bowl, and drop in the lids. Remove them with tongs, dry them really well, place them on the filled jars and screw on the tops. My mom says that Mamaw always turned her jars upside down once they had the lids and tops on to help make the seal, and Wanda recommended the same.
Lastly, we placed the jars in a large pot of boiling water with a rack in the bottom, covered it, and allowed the jars to sit in the water bath “pasteurizing” for 10 minutes. You then take the jars out carefully with tongs, place them on a kitchen towel and wait for them to cool. They make a lovely little pinging noise when each top pressure seals itself as the jars cool. And you’re done! We were overly ambitious and made 5 batches which resulted in 32 jars, but I’d recommend making 1 batch at a time. It requires fewer pots, less coordination, and a less large vehicle to process in. Revelation: really not hard to do at all. Next on my list: a ginger-lime marmalade and apple-thyme jelly.
And the best part….the tasting! Jam anyone?