Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Commoner's Guide to Canning

A Commoners Guide to Canning
Living where we do, we are so lucky to have wonderful fruits and vegetables available all year long, but they are especially terrific in the summer.  In fact, one of my good friends runs a family farm, Fairhaven Orchards, where I get the most delicious apricots year round.  I always enjoy the tasty treats when they are ripe off the tree, the dried apricots are also a tasty, and healthy, snack year round.  Today, however, these commoners decided to make apricot jam so we could enjoy the fruit year round.  And who doesn’t love sugar with their fruit?
Being commoners we bought a book on how to can.  Oh, did I mention that not one of the three of us has ever canned a thing in our lives?  Whatever, it sounded like a great idea at the time.  How hard could it be?  Seriously, pioneer women have been doing this for generations before us.
Boy, were we in for a surprise.  We actually began with strawberry jam.  When I went to Fairhaven Orchards to pick up my tasty apricots, Nicole, my supplier, asked if we were planning to do strawberry jam as well.  “Ok, how hard could it be?,” so she hooked us up with a flat of strawberries as well as 19 pounds of apricots.  That in addition to the 4 gallon bags of freshly picked blackberries out to be just about right!
“Looks like a lot of fruit”, says my friend Glen.  We take a vote and decide to begin with strawberry jam.  They seem to be at the peak of ripeness.  So Glen is juicing lemons, and keeping the rinds and innards in a cheese cloth baggie, to add to the jam.  Jan is getting the pots and pans, jars and lids all organized.  I can’t wait to get started so I start taking the stems and leaves off the top of the berries.  Whack, whack, whack…half the fruit gets cut away with the leaves, but whatever…it’s all about the sugar anyway, right?  The fruit seems to be just for color.  While cutting the third strawberry to shreds I cut my thumb with my super sharp Pampered Chef $1.50 paring knife.  I LOVE that knife.  It, apparently, did not love me back.  So I get to spend the next 2 days with a huge bandage covering my wound.  My friends, however, think I’m faking the injury so I can get out of cutting, and rather can sit in a chair and delegate the work to them…they don’t call me the Queen of Delegation for nothing!  When they see blood they actually look worried for just a second.
After we cut 8 cups of fruit, Jan reads the directions again and says, “Oh, we need to take the stems out of the insides of the strawberries too AND cut them into halves if they’re biggish.”  Well, I’d say they’re big; about the size of the apricots actually.  So we cut them into fourths.   Couldn’t hurt right??
Well, finally it’s time to cook the jam.  Now Glen, being part hippie, decides she does not want to add anything extra to the jam…so NO PECTIN.  NO PECTIN I ask?  NO PECTIN.  Who needs it??  Well, I, uh, GUESS we could try it without pectin…but I’m really looking forward to the jam promised on the pectin box, “delicious recipes with easy-to-follow directions”.  Oh well, I’m out voted.  And who knew you’d need a box of pectin for every 4 cups of fruit…this stuff is expensive.  Since I’m cheap I agree to go along with the “no pectin” decision without incident.
So, we’re heating, stirring, cooking, making it boil but not bubble too much…it’s all very technical stuff.  And remember, NO ONE knows how to make jam.  In fact Jan’s mom asked, “Which of you is the canner?” to which Jan replied, “None of us”.  Her mom giggled and called us “Little Martha Stewarts”.  How cute.  When I told MY MOM we were making jam, she called us, and I quote, “NUTSO”.
Anyway, back to the jam.  So the directions say, “Stir until a drop of jam mounds on a chilled plate.”  Oh, crap…did anyone read ahead and chill a plate?  Of course not!  Quick!!!  Throw one in the freezer.  And how long is that going to be anyway…3 minutes, 13 minutes, an hour?  We don’t know…we’re not jammers!!!  We’re commoners, afterall.
Not wanting to burn the fruit, about 7 minutes into the process, we put the teeniest drop onto a somewhat cooler plate.  It’s barely below room temp, does it matter?  How do we know?  We’re COMMONERS not canners!
Three grown adults, with Masters’ Degrees, gather around that tiny chilled plate to see if it’s mounding.  It’s really hard to tell!  “Nope, not yet!”, says Glen, who has mostly taken the lead on jam making.  In fact, she had even read  the intro to the jam making book AND highlighted important facts like the difference between jam, jelly and preserves.  All very interesting, but not the least bit helpful in regards to jam making.
