CANNING IS HOT, and not just when you’re standing over a boiling kettle. America’s grow-you-own, eat-local mania means a lot of us are facing all-at-once bumper crops—but don’t want to waste a bite. To cope, I’ve been gathering tactical advice and recipe ideas, including tips from a new series of segments by Theresa Loe on the public-television show “Growing a Greener World.” Theresa was my guest on this week’s radio show, where we talked jam (without too much sugar or added pectin); what cucumber makes crispy pickles (and doesn’t); the challenges of canning on electric stoves–and even how to improvise a few key tools.
Theresa describes herself as “a lifelong canner.” Both her mother and grandmother canned, she says, and Theresa eventually studied culinary arts at UCLA, then took the Master Food Preserver curriculum through her county cooperative extension.
“I try to get people thinking outside the canning jars,” says Theresa, who grows much of her family’s food on a mere one-tenth acre in the Los Angeles area (including a coop for a small flock of chickens). “The new video series focuses on creative ways to can, and to use what you can.” Each of the fun, approachable recipe videos is about 2 minutes long, offering the “aha” of the essential technique involved (with full recipe and details on the “Growing a Greener World” TV website).
prefer the podcast?
IN OUR CHAT on my latest public-radio show and podcast, Theresa Loe answered many of my canning questions. Listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The September 9, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fourth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.
where to begin in canning?
WHEN LEARNING to can, stick first with the high-acid foods, such as tomatoes that have been acidified, or recipes with vinegar (quick pickles, refrigerator pickles), and fruit jams. (Try Theresa’s latest refrigerator pickles slices, for instance.)
Use basic canning gear to start (meaning a boiling-water-bath canner) while you get the feel of the process.
In other words: Don’t start with pressure canning of vegetables—you certainly can get there, says Theresa, but it’s not the first step.
canning-gear basics and tricks
DON’T OWN a special boiling-water-bath “canner”? A stockpot or other large, tall pot will do. (See below for details if you have an electric stove, which can be a bad match with some canners.)
Keep the jars up off the bottom. You can use a special basket-type insert (or “rack”) meant for canning—but if you don’t have one: put a large, footed metal trivet in the bottom of the pot, or simply use a layer of rings from traditional Ball or Mason type jars. Voila!
Whatever pot you use, you must have your water 2 inches above the jar tops, so smaller pots mean smaller batches (and/or of smaller jars).
Lowering jars in and taking them out is easiest with what Theresa calls “the magic lifter,” a sort of oversized tongs with rubbed-covered working ends. In a pinch, use regular tongs with rubber bands wrapped around the tips to get a grip, she says.
- Read Theresa’s basic how-to’s for getting started in water-bath canning.
canning on an electric stove: tricky!
CHALLENGES: You must have a flat-bottomed canner or stockpot on an electric range. Many canners have waffled bottoms, which don’t make sufficient contact with electric stoves to create enough heat.
With glass-topped electric stoves, consult the manufacturer to see if it is suited to canning, since the heat cycles up and down (which could diminish the constant boil you must achieve).
The pot can be too big. Never use a pot more than an inch wider in diameter than the heating element of your glass-top stovetop for canning. (On a coil-type electric range, you can go 2 inches wider maximum.)
Never use a pressure canner on a glass stovetop.
- There are more do’s and don’ts for electric-stove canning, from Theresa’s canning blog.
on pectin, sugar, and jam that ‘sets’
PECTIN (a natural substance in fruit) is what causes a jam or jelly to harden up or “set,” says Theresa. When you rely on added store-bought pectin to make that happen, you have to have a certain ratio of acid and sugar—for instance, 6 cups of fruit and 7 cups sugar might be recommended on the pectin package. Fool around with that, and the batch won’t set.
Seem like too much sugar? Let temperature (specifically the magic number of 220 degrees F) serve as the other “ingredient” to make the pectin set with far less sugar. For the how-to in action, the video is above; then go get Theresa’s No-Pectin Apricot-Ginger Jam recipe.
Exceptions: Cherries are so low in pectin that you have to cook them a long time to boil out the water to get it to gel at 220 degrees F—so Theresa typically adds another fruit, such as apples (for cherry-apple jam), or uses a packaged pectin (usually a no-sugar brand like Pomona, which relies on added calcium to make things gel, without all that sugar). Strawberry jam can refuse to set, too, because different batches of berries can vary widely in pectin content.
secrets to success: not all cukes are created equal
TO MAKE a crisp pickle, you need the right cucumber.
Ideal: a knobby (not smooth-skinned) cuke, one that will often have the word “pickling” in its variety name, or otherwise be described as such.
No “burpless” types.
Only very fresh-picked cukes should be canned. The less time from vine to jar equals crisper finished pickles.
The blossom end (not the stem end, but the opposite one) has an enzyme in it that will cause your cukes to soften. Cut off the blossom end before using the cukes.
Refrigerator cucumber pickles won’t stay crisp forever no matter what cukes you use. Eat them within the month—if they even last that long around your house!