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Canning in Vintage Jars

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When I first started becoming truly enthralled with canning, I began to look beyond the standard Mason/Ball/Kerr jars available. I discovered the Weck jars that are typically used in Europe, but was put off a bit by the price tag and the fact that they are often hard to actually get (I did break down and order a half dozen from Lehman’s, but with shipping, they cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 a jar. That is far too much for the volume of canning I typically do).

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However, when I took a close look at the way in which the Weck jars seal, I realized that they are practically identical to the vintage bailing wire canning jars that were popular in this country through most of the 20th century. The glass lids on the Weck jars seal via a rubber gasket. Through the hot water process, everything is held in place by a couple of metal clips. The glass lids on the vintage jars seal via a rubber gasket.

During canning, the lid is held in place by the metal wire that locks up over the lid. The thing that makes the vintage jars even better than the Weck jars is that you have an easy way to keep the jar closed after you’ve opened it, via the bailing wire. When you use the Weck jars, you have to keep replacing the metal clips (or get a set of their plastic lids).

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So once I figured out that the jars I already had (and had gotten for free when helping a friend of a friend clean out her mother’s basement) would do the exact same job as the spendy ones, I got down to work. I ordered a set of rubber gaskets from Lehman’s for just over three bucks (they’re the only ones who still seem to carry them) and made a canning plan.

I did a mixed berry jam, because I’ve been endeavoring to clean out my freezer, in preparation for the coming onslaught of produce and still had some frozen fruit from last summer. I supplemented my frozen strawberries and raspberries with some fresh (but cheap and decidedly not local) strawberries (I made up for it the following week by hand-picking 13 pounds of local strawberries and making the best jam I’ve ever tasted. That recipe is coming later this week).

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When canning with these jars, most of the steps are the same as with the screw-top jars. You clean your jars, lids and seals well, prepare your jam and fill the jars. Once the jars are filled, you wipe the tops clean and the apply the rubber seals and top with the glass lids (of course, making sure that your vintage jars and lids are without chips, cracks or other damage).

Like when you can with conventional mason jars, you need to leave some space for the air to escape. To do this, you don’t lock the wire down all the way. You close it so that it’s closed, but pointing up, not down (if this doesn’t make sense, just get an old bailing wire jar and start opening and closing it. You’ll soon notice the two closure positions).

Process jars as usual. When time has elapsed, remove the jars from the water, being careful not to tip them (these jars are mostly glass, which means that if you get the jam on the top of the lid, you’ll see it, and if you’re a bit of a perfectionist, the residue that will stick to the lid will vex you). At this point, grab a tea towel and lock the wires into the tightest position with the wire pointed downwards. This presses the rubber gasket more firmly into contact with the rim of the jar and ensures a good seal.

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These jars are in the fully locked, post-process position.

The next day, when the jars are all cool, unlock the bailing wire. The lid should not move in the slightest. Test your seal by picking the jar up by the glass lid (don’t go crazy, just lift an inch or two above the countertop). It should hold fast. If it doesn’t, your seal is no good. If it holds, leave the wire unlocked and store as you would any other sealed jar.

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Honey Lemon Marmalade

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Having immersed myself in the world of marmalade over the last month, it’s definitely something I’m adding to my preserving repertoire. However, I am really grateful to be moving on canning/pickling projects that require less knife-work, as I don’t think my right hand could handle any further citrus chopping. This batch of Honey Lemon Marmalade required 14 lemons, which took nearly an hour to break down (and I seriously recommend that you make sure you don’t have any paper cuts prior to embarking upon this recipe). However, the work was worth it because this is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.

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Back in January, I was obsessed with drinking infusions of honey, lemon juice and ginger. It was great way to fend off the winter chills and felt fairly virtuous to boot. While this marmalade doesn’t have any ginger in it, it evokes those infusions, and makes me want to stir spoonfuls into hot tea (I haven’t done it yet, but I may not be able to resist the urge).

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This is the first time I’ve used honey as a sweetener in a canning project, and I think it worked pretty well. It wasn’t the sole sweetener, I also used some evaporated cane sugar (not because I was trying to be healthier, I was simply of out regular sugar). I wanted the flavor of the buckwheat honey (darker and slightly richer than regular wildflower honey), but because it’s such a deep taste, I was afraid that it would overwhelm the delicacy of the lemon.

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The other thing I did differently with this batch of marmalade is that I used a full dose of pectin. In past batches, I used a single 3 ounce pack of pectin. This time around I used a full 6 ounces, which really firmed things up. I also lengthened the cooking time, in the hopes of drawing out more of the natural pectin.

As always, I have a half pint of this marmalade that could potentially have your name on it. Leave a comment if you want in on the giveaway, I’ll pick a winner by Saturday at 5 pm. Thanks to all who entered, the contest in closed.

