naturally sweet canning and preserving, with marisa mcclellan

food in jars collageTHE RHUBARB will be up soon, and the strawberries won’t be too far behind, arriving around the time I’ll get cucumbers going with the expectation of homemade pickles. But many beloved hand-me-down preserving recipes are loaded with sugar and have become either guilty pleasures or been skipped altogether lately, something Marisa McClellan’s new book, “Naturally Sweet Food in Jars,” seeks to change.

On her popular website Food in Jars dot com and in her downtown Philadelphia apartment kitchen, Marisa always has something cooking. Marisa is a fulltime food writer and canning teacher, and author of two previous books—“Food in Jars,” and “Preserving by the Pint.” We talked recently about taking a different approach to Grandma’s classic recipes, and also some that Grandma never dreamed up, such as the strawberry jam with a chocolate twist that’s included in this story (recipe below).

Read along as you listen to the April 4, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Plus: Enter to win her new book in the comments box at the very bottom of the page.

Marisa-McClellan-author-photo-high-resmy naturally sweet canning q&a with marisa mcclellan



Q. To be clear…the book is not about sugar-free preserving and canning.

A. Correct. You’re not going to find Splenda or Stevia or sugar substitutes. What you will find is honey and maple and agave—things that still have some kind of sugar, whether fructose, sucrose or dextrose. But they’re less refined, and they have more flavor. One of the great things about a sweetener that has more flavor, is that you can use less of it, because it’s bringing so much flavor to the table.

Q. I see you actually arranged the book in chapters according to the sweetener used—a good way to do it.

A. I went over and back and forth about that. I thought maybe I should do it jellies and jams and chutneys, and I bounced back and forth. Finally I thought people were probably going to explore by sweetener, and it felt that was the most sensible way to order it.

Q. I thought it was very smart and really underscored or reinforced the concept of the book. So I approve. [Laughter.]

A. Oh, thank you.

Q. Let’s talk about the sweeteners, some of which you mentioned. For instance, there are recipes with honey. It was interesting to me with that one to see that you say to folks not to buy the raw honey that’s so pricey or artisanal; with these recipes we can use a honey that’s more basic. 

A. The reason I recommend that you don’t use your perfect, beautiful 6-ounce jars of raw honey in these recipes is that 1, you need more than 6 ounces, and 2, so much of the virtue of that beautiful raw honey is the fact that it’s raw. As soon as you add it to fruit and boil it for 15 or 20 minutes, you are losing the virtue of that raw honey.

I certainly want people to buy good honey, and you can get great honey in so many areas that have amazing apiaries. So don’t buy the honey from China, but don’t worry; you don’t have to get the most expensive honey for these recipes to work.

Q. And honey is one of your favorites, I think, based on the childhood anecdotes in the book.

A. I like honey; I wrote this in the introduction to that section. I could have done a whole book just with honey. It’s such a versatile sweetener, but I wanted to open it up to a wider array of sweeteners. And there are some people out there who don’t like honey—I know it’s shocking.

Q. [Laughter.]

A. Some people don’t.

Q. And in the agave chapter, you say that if people don’t like that, they can use honey instead.

A. Honey and agave work interchangeably. I really struggled over the agave nectar section because for years now agave has been painted with this brush that it’s such an amazing, good-for-you sweetener. Then in recent years, people have done more digging and found perhaps it’s not so good.

Where I have come down on it is that all sweeteners should be used in limited quantities. And for people who don’t want to use honey—perhaps they’re vegan—or just don’t like it, those recipes work really beautifully with agave. But if you’re someone who falls in the camp of believing that agave is not a good sweetener, or it doesn’t agree with your body, then you can make those same recipes with honey.

Q. Right. There are some sweeteners in the book that I have never actually used in my kitchen—coconut sugar, for instance.

A. I’ve gotten a lot of questions from people already, like: “Does it taste like coconut?”

Q. That’s what I wanted to know. [Laughter.]

A. It doesn’t. Coconut sugar is actually coconut-palm sugar. It’s made in much the same way that a maple sugar would be made. The sap of the coconut palm tree is tapped, boiled down and dehydrated. It’s lower glycemic than refined sugar is, and has a really nice, earthy flavor.

It’s sort of like brown sugar, but a little bit more rustic. I have come to really like it. The trick with coconut sugar is that because it has such a dominant flavor that you have to make sure you are working with it, not against it.

Q. Which I think is good advice for combining ingredients culinarily—it’s actually a great guiding principle. A mantra we could also use: Work with it! [Laughter.]

There’s a fruit-juice-sweetened chapter in the new book, too.

