Canning 101: Why Do Colors Change in Home Canned Foods?

Packing jars

It happens to all of us at some point in our canning careers. You go to retrieve a jar of precious, brightly colored jam, only to discover that the once vibrant color has gone muddy and dull. Once you get over the disappointment, you start to wonder two things. What happened to cause the loss in color and is that jar of jam (or pickles, jelly, fruit butter, relish, fruit halves or tomatoes) still safe to eat?

There are a number of reasons why a preserve has lost its color. Let’s dig in.

Weather Conditions During Growing – The opportunity for discoloration starts while the fruit is still on the tree. Fruit that’s grown during really hot, dry summers has a tendency to turn pink once in the jars. If you experience this kind of discoloration, worry not. While it can’t be avoided, it won’t impact the flavor, texture or safety.

Picking and Storage – Produce starts to break down as soon as it comes off the tree, plant or bush. Heat and extended storage can lead to faded color. However, as long as the fruits and vegetables were still in edible shape when it went into the jar, the product is still safe to eat.

Oxidation – This one is the bane of all canners. As soon as you start cutting up fruit and exposing the flesh to air, it starts to brown. During prep, you can stave off oxidation by submerging the fruit in acidified water (a couple tablespoons of bottled lemon juice in a bowl will do the job). But even when you think you’ve done everything right, you sometimes have some browning on the surface of the finished jam (peach, nectarine, and apricot are particularly prone to this) or, in the case of whole fruit, anything peeking up out of the syrup may discolor. Still safe, though some people prefer to scrape the browned layer away.

Light Exposure – Anytime something with color is exposed to ultraviolet light, it will fade. The reason is that those UV rays weaken the chemical bonds of the color particles over time, causing them to break down. We experience this as color loss. Light-faded products are still safe to eat, but they may not be as delicious as they originally were.

Reduced Sugar – Sugar helps maintain color because it absorbs water and acts as a buffer. The more you reduce sugar in a preserve, the more prone to color loss that product will be.

Exposure to Reactive Metals – Reactive metals like copper, aluminum, and cast iron can leach small amounts of metal into your preserve during cooking, which can lead to darkening and a bonus metallic flavor (yum!). It’s best to keep highly acidic foods out of cookware made with these metals (the exception is high sugar preserves cooked in copper. The sugar prevents the metallic leaching). These preserves aren’t unsafe, but they don’t always taste good.

Use of Salt with Additives – This applies primarily to pickles, but it’s a good one to know. The reason recipes typically call for pickling salt is not just because it dissolves quickly. It’s also free of iodine and anti-caking agents, both of which can cause pickles to yellow or darken.

The basic takeaway here is that most forms of mild fading or browning don’t impact the safety of your finished product. As long as the seal is good, the preserve don’t have any mold growing on the sugar, and it doesn’t bubble when you open the jar, it’s really okay (just to be clear, we’re talking about high acid preserves here). For best quality, keep your canned goods out of direct light and in a place between 50 and 70 degrees F.

Information for this post came from the following sources: Bernardin FAQ, NCHFP Pickle Problems page, Fresh Preserving, the Library of Congress and my brain.

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Giveaway: iLids Drink and Storage Lids for Mason Jars

iLid header

Last summer while promoting Preserving by the Pint, I spent a couple days in Portland. During my stay, I made a stop at one of my favorite grocery stores on the planet – the New Seasons Market on 33rd Avenue – and discovered iLids. I snapped a quick picture, posted it to Instagram, bought one to take home with me, and made a mental note to look up more information about iLids as soon as I had a spare moment.

Thanks to the interconnectedness of the internet, before I had a chance to do more research, Traci from iLids found me. A few days later, I was in Seattle doing an event at the Book Larder and she dashed in to introduce herself and hand off a few iLid samples.

iLid on jar

I’ve been using the lids ever since. They come in both a solid, one-piece storage lid and a one-piece drinking lid (and both are available in either regular or wide mouth sizes). I use the storage lids for leftovers and lunch packing and they are satisfyingly airtight and leakproof.