So, after about 13 minutes we repeat the mound on a chilled plate routine and we think we see a mound, or maybe it’s an air bubble.  Oh well, we stick our fingers in the hot jam and it’s delectable although quite watery.  So we quickly decide, for no reason and with no facts backing us up that is must be done!  We take it off the burner and quickly pour it into half pint jars.  By the way, why do they call it canning if we’re using jars not cans?  Anyway…it’s very technical.  As the book said in the intro, “It’s not rocket science, but it IS science.”  Oh crap, not my best subject!
So we pour, wipe the rims, argue about  what one fourth of an inch really looks like-I’m about to get my measuring tape to prove I’m right, but hey, this is just some friendly jam making, I’m cool with whatever Jan and Glen want to do.  So, we have to pour the jam into hot jars, put on hot lids straight out of boiling water, screw the lids on and then flip the jars upside down.  All the while not burning ourselves or dropping a drop of this yummy concoction.  Not an easy job for the commoner!  We laugh and chuckle through our mistakes and pat ourselves on the back for all the new stuff we’re learning.  About thirty minutes later when all the jar lids start popping we are pretty sure we’re the best jam makers ever.  But then…we turn them right side up.  Uh oh.  Um, do you think these are going to harden up at all, I ask??  They’re pretty runny;  like syrup in fact!  All of a sudden, we’re not so confident in our jam making skills.  But hey, we’re commoners and we’re tired of standing over a hot stove.  So, we take a break and go to the movies.  We’ve had enough science for one night.
Saturday morning we wake up at the crack of dawn to begin on the blackberry jam.  We’ve already determined that we’ll just label the strawberry as “syrup” and call it a lesson learned.  Jan has done some research last night.  She watched “Grandma Sheila” on utube and learned that it’s important to cook the sugary sweet stuff about 30 minutes to get it to the right consistency.  Grandma Sheila doesn’t mention the chilled plate method, but we do that anyway.  Couldn’t hurt!  While I am using my food mill to get the seeds out of the blackberries, Grandma Sheila drones on in the background.  We’re watching her video or rather trying to watch her video.  Everyone’s a little peeved that my computer is so slow though, and the 10 minute videos take about twice as long to stream.  Well hell, I’m on a budget!
Anyway, we get into a bit of a screaming match because Glen thinks we should maybe use half a box of pectin with the blackberries.  Uh, NO WAY, I say.  We either use the whole box or none…we know nothing about canning so why are we going to screw with the recipe.  Well, says Glen, we did follow the recipe yesterday and were not successful.  I argue that we either follow it or find another one to follow.  They can’t all be bad…maybe it’s us clueless commoners trying to make jam. 
Yikes!  Someone needs a chill pill.  Kind of like that sales lady at Tyler Florence’s store in Napa…but that’s another story.
So, we kiss and make up, sort of, and decide to just follow Grandma Sheila’s recipe.  Although, I may have failed to mention Grandma Sheila was making strawberry jam, NOT blackberry jam.  How hard could it be?  They’re all berries, right?
Well, we did follow the directions, until we got to the end of the cooking time and it still looked like the runny strawberry jam.  We took a vote and decided to cook it 3 minutes longer, or maybe 6, I forget.  Well boy oh boy!  That was some tasty blackberry jam.  Too bad it had the consistency of peanut butter.  Seriously we turned the jars over and the jam didn’t budge…not an ooze, not a drop.
Luckily our jam session was sort of like the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”.  The first jam was too runny, the second batch of jam was too thick, but boy oh boy did we hit the nail on the head with the apricot jam.  It came out PERFECT.  It was delicious and it actually looked like jam.
So 24 hours, and 76 jars of jam later, we were done with our adventure.  Not surprisingly, most of our family and friends have asked for a jar of apricot jam.  OF COURSE!  It’s the best looking one.  I however, am a fan of the strawberry.  I just make sure to keep my toast level and not put on so much jam that it oozes off before I can slop it up.
After all this back breaking work, not to mention tired feet and cut fingers, I have to ask myself…what’s wrong with Smuckers?  It’s delicious and at $3.99 a jar, sounds like quite a bargain.   Too common for even these commoners though!  We are now officially jam makers!   And our arms do actually hurt from all the pats on the backs we’ve given ourselves.  If we can can jam, so can YOU!!
Good luck!