A. In trying to figure out what would be the sweeteners in the book, I did a lot of research on what were the common sweeteners people were using, instead of refined sugar. Fruit-juice concentrate kept coming up. I found that it was a really great sweetener for things where you didn’t want a lot of sweet. A nice white grape-juice concentrate or apple-juice concentrate lends this nice sort of base note of sweetness without being dominant.

I found it worked really well in things like pickles, or relishes. I’ve also got some jams with it. It’s nice because it’s fruit-juice concentrate; we know where fruit juice comes from.

Q. Right. We know what it is.

A. I remember as a kid scraping my spoon along the orange-juice concentrate when my Mom wasn’t looking. It was sweet. So it made sense.

Q. Once of my favorite sweeteners, maybe because I grew up in the Northeast, is maple.

A. I love maple. I use it in two ways in the book: as both maple syrup, and maple sugar. Maple syrup is the more common form, but it has the problem of being a little low in acid. Whenever we are canning something, we have to take into account the acid content, or sort of the non-acid content, of the ingredients we’re putting in. I found that when I was working with food that were less acidic, I could use maple sugar, and get the sweetness and flavor without compromising the acidity.

Maple sugar is expensive, more expensive than maple syrup. Again, it’s dehydrated, so it’s even more concentrated; a little goes a long way. It is so delicious.

A. The final chapter that surprised me when I was going through the book: dried fruit. The fruit juice concentrate I might have come up with on my own.   

Q. My Mom was something of a hippie, and we had a lot of dried fruit in my life. She would do things when she was on a super-intense health kick, where she would make raisin concentrates or raisin syrup. She would essentially soak raisins and then puree them and then squeeze out the liquid. It became something that we could drizzle over oatmeal, or add to smoothies, and it added just a nice sweetness.

So it was always something that was in the back of my mind as an option, but that chapter was also motivated in part because you see so many recipes out there these days for date balls, and date truffles. So mostly I used dates and raisins in that chapter because they are so sweet.

They work really well. I was really surprised at how much I love them. There is a plum conserve in the book where it’s really just cooked-down plums with a raisin puree, and it looks like madness when you start out and then it comes together.

A lot of the dried-fruit recipes, you think, “This is never going to work.” It looks like some funky slurry; this just isn’t going to work. As it cooks down, it does. It was really exciting when that chapter started to come together, and I didn’t feel so crazy. They were working; there are some really delicious recipes in that section.

Naturally Sweet Strawberry Cocoa JamQ. As I said in the introduction, some of the recipes seem like I could swap them out for Grandma’s—things I might have a recipe for, but it might be high in conventional processed sugar: cherry jam, pickled beets, tomato jam even. But some are very now and different. You have a range of recipes, like for instance: a strawberry jam like no other I have ever heard of. [Laughter.] Can you tell me about that thing?

A. I’m guessing you’re talking about the Strawberry Cocoa Jam [get the recipe farther down the page].

Q. We should just make sure that people listening know we are talking about cocoa: c-o-c-o-a. 

A. Chocolate. That’s a recipe that’s a lot of strawberries, and it’s sweetened with coconut sugar, and has chocolate—cocoa powder—in it. It started because I wanted to make a strawberry jam that was sweetened with coconut sugar, but again: Coconut sugar is so earthy and has such a dominant flavor, that I was afraid it would just make the strawberries taste muddy.

I started to think what would complement, as opposed to fight with it? I have made other cocoa-powder-spiked jams in the past. I have a pear-cocoa jam in my second book.

Q. I remember that you talked about it last time you visited the show. Yes. So this is one of your secret signatures. [Laughter.]

A. Basically my goal whenever I write a book is that I want to have the classics there, but I also want to have things that can become new classics. That’s the hope with that Strawberry Cocoa Jam. It’s really a delicious preserve and my goal with it is maybe for parents for kids who are attached to Nutella, this can be a healthier, more parent-approved way to have that morning hit of chocolate. It’s really not very high in sugar; you get a lot of fruit in it, and it tastes good.

Q. I must try it at strawberry season, and as you said it’s sweetened with coconut sugar, which I have never used. So it will be an interesting stretch for me in many ways.

A. [Laughter.]

Q. One of the first things of the season that I can imagine making—and we should say that there are many different kinds of recipes in this book, like pickles, condiments, jams, and even syrups. There is a Rhubarb Parsley Syrup. What got you thinking about that?

A. I’ve made so many rhubarb syrups in the past. I wanted to find a different way to approach a rhubarb syrup and maybe make it a little bit savory. I was also thinking about spring cocktails. I’m not much of a drinker myself, but I know a lot of people are looking when spring rolls around for different ways to up their cocktail game.

So when you add the parsley to the rhubarb you just get this little bit of green flavor.

Naturally Sweet Rhubarb Parsley SyrupQ. So it’s not so soda pop.

