There are moments when I stand in my steamy kitchen, canning late at night, and wonder why I do this to myself every year. But before the canning jars are even cooled down, the colorful lineup of delicious jams, jellies, and chutneys makes me forget all the work. Here are a few tips for capturing the flavors of summer.
The Raw Materials
Whether it’s from your own garden or from a farmers’ market, locally-grown produce is the best because it is picked at its peak, and its quality has not degraded from long storage or shipping.
Some cookbooks and recipes recommend slightly under-ripe fruit for canning because it contains more acid, which helps the setting of jam or jelly. I disagree with that; for me, riper is better because ripe fruit is more flavorful. However, fruit that’s overripe and near spoiling should not be used. To make up for the lower acidity of ripe fruit, you can add lemon juice or citric acid, which some recipes already call for.
Pectin is a natural gelling agent for jams and jellies. It comes in solid or liquid form, with varying fruit-to-sugar ratios. Unless you make something with rhubarb, which is extremely tart, I prefer the pectin products for less sugar or no sugar recipes. Omitting pectin altogether in jams and jellies is an option, yet the final product is usually more liquid and requires longer cooking, especially if the fruit is very juicy. Pectin keeps the cooking time at a minimum, giving more of a fresh fruit taste.
Mixing cut-up fruit with spices and/or herbs and letting them steep overnight intensifies their flavor. For jelly, spices can be whole or crushed and tied into a piece of cheesecloth. Ground spices make the jelly murky.
Note that stone fruits such as peaches and apricots, as well as apples, pears, and quince, turn brown once they are peeled and cut. This can be avoided by adding a few tablespoons of lemon juice or a teaspoon of citric acid to the mix.
Unlike spices and herbs, it is best to add alcohol-based flavorings at the last minute to the cooked jam or jelly, as the alcohol would evaporate during cooking. Champagne is always a fun one – in fact, check out our previous guide to Champagne food pairings for more fizzy ideas.
If you do canning regularly, and in large amounts, a canning pot with a fitted jar rack is a must. For smaller batches of up to four half-pint jars, I leave my canning pot in storage and use an 8-quart stockpot — much less water to heat, much quicker, and less heat and steam in the kitchen.
To prevent the jars from bouncing around on the bottom in the boiling water bath and breaking, I place a silicone potholder or an uncoated metal trivet at the bottom of the stockpot. Once the jars are sitting in the boiling water bath, I also insert a couple of tightly folded kitchen towels between them so they won’t bang together.
The three essential canning tools are a canning funnel that fits both on regular and wide-mouth canning jars, a jar lifter, and a lid lifter with a magnet for both the metal bands and the lids.
The standard way of extracting juice from fruit to make jelly is with a jelly bag. I tried this a few times and found it messy, painfully slow, and the yield rather poor. Then I remembered that my mother and grandmother in Germany always used a steam juicer. It is a large pot that consists of three elements: a base kettle filled with water, a colander holding the fruit, and a juice kettle into which the juice drips down from the fruit in the colander as the water in the base kettle boils and thus softens the fruit. The juice is then released through a drain tube.
The steam juicer is the showpiece of my canning collection, and my favorite piece of kitchen equipment. Stainless steel models run $100 and up, but the stream of clear juice it produces with little effort on my part makes it worth every penny. I do not recommend the cheaper models made of aluminum because it reacts with the acid.
For generations, Americans have canned their jams, jellies, and preserves in Mason jars until the chemical BPA (bisphenol A) became a red flag. The underside of the metal canning lids has a coating that contains BPA. From the lid the chemical can seep into the food, posing serious health risks. When turned upside down, the content of a canning jar will be exposed to BPA.
The alternative to Mason jars are European-style jars with glass lids and a rubber gasket, commonly known as “Weck jars” after the leading German manufacturer. However, the jars are not commonly available and must be mail-ordered.
I make sure to always keep filled Mason jars upright, and when I give canned goods away as gifts, I tell people to do the same. Until an economical BPA-free lid alternative becomes available, I will stick with the good old Mason jars.
The two main areas where things can go wrong in canning are hygiene and heat. When jam or jelly cooks, scum often forms at the top. It comes from impurities in the produce and is nothing to worry about; simply skim it off with a large clean spoon. Some older recipes tell you to add a bit of butter to cut down the scum. I don’t like the idea of unnecessarily adding quickly perishable animal fat to canned goods, which could turn them rancid.
Before filling the jars, make sure they are clean and free of chips. Placing the jars in the canning pot with boiling water for a few minutes, together with the lids and bands, does the job. To prevent the jars from cracking when filling them with piping hot jam or jelly, place them on a damp kitchen towel. After filling the jars, wipe the rims with a clean damp paper towel. The rims must be immaculately clean because any residue will prevent the lids from sealing properly.
