By Pamela Sinclair
Life’s simple pleasures are often the best, and this age-old adage is especially true when it comes to the flavor of seasonal fruits, vegetables, and herbs. The French, in the early years of the Napoleonic Wars, discovered that food heated in airtight containers created a vacuum seal that could be used to preserve army provisions. Although the science of food preservation has changed little in nearly 200 years, modern equipment and efficient techniques help turn this time-honored task into a nostalgic, fun activity that can be enjoyed by the entire family. Become familiar with some fundamentals and a few can-do recipes and you’re on your way to savoring the fresh, fragrant flavors of summer’s harvest without spending days in the kitchen.
For the best success follow this easy formula: Use the freshest produce available, and make sure the jars are properly sterilized and sealed. Begin by browsing canning recipes that appeal to your senses and then fill your basket with colorful produce at its peak of ripeness. Avoid using produce that is overly ripe, bruised, or spoiling since it loses its flavor and could promote dangerous bacterial growth. Rather than attempting to preserve large quantities all at once, keep canning projects manageable by using only enough produce for packing about eight jars of food per session.
Can-do Fruits, Herbs, and Vegetables
There are a variety of choices to make when deciding what to preserve. A few of my favorites are fruit jams, chutneys, pickled vegetables, relishes, canned tomatoes, dried herbs, and herb-infused oils and vinegars. Experimenting with your favorite foods is part of the playful, creative process you will enjoy while learning about the art and science of preserving.
If your palate prefers the sweeter flavors of summer, then you will delight in making your own fruit jams. Jams are a whole-fruit preserve in which the fruit is cooked until it breaks down, but the pulp is not strained out. Thinned with water or unsweetened fruit juice, and sweetened with sugar, honey, or syrup, jams are delicious spread on breads and muffins, or used as a glaze on chicken breasts or pork loin.
Chutney is another option for preserving fruits. Chutney is a fruit-based condiment that includes a mélange of aromatics and spices like onion and ginger combined with vinegar; some are sweet while others have a hint of fiery heat. Chutney is a jazzy complement to roasted or grilled meats.
For taste buds that prefer sour and salty flavors, pickling vegetables with salt, vinegar, and spices is a good choice. Sturdy vegetables work best—cabbage, cucumbers, radishes, carrots, green beans, onions, and asparagus. Pickled vegetables may be preserved whole and served as a piquant appetizer, a salad, or a side dish. Pickling is also an ideal method for creating a zesty relish to serve as a condiment.
Fresh herbs are in abundance and inexpensive during the summer, but they do not last long. An effortless way to preserve your favorites is to tie them by the stems into little bundles and hang them upside down in the pantry to dry. When the herb bundles are fully dried, they can be stored in a number of ways. I use small canning jars and keep them in my spice cabinet. I remove the stems and crumble or grind the herbs when ready to use. Another option for preserving fresh herbs is to use them for flavoring oils and vinegars. My favorites for infusing oil or vinegar are basil, oregano, rosemary, tarragon, and thyme.
Can-do Methods and Equipment
Choosing the right equipment for canning and preserving food is essential, and will depend on which method you use—the boiling-water-bath canning technique, pressure cooking, or freezing. I recommend that beginners start with the freezing and water-bath canning methods. The water bath, detailed below, is used for processing foods high in acid, such as tomatoes, pickles, apples, berries, peaches, and pears. A pressure canner must be used when processing low-acid foods such as beets, carrots, corn, green beans, peas, spinach, and turnips. Freezing is the easiest method and may be used for preserving a variety of fruits and vegetables in heavy freezer storage bags or airtight containers. The choice will depend on the foods you select, so keep this in mind when browsing for recipes.
Can-do Water Bath
Water-bath canning sets are available in most hardware stores at a relatively low cost, or you may have the basic equipment to get started. You will need the following:
• A large (three-gallon) pot with a tight-fitting lid that is deep enough to hold the size of jars being processed with enough space to cover each jar with two inches of water, and an additional two inches of air space.
• A metal rack to hold jars off the bottom of the pot, and to stabilize jars during processing.
• Canning jars with two-piece metal screw-band lids are essential. The size will depend on the recipes you choose. Do not use old-style canning jars or recycled, commercial jars that have been used for other products.
• A wide mouth plastic funnel for filling the jars.
• A rubber spatula or long metal skewer to remove excess air from the jars.
• A jar lifter or stainless steel tongs (with heat resistant handles) for lowering jars into boiling water bath, and for safe removal.
• Pot holders and clean, lint-free towels.
• Wash the jars, lids, and screw bands in hot, soapy water. (Note: the dishwasher is effective for initial cleaning of jars and lids, but not for sterilization).
• Place the jars upright on a wire rack in a large pot, fill with hot water until the jars are submerged, and bring the water to a boil. Boil for 15 minutes (altitude 6,000–8,000 feet); then turn off the heat and leave jars in the hot water until ready to use.
• Caps with screw bands do not need to be sterilized, but they need to be heated over low heat in a small pan. Allow lids to simmer for ten minutes (do not boil). Remove lids with tongs and dry with a towel as you use them.
• Using tongs or jar lifter, lift the jars from the pot, and place them upright on a padded layer of towels or a rack; fill hot jars with prepared food product. (Note: jars should be filled with food product immediately upon removal from hot water).
• Prepare fruits and vegetables according to the recipes selected. For safety, food must be processed immediately after filling and capping the jars.
• Pour mixture into sterilized jars and wipe rims carefully with a clean, lint-free towel. Fill each jar to within a quarter or half inch of the top (or according to recipe instructions for headspace).
• Eliminate air bubbles by poking through the mixture with a spatula or skewer.
• Place lid onto the jar and use one finger to hold lid securely while you twist the screw band until tight.
• Place wire rack on the bottom of the pot, and fill with hot water. Use tongs or a jar lifter to place each filled jar on the rack. Add enough water to cover the jars with two inches, allowing two additional inches of air space. Bring the water to boil over high heat.
• Boil jars according to recipe instructions; carefully remove jars from the water with a jar lifter or tongs, and allow the jars to cool for 24 hours. When the jars are cool, test lids to ensure a tight seal by pressing on the center of the lid, which should have a slight indentation. If not adequately sealed, store jar in the refrigerator and use contents within three days.
With some basic planning, canning and preserving your favorite foods is a richly rewarding and enjoyable endeavor. From marvelous marmalades to sassy salsas, canning and preserving your favorite fruits, herbs, and vegetables is truly one of life’s simple pleasures.