A. Exactly. That one’s sweetened with honey, so you get that sort of floral fragrance from the honey. And you get that nice color from the rhubarb, and that green cutting through from the parsley. It just tastes good.

So often now you see restaurants having these menus where they’re making their house-made syrups and combining fruits and vegetables. Having seen that around Philadelphia, I thought, “I’m going to try that.”

Q. It’s one of the first things for gardeners, if they have rhubarb in their garden, that they could do.  It’s not a book for gardeners—I don’t mean that—but you do go through the season and for instance have recipes for tomato things, including ketchup.

A. And it’s sweetened with maple syrup and is not nearly as sweet as you would get from your standard bottle of Heinz. But again it’s a great one for people who love a little squirt of ketchup on their eggs, or have kids who are really attached to ketchup and they want to make it a little bit better for them.

I have two nephews, one a little over a year and the other is 4, and the 4-year-old won’t eat anything without a dipping sauce of some kind. At a certain point you want to make that dipping sauce as vegetable-full and healthy as possible. These are ways to try to make it as good as you can.

Naturally Sweet Apricot BBQ SauceQ. You have barbecue sauce in the book—I can’t even pronounce one that I think if Korean-inspired.

A. It’s an apricot barbecue sauce with gochujang, which is a Korean spice paste.

Q. And once again, I’m taking notes furiously as I am reading the book. [Laughter.]

A. It’s a little bit sweet and spicy, and a little bit a smoky almost, so it adds a really nice note to the barbecue sauce. I look at it as sort of a shortcut ingredient, because it’s going to bring so many elements to the barbecue sauce. Instead of needing smoked paprika and all these individual spices, you can just put a little scoop of the gochujang in it, and it bring so much flavor.

Q. As I was looking at some of the jams and other preserves, what I have noticed lately at the farmers’ markets and specialty stores: The price for handmade or small-batch preserves is a lot of money per jar. It used to be a lot when it was $6, and sometimes now I’m seeing them for $12.

So this book allows me some recipes that not only change the sugar equation. Even though it’s not free to make my own, if I buy 3 pounds of cherries and I have my sweetener and other ingredients, if I’m making four or six jars or some number like that, it’s not going to be $60.

A. I made a choice when I started doing this six or seven years back, that I would be someone who would teach people to do it, rather than have a product to sell to them.  One, I feel that there will always be people out there who are selling these $8 or $10 or $12 jars of artisanal barbecue sauce or ketchup. But my goal has always been to help people be more empowered about their food, and know how to do it themselves.

Then it becomes affordable, and accessible in a way when you don’t know how to do it. My goal is really to help people take charge of their food.

Q. And I’m not going to go, probably, and get six jars of jam for the course of the year—I probably won’t go buy six $12 jars for $72 and put it in my pantry. But if I make a batch, I’m feeling excited that it’s in there—and even if it was $20 worth of fruit, it feels good and as you say it’s empowering.

In the front of the book you have a very simple sort of “getting started” section that includes equipment, the gear we need and things like that. I loved the fact that you sort of debunked the fact that I need some special canner. It was like, “Hey, girl, just get a really big pot.” [Laughter.] A stockpot—is that what I need?

A. Yes, you just need a big, deep pot—you don’t need a dedicated canning pot. I always try to help people do this affordably. When I get the question, “What equipment do I need?” my first question to them is, “Do you already have a stockpot?”

If you already have a stockpot, you’re halfway there.

Q. So you only need the basket thing to hold the jars, or you don’t even need that?

A. You don’t even need that. You want to put something in the bottom of the pot so it lifts the jars off the bottom, so they don’t rattle, and aren’t resting in direct contact with the heat.

Q. So what’s the something?

red-blossom-trivetA. My favorite is actually a silicon trivet. They make these bendable, foldy, Blossom Trivets that for me work really well. You can also get those round cake-cooking racks that they sell at the hardware store. Those break down over time, because you’re boiling them, but one will last two of three seasons before they fall apart.

Q. I love that you gave me an alternate use for a tool that I have but that I don’t use enough. The slow cooker figures into canning, too. How does that work?

A. I use my slow cooker all the time for fruit butters or sauces. I don’t think I tell you in the book to cook your ketchup down in one, but you certainly could. It’s just a great way to get low, indirect heat, which allows things to cook down slowly. You get real depth of flavor when you’re cooking it like that.

Q. When you’re sort of thickening things that way and concentrating them, you might even use a little less sweetener. That really appealed to me.

And then of course: your scale. You have a thing for your scale, I think, Marisa McClellan. You do. [Laughter.] Let’s confess.

