As long as my husband has known me, I've had an ever-growing collection of canning jars.
Friends of ours got married in May and used canning jars in their centerpieces. At the end of the night, the bride said she planned to recycle them unless I wanted them. I happily accepted.
With my canning-jar collection now rivaling my husband's hockey gear in terms of taking up space in our spare closet, my husband asked me one afternoon what, exactly, was I planning to do with all of those jars?
Two quarts of spicy dill pickles, seven quarts and eight pints of blueberry pie preserves, and four pints of strawberry jam later, he has something of an answer.
I make food and put it in jars and then save it. I'm a canner.
Family: My mother is an avid gardener, and has "put up" (to use the archaic term) preserves pretty much my whole life. The child of Depression-era parents, she firmly believes in stockpiling what you have today against tomorrow when you might not have it. From her I have learned to can, what can be water-bath canned and what needs to be pressure-canned, and so much more. Later this summer, she will be bringing me several pounds of green beans, which I will turn into dilly beans and then eat all winter long.
The magic of canning is chemistry — you take a fresh food and you preserve it in such a way that it becomes what is called "shelf stable." It becomes food that can be kept on a shelf for an extended period of time and eaten later. Canning (or "putting by" or "putting up" or "preserving") is what our ancestors did before ice boxes and refrigerators and 24/7 Giant supermarkets and trains, planes and automobiles that brought out-of-season produce to them. It preserved the summer's bounty through the fall and winter.
The joy of at-home canning is that you can make whatever you want, however you want — you control what goes into it, and by extension what goes into your and your family's bodies.
At-home canning seems to scare people, and a healthy dose of caution is good — the first rule of home canning is "Thou shalt not spread botulism." Canning is more like baking than it is like cooking — the science behind it is precise and necessary. You can't skip steps or cut corners without facing the very real possibility of spoiled food.
But just because canning is precise doesn't mean it's not also easy — it really is. Everything I have canned so far this summer I've canned in an afternoon or an evening after work.
Today I'm giving you a recipe for blueberry pie preserves. My husband, sister-in-law and nephew all love blueberry pie, and thanks to a summer crop of blueberries, a little know-how, and an evening of canning, they'll have made-from-scratch blueberry pie for dessert this Thanksgiving.
Equipment: Let's talk equipment. The first thing you need is a canner. There are two kinds: Water-bath canners and pressure canners. Blueberry pie preserves can be water-bath canned, which is the easier method. You'll need a large water-bath canner with a jar rack, a jar-lid lifter, a funnel, a bubble-remover, a jar-lifter, a jar wrench, pint-sized jars, lids and bands.
The water-bath canner and the canning utensil set can be purchased together or separately, from just about any retailer (I bought mine on clearance at Target for $18). The jars, lids and bands can be purchased at most grocery stores.
You will also need gelatin, which is what makes the preserves set up. There are many different brands, so feel free to experiment until you find the one you like. Because I use so much of it, I buy it in bulk. Read the back of the box carefully and make sure you have enough gelatin for your fruit and enough fruit for your gelatin. (Note: You may use Sure-Jell, a pectin product, or ClearJel, a starchy thickening agent.)
Prep: The key to successful canning is cleanliness. You want everything as clean as possible to avoid contamination or bacterial growth. Once you buy the jars, take off the lids (the flat piece) and bands (the screw piece). Put the lids in a small pan of water on the stove, turn it on low and let them come to a boil. Boil them for about five minutes, then turn the water off and let them sit in the warm water. Do not let them boil dry. Run the glass jars through your dishwasher to thoroughly clean them, then run it on a "sterilize" setting if you have one (if not, just run them through a separate hot-water rinse). Keep them in the dishwasher and keep them warm. While your dishwasher is running, fill your water-bath canner with water about half-way to three-quarters full (overfilling will result in a demonstration of Archimedes' principle all over your kitchen floor with boiling-hot water.) Put the rack in the canner, but hook it over the edges using the hooks in the arms. Put the lid on (it won't fit tightly and that's OK), turn it to hot and bring it to a boil.
Berries: Wash your blueberries by running cool water over them in a colander. Remove any mushy, squishy, bruised or broken berries as well as any stems or leaves. Allow them to sit in the colander and drain. In a large pot on the stove, mix the sugar and water over low heat until the sugar starts to dissolve. Add the gelatin mix and stir until the whole mix is dissolved. Note: It's not going to dissolve completely; you're putting a lot of sugar into not a lot of water. You want a gritty consistency. Bring this mix to a boil and stir until it thickens. Add the lemon juice and stir well.
Remove from heat. Pour blueberries into the sugar-gelatin-water mixture and stir until the berries are well-coated. Line the still-warm jars up on your countertop. Using a funnel, ladle the berry mixture into them, leaving one-half-inch of head space. It's likely that your bubble remover will have a ruler on it to measure, but a good rule of thumb is that from the top of the jar to where the neck widens is your headspace. Be careful not to overfill — your jars WILL leak in the water-bath and you WILL take them out to find them covered by sticky residue. Use the bubble remover (it looks like a long, thin spatula) to remove any bubbles. Bang the jars gently on the counter to settle the contents.
Once the jars are filled, take your magnetic lid lifter, remove a lid from the pan of warm water, put it on the jar, and then screw it in place with the band — be careful to tighten the bands just enough to keep the lids in place. You don't want them as tight as they can go, because the water-bath method will force air out of them, thus creating the vacuum seal.
Do this with all of your jars. You may have extra blueberries (I usually do). After the jars are filled, lidded and banded, using the jar-lifter, pick them up and gently place them on the jar rack. Once they're all on there, lower the rack into the water-bath canner — the water level should be at least one inch above the tops of the jars — and put the lid back on. Bring the water back to a boil (it will only take a few moments) and process for five minutes.
At the end of five minutes, remove them from the water — again using the jar-lifter — and place them on a towel (they'll be wet) on a flat, level surface where they can sit for several hours. You will start to hear loud popping sounds. That's the vacuum seal of the jars, and that means your seal has taken and your preserves are safe to store on the shelf. Some of them will pop immediately, and some will take a while. You can check to see if the lids have popped by pushing gently down on the centers. If they pop up and down — like a jar that's been opened — the seal hasn't taken. If you can't press down at all, the seal has taken.
Anything that hasn't popped in 12 to 24 hours hasn't set and isn't shelf-stable, so your choices are to remove the lid, use a new lid and process again, or put in the fridge and use sooner rather than later.
I want to stress is that you cannot re-use the lids themselves. Once they have been sealed and re-opened, they're not guaranteed to make a secure seal again. Some people re-use them. I don't because, again, the first rule of canning is not to spread botulism. You can re-use them for other things, though — if I have leftovers I'm going to store in the fridge, I pour them in canning jars and slap a lid and a band on them and keep them in the fridge until I re-use the leftovers. You just can't re-process them in a water-bath or pressure canner.
Once the jars have cooled, label the lids (I write on mine with a permanent marking pen, but you can buy the fancy dissolving labels if you prefer) and store the jars away from heat and light. When you're ready to make a blueberry pie, just go to the shelf and get a jar or two of pie preserves. From-scratch blueberry pie, even in the dead of winter.
You will need:
5 cups fresh blueberries
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 tablespoon lemon juice (can be from concentrate)
1/4 cup gelatin (or Sure-Jell, ClearJel, etc.)
Makes 32 ounces of preserves, or two pints, or one quart — or enough for one pie.
— Lauren Gross, a York transplant, has long been fascinated by the science of cooking. Her column, Food in Jars, runs seasonally in The York Dispatch food section.