Finally, when you slowly lower the jars into the boiling water bath for processing, make sure that the content of the jars is still very hot. If there is a significant temperature difference between the content of the jars and the water, the jars will crack. After removing the jars from the boiling water bath, place them again on a damp kitchen towel.
Give jars time to rest, about 24 hours. If they are in your way near the stove, place them directly from the canning pot onto a tray lined with a damp kitchen towel, then move the tray to a location where it can remain undisturbed until the next day.
Many fruits — all berries, peaches, apricots, plums, and grapes — as well as some vegetables, such as peppers and tomatoes can be frozen and processed later, with no loss in quality. So if you have space in the freezer, there is no need to do all of the canning in the summer heat. You can still pack the flavors of summer in a jar on a crisp fall day.
Makes 8 half-pint jars
- 4 1/2 cups sugar
- 1 tablespoon dried culinary lavender blossoms
- 3 1/2 pounds ripe apricots
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 package Sure Jell for less or no sugar (pink package)
In a food processor, process 1/2 cup of the sugar with the lavender blossoms until they are a fine powder. This generates quite a bit of dust, so cover the opening of the food processor funnel with a piece of paper towel.
Wash and halve the apricots and remove the stones. Chop the apricots finely and mix them with the lavender sugar and lemon juice in a plastic or glass bowl with a tight-fitting cover. Refrigerate overnight.
Mix 1/4 cup of the remaining sugar with the Sure Jell and add it to the apricots. Pour the mixture into a large saucepan and mix well. Slowly bring to a full rolling boil that does not stop bubbling when stirred. Add the remaining sugar and stir well, also scraping over the bottom of the pan, to fully dissolve the sugar. Cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
Fill the piping hot jam into sterilized jars placed on a damp kitchen towel, leaving about 1/2 inch headspace. Wipe the rims of the jars with a damp piece of paper towel to remove any drips. Place the lids and the bands on the jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Let cool and set for 24 hours without moving the jars.
Golden Zucchini Chutney
Recipe adapted from Preserving by Oded Schwartz
Makes 6 one-pint jars
- 3 1/2 pounds golden zucchini (yellow summer squash)
- 3 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon corn oil
- 3 tablespoons black mustard seeds
- 1 1/2 tablespoons freshly ground coriander
- 1 dried medium-hot red chili
- 1 1/2 tablespoons turmeric
- 4 large onions, halved and thinly sliced
- 7 large carrots, peeled and grated
- 8 ounces candied ginger, finely chopped
- 6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
- 5 cups apple cider vinegar
- 1 3/4 cups sugar
Cut the zucchini (do not peel if using organic) in half lengthwise and scrape out any seeds. Cut into half-inch cubes.
Place the zucchini in a colander and sprinkle with half of the salt. Let stand for one hour. Rinse under cold water and drain well.
Heat the oil in a large non-corrosive pot. Add the mustard seeds, coriander, and chili, and fry until the mustard seeds pop and the spices release their flavors. Add the turmeric and stir.
Add the zucchini with all of the remaining ingredients except the sugar and the remaining salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer for 25 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft.
Add the sugar and salt and simmer for 1 to 1-1/4 hours, until most of the liquid has disappeared and the chutney as a thick consistency. Remove the chili.
Fill into sterilized canning jars and process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes. Let sit for 2 months before opening.
Recipe by Andy Hayes
Makes 4 half-pint jars
This jam is most delicious when added to pancakes, on top of French toast or a crepe, some freshly baked biscuits, and even with a spoonful stirred into your favorite lemonade (or margarita) for a refreshing change.
- 2 cups blueberries
- 1 cup blackberries
- 1/4 cup lemon or lime juice
- 2 teaspoons Pomona calcium water, mixed according to package directions
- 1/2 cup honey
- 3 teaspoons Pomona pectin powder
Wash the berries, remove all stems, and check them for bad spots. Do not make a jam with any berries that you wouldn’t readily pop into your mouth, but don’t eat them all!
Mash the fruit together with the lemon juice. Make sure the fruit gets completely mashed and mixed together. Place into a pan over medium heat and add the calcium water.
In a separate pan, warm the honey until it is thin and runs off your spoon. Add the pectin powder and incorporate fully. Once combined, add to your fruit mixture and bring to a boil, stirring to ensure the bottom of the mixture does not burn.
Fill the jam into sterilized jars and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.
Photo credits: Ted Rosen, Ted Rosen, Jules, Ted Rosen, Ted Rosen, and Andy Hayes.