The drink lids are equally sturdy. They are fitted with a sliding tab that you can use to block off the drinking hole (just like the ones that many traditional travel mugs have) and when you lid the tab back, you can either sip directly from the lid or slip a straw into the space (it has a thoughtful bump-out designed expressly for a straw!).

iLid with straw

iLids come in nine colors, are made in the USA and are free of BPA, BPS, or phthalates. You can order them directly from the company or seek out one of their retailers. You can also enter today’s giveaway. Thanks to Traci at iLids, I have two sets of lids to give away. Both winners will get four lids apiece, one of each size and function. Here’s how to enter.

  1. Leave a comment on this post and share something jar related. New accessory discovery? Have you finished your summer tomatoes? Did you recently break a favorite jar? I’m feeling open-ended, so go for it.
  2. Comments will close at 11:59 pm east coast time on Saturday, February 28, 2015. The winner will be chosen at random and will be posted to the blog by Sunday, March 1, 2015.
  3. Giveaway is open to US residents only (sorry!).
  4. One comment per person, please. Entries must be left on the blog, I cannot accept submissions via email.

Disclosure: The nice folks at iLid gave me some free lids for photography purposes and are also providing the lids for the winners of this giveaway. They are not currently Food in Jars sponsors and no money has changed hands. I simply like these lids and am happy to share them with all of you. 

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Links: Apple Butter Pulled Pork and Desperation Pie

Whole wheat baguette, goat cheese, smoked salmon, and dilly beans.

Late last week, I had my first anxiety dream about the book I’m currently working on. The first draft is due in just 10 weeks, and it’s all starting to feel very real. With each book, it gets both easier and dramatically harder to get it all done. Back to work!

beans in the jar

I don’t have a winner in the Mighty Nest giveaway because the giveaway is still! going! on! If you haven’t done so already, use the widget below to enter.

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Rosemary White Bean Soup Starter

six finished jars

Earlier in the week, I promised a post about how to make pressure canned white beans and so here we are. The canning technique is the same as you use for unflavored beans, but by adding a rosemary, garlic, salt, and pepper, these beans can either add flavor to a large pot of soup (sausage, kale and white bean, perhaps?) or with just a couple additions, can become the backbone of a simple lunchtime meal.

5 pounds of white beans

When I make these beans, I only fill the jars halfway, so that in addition to getting flavorful beans, I also get a concentrated liquid that can become part of the broth of the soup. If you like that idea, you’ll need approximately 2 1/2 pounds of white beans (I used Great Northern beans here, but you can also use navy or cannellini) to make a canner of load of seven quarts. If you want jars that have more beans and less liquid, you’ll need an additional pound or so.

soaked and drained beans

The day before you want to can, pour the beans into a large stock pot and cover them with at least six inches of water (I made a double batch and filled a 12 quart pot). Let them soak overnight. An hour or so before you want to can, drain the beans of the soaking water and then fill the pot up with fresh, filtered water.

Put the pot on the stove and begin bringing it to a boil. At this point, I also fill and heat my tea kettle, so that I ensure that I will have enough hot water to get to the end of the batch.

quarts in pressure canner

While the beans come to a boil, prep your pressure canner. I use a 16 quart Presto, which holds seven quart jars. Put clean jars in the canner. Fill them up with water so that they don’t float and put about three inches of water into the pot. Put the lid on, but don’t lock it into place and bring the pot to a boil so that the jars are hot when it’s time to fill them.

soup starter additions

As the beans and the canner come to temperature, prepare your flavorings. For these beans, I use a small sprig of fresh rosemary, 1/4 teaspoon of coarsely ground black pepper (I use a mortar and pestle to roughly crush the peppercorns), a heaping teaspoon of kosher salt, and a big garlic clove for every jar.

in the jar

Once the beans (as the beans boil, they will produce some foam. Just skim this off and discard) and the canner are boiling, it’s time to start building the jars. Remove one jar from the canner and pour the water it contains out into the skin (you don’t want this water in the canner, because you only need about three inches to safely pressure can). Put the rosemary, garlic, salt and pepper into the bottom of the drained jar.