A. I have an 11-pound digital scale, and it is just invaluable. I use it whenever I am measuring liquid sweeteners. In the book, it has all the measurements in grams, so you can just plunk your bowl on top of the scale, press the zero button (the tare button), and then measure your honey or agave or maple syrup into the bowl or the pot, so that you don’t lose any to the sides of the measuring cup. It’s neater, it’s easier; you have less to wash. To me, I feel like the Europeans have it right, and I think we need to get on board with Kitchen Scale Culture.

Q. Kitchen Scale Culture. It was great—and the fact that it was right up front, really caught my attention. Again, speaking to that “empowering” thing, I didn’t need anything fancy, but I did need a couple of things to do the best job I could.

strawberry cocoa jam

copyright Marisa McClellan; from “Naturally Sweet Food in Jars”

THIS IS NOT your average strawberry jam. It is rich, dark, and is at its most delicious when served with croissants, brioche, challah, and other tender, buttery baked goods. If you’re looking for a more virtuous serving suggestion, try it swirled into oatmeal or spread atop homemade waffles.

Makes 8 (half-pint/250 ml) jars

  • 4 pounds/1.8 kg strawberries, cleaned and chopped (about 10 cup)
  • 21/2 cup/375 g coconut sugar, divided
  • 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
  • 3 Tablespoons bottled lemon juice
  • 1 Tablespoon calcium water
  • 1 Tablespoon Pomona’s Pectin powder
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder

Prepare a boiling water bath canner and 8 half-pint jars.

Combine the strawberries, 11/2 cups of coconut sugar, vanilla seeds, lemon juice, and calcium water in a large, nonreactive pot. Give it several good stirs to help combine the ingredients and dissolve the coconut sugar.

Place the pot over high heat and bring to a boil. Once the fruit boils, reduce the heat to medium-high and continue to cook at a low boil, until the strawberries break down and the volume in the pot has reduced by one-quarter. Depending on the water content in the berries, this will take 15 to 25 minutes.

While the fruit cooks, whisk the remaining coconut sugar together with the cocoa powder and the pectin powder. Once the necessary amount of reduction has occurred, stir in the sugar, cocoa powder, and pectin mix. Return the jam to a boil and cook for an addition 3-4 minutes.

When the jam is finished cooking, remove it from the heat. Funnel it into the prepared jars, leaving 1/2 inch/12 mm of headspace. Wipe the rims, apply the lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

Note: If your cocoa powder is really clumpy, push it through a fine mesh sieve before combining it with the pectin.

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 4, 2016 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

enter to win the book

Naturally-Sweet-Food-in-Jars-high-789x1024I’LL BUY A COPY of “Naturally Sweet Food in Jars” for a lucky reader. To enter to win, simply answer this question in the comments box way down at the bottom of the page, after the last reader comment:
Do you do any preserving? And have you tried “other” sweeteners, besides regular sugar?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll draw a random winner after entries close at midnight Sunday, April 10. Good luck to all; US and Canada only.

(Trivet photo from Marisa McClellan. Other photos by Steve Legato, from “Naturally Sweet Food in Jars;” used with permission. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)

  1. Carole Burt says:

    Yes, I have tried other natural sweetners for jams. My goal is to use as little sweetner as
    possible to ensure a jam product that tastes as good as the natural fruit. Love the
    solutions for sweetened jam that are mentioned.

  2. Robin W. Davis says:

    I do some canning and actually want to increase the amount that I do. Your book will enhance my plans a great deal! I have tried to use natural fruits to help as pectin replacement as well as supplemental sweetener. I look forward to a chance to use this wonderful book.
    Thank you.

  3. Michelle Mack says:

    Wish me luck! I have made several kinds of jams and jellies, always wanting to use less sugar. Looking forward to trying this recipe.

  4. Linda Warner says:

    Well, I’m too late to enter, but I really enjoyed reading this interview, and it’s encouraging me to work with new sweeteners (new to me I mean) for this years canning season.

  5. Betty says:

    I do make preserves, pickles etc but have never used alienate sweetness. I love pineapple preserves – easy to make and so delicious. Really want to try different sweetners.

  6. Byron Peck says:

    We make haw jelly but always used sugar and pectin. Not easy to jell. Maybe we will try maple syrup this year.

  7. Sue Hacker says:

    I am still new to canning and preserving so I have not tired other sweeteners but they sound interesting and a bit more healthful.

  8. Sarah says:

    I didn’t get a chance to read this in time to enter the drawing but I am definitely going to buy a copy of this book! I have always wanted to start canning but I don’t use sugar and I was overwhelmed with the idea of trying to figure out how to make canning work without sugar. Thanks again for an awesome radio show/transcript. I love seeing the photos in the transcripts.

  9. Katia Schultze says:

    Love this article. I know it’s way too late to enter, but I’ve made a cranberry, blueberry, apple sauce sweetened with maple syrup. Yum! And a beautiful color.

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