scant 2 cups of beans

Scoop out a scant two cups of the hot beans. I have found that the best way to do this is to use a slotted spoon to portion the beans into a measuring cup. We’ll go back for the liquid in just a minute.

beans in the jar

Funnel the beans into the jar. When I make these beans as a soup starter, I don’t want the jar to be more than half full of beans, because again, I want to capture some bean broth.

beans and broth

Return to your stock pot of beans and dip the measuring cup in for the bean liquid. You’ll need 3 to 3 1/2 cups of liquid for each jar. You want to fill to the base of the neck, so that you have about an inch of headspace. It’s far more than you leave when you’re working with water bath canning, but trust me, all will be well. If you start to run low on bean liquid, top off the pot with the hot water from your kettle.

in the pressure canner

Once the jar is full, stir the contents with a wooden or plastic chopstick to remove any air bubbles. Wipe the jar rim, apply a new lid and a ring (it doesn’t need to be new). Remember that the pressure inside the canner is such that it can often shake loose the ring, so tighten it down more aggressively than you would if you were canning in a boiling water bath.

at pressure

Once all the jars are full, put the lid on the pressure canner and lock it into place. Bring the pot to a boil and let it vent for approximately 15 minutes. You do this by running the pot without the pressure regulator in place. That’s the little black and metal hat that sits atop the vent shaft.

The reason for this is that a canner that has been properly relieved of its oxygen through venting can reach a higher temperature than one that is full of oxygen. The higher the temperature, the more effectively the canner will kill any botulism spores present.

three finished jars

Once the canner is properly vented, apply the pressure regulator and bring up to pressure. If you live at 1,000 feet elevation or below (as I do), you bring the pot up to 11 pounds of pressure. If you live at higher elevations, you need to increase your pressure (find those exact elevation adjustments here).

Once the canner reaches the appropriate pressure, start your timer. Because we’re canning quarts, these beans need to process for 90 minutes (if you opt for pints, they need 75 minutes). Make sure to check the pressure gauge often to ensure that you’re at the proper pressure levels. If your pressure drops below the required level, you have to bring the pot back up to pressure and restart your timer.

finished beans close

When your time is up, turn the heat off underneath the pot and let it cool. Don’t try to rush the cooling process because that can do damage to the finished product. Once the pot has depressurized, you can remove the lid and place the jars on a folded kitchen towel to continue to cool and seal.

My favorite way to turn these beans into a basic lunchtime soup is this. Bring a medium-sized pot of water to a boil, salt it moderately, and cook a handful of small pasta (like ditalini or orzo) in it until just al dente. Pour the beans and liquid into another saucepan and using a slotted spoon, transfer the pasta to the beans. The ladle in the pasta water until you have a nice, broth. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper. If you want a little green vegetable, stir in some ribboned baby spinach at the very end of cooking.

To serve, ladle the soup out into bowls. Top with a drizzle of tasty olive oil and a little grated Parmesan. It is an easy, filling, healthy, and cheap!

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Canning 101: Can I Reduce the Sugar?

3 cups sugar

Like so many of these Canning 101 posts, I’m writing this one to address one of the questions I am frequently asked. I’ve covered this topic as part of larger blog posts before, so if you’re a long-time reader, some of this may be familiar. But it felt like time to pull out this question specifically in the hopes of helping people find the information more easily.

So often, people look at one of my recipes and see the volume of sugar it calls for and have something of a heart attack thinking about all those cups. And so, they write in to ask, “can I safely reduce the amount of sugar in this recipe?”

The answer is that you can always safely reduce the amount of sugar in a recipe, because sugar doesn’t make things safe. The only thing that makes a jam, jelly or other sweet preserve safe for canning in a boiling water bath canner is the acid content, because that’s what prevents any potential botulism growth.

However, when you reduce the amount of sugar in a recipe, you can compromise that preserve’s shelf life, yield, and ability to set up.

Sugar is a powerful preservative, because once you have a certain concentration of sugar in a recipe, the sugar sucks up all the available water. Mold and bacteria need water in order to develop, and if there’s no water available, they cannot grow.

This is why preserves with higher amounts of sugar hold their quality longer than lower sugar preserves. As long as you’re okay with a somewhat decreased shelf life and a relatively short lifespan once the jar has been opened, then go ahead and reduce the sugar.

Things get a little trickier when you take set into account. Sugar has the ability to change physical consistency as you heat it. If you’ve ever made candy, you’ve seen how you get different outcomes the higher you allow the temperature of the cooking sugar to go.

When you make a sweet preserve, you boil the fruit and sugar together, cooking out the water and increasing the concentration of sugars (both natural and added) to the point where they can elevate in temperature to around 220 degrees F. That’s the point at which sugar starts to thicken into a gel and is then able to bond with the pectin (again, both the natural pectin in the fruit and any pectin you added) and that’s how your jams and jellies set up.

If you pull out a lot of the added sugar in a recipe that is depending on sugar to achieve set, the chances are good that the finished product may be forever runny (true story. As a kid, I thought all homemade jam was inherently runny, because my mom always reduced the sugar to the point where set could not be achieved).

You can often reduce the sugar a little bit, but if you do, you may need to cook it longer so that the proper concentration can be reached. That reduced sugar and longer cooking can end up reducing the yield by as much as a cup or two.

Now, if you’re working with Pomona’s Pectin or some other low/no sugar pectin, you can ignore everything I’ve said about set and yield, because those pectins use an entirely different paradigm in order to achieve set. But the advice about shelf life will still hold true.

One final word. Do not take this blog post to mean that I am advocating super high sugar preserves. My favorite ratio for basic jam is two parts fruit to one part sugar, which is actually a fairly conservative amount of sugar, when you look at the traditional jam recipe canon.

When I make smaller batches, I drop the sugar to a three parts fruit to one part sugar ratio, because smaller batches lend themselves to more rapid water evaporation and sugar concentration. And I’m currently writing a book about preserving with a half dozen natural sweeteners, so I am more than open to using a wide world of sweeteners. But I feel strongly that people understand why an ingredient is in place before they go and start changing things up.

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A Pressure Canned Bean Reminder and A Mighty Nest Giveaway

pressure canned beans in Weck jars

There are a lot of people out there who think that there’s nothing to can during the winter months. That when the cold days roll in, the best thing to do is just hang up the canning pot and apply one’s energy to emptying the jars they spent so much time filling up during summer and fall.

And while it’s true that there’s less to can this time of year, there are a number of pantry building projects you can do during this time of year, particularly if you have a pressure canner.

fully soaked beans

Restocking my supply of home canned beans is one of my particular favorite projects to take on when outdoor temperatures plummet (it’s just 8 degrees F today in Philly). While store bought canned beans are plenty cheap for most budgets, dried beans are even more affordable. When you soak, simmer, and process your own beans, you’re reducing the amount of waste you product (no cans into the recycling) and you’re making better tasting beans. It’s a winning situation, if you ask me.

I wrote a post all about how to process beans in a pressure canner this time last year and it’s such a useful post (if I do say so myself) that I thought it merited a reminder.

close on pinto beans

Once you have a stash of home canned beans in the pantry, you use them just like you would cans of beans from the grocery store. I regularly stir them into batches of soup or chili, and use them to top trays of homemade nachos. They’re also good for burrito bowls and adding extra protein to salad.

You can also pre-season the beans with ground spices, a sliver of chile pepper or some fresh herbs before canning, so that they become even more useful meal starters (later this week, I’ll be posting a variation on this pressure canning technique that I use to make ready-to-use white bean and rosemary soup).

canned beans square

Last year when I first posted this bean tutorial, the post also included a giveaway from the nice folks at Mighty Nest. Happily, they’ve agreed to offer a giveaway with this one as well! Use the widget below to enter for a chance to win a 6 Quart Dutch Oven, a set of six 1/2 liter mold jars (they’re the same ones pictured above), and a People Who Love to Eat Tea Towel. Additionally, Mighty Nest will donate $150 to the winner’s school of choice.

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