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Blood Orange Marmalade

Dear friends. I’ve learned a lot about the process of making marmalade since the days when I posted this recipe. I don’t recommend that you follow the instructions I wrote below. I’m leaving the post up because I hate leaving holes in the site, but I ask if you’re looking for marmalade guidance, you visit this post instead. It can be made with blood oranges in place of the variety of citrus, should you be wondering. 

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This marmalade wasn’t part of the plan I had neatly laid out in my head. I figured that after the Vanilla-Rhubarb Jam, I would make a batch of Honey-Lemon Marmalade and then head to the savory, pickling side of things for a while. But then I found myself at Reading Terminal Market last Saturday with my friend Shay and Iovine’s was selling blood oranges 5/$1. At that price, it seemed like I would be a fool not to buy a few. Or fifteen.

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Have you ever bought fifteen pieces of the same fruit all at once, when they’re being sold by the count (as opposed to by the pound or the half-bushel)? It was certainly a first for me. I think previously, I’d never gone over ten. It was something of a physical challenge too, because Iovine’s has narrow aisles and is always crowded (more so on Saturdays), making it tricky to balance your basket, keep your bag from knocking people over and still managing to keep track of how many oranges you’ve tucked into the bag. I must have recounted three or four times before I was sure that I had the proper number.

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I spent a couple of days with the blood oranges on my kitchen counter, arranged in a old yelloware bowl. Each time I walked into the kitchen, I’d pick one up and give it a sniff, recalling the first time I encountered blood oranges. It was about six years ago, the only time I took a boy home to Portland for the holidays (Scott, the one I’m marrying, still hasn’t been to Portland or met my parents. I guess that’s what the wedding will be for). Matt, an old family friend, was bartending at Paley’s Place, a delicious restaurant in NW Portland, so one night, the boy and I headed out to have a drink while he was working and catch up for a bit.

That night, Matt too busy to talk much, mostly because he’d put several drinks on the menu that featured freshly squeezed blood orange juice. He made us some fancy, boozy coffees, with flaming cinnamon and we watched as he juiced the oranges and mixed drinks.

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Tuesday night, as beautiful at the blood oranges were, it was time to make marmalade. I approached it much the way I did the first batch, taking care to sharpen the knife I was using before beginning the process of chopping the oranges. It’s a tedious task, but even more if you’re sawing away with a dull blade. 12 oranges later, I had ten cups of chopped fruit, my left hand was dyed a vivid purple and my kitchen was dappled with red drops of juice.

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I cooked the oranges with 4 cups of sugar, one cup of liquid (I used half blood orange juice and half water, but plain orange juice or all water would be fine as well) and some lemon juice. I thought about adding something else to punch up the flavor, but after a taste, I determined that it was perfectly delicious as it. I used one packet of liquid pectin to firm things up a bit. However, the juice is fairly thin, so if you prefer a more jelled consistency, I’d recommend two packets.

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I think that this may be one of the best things I’ve made. The batch I made was a bit over four pints and so I had a small stash for myself in the fridge. I ate it on toast last night for dessert and the way the sweet and tart flavors work together is a joyful thing for the mouth.

I’ll be giving away a full pint of this marmalade to one lucky commenter. Since I didn’t get this post up until late on Thursday night, you have until Saturday at 5 pm to leave a comment for a chance to be the winner.

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Vanilla-Rhubarb Jam

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During the years I was in middle school, my family lived in a house just off Canyon Drive, in SW Portland. It was an isolating neighborhood, without sidewalks and with very few kids of similar age. One of the few things the house had going for it was the fact that it had an enormous yard (more than a quarter of an acre) that had been carefully tended during the sixties and seventies by a botanist.

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The back yard was dotted with interesting trees (many of them fruit-bearing) and shrubs, featured a row multi-colored lilac trees (forever endearing me to those springtime flowers) and had a hidden rhubarb patch right up against the neighbor’s fence. Each spring, the refrigerator would fill up with vibrant, pink stalks, as my dad felt it was his duty to harvest all edible items from the yard. My mom would try to keep up with the bounty, but the sheer volume would overwhelm her and bags of the rhubarb would get passed out to neighbors and co-workers.

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Now I mourn for all the rhubarb that we didn’t use and dream about a life that includes a prolific rhubarb patch, as it is one of my favorite spring treats. I love the fresh, apple-y scent it has when you cut into it, and I adore the electricity of its color. After a winter of dark greens and root vegetables, seeing that vivid pink on the cutting board feels like salvation.

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Unfortunately, rhubarb doesn’t actually appear to be in season in the Philadelphia-area quite yet, so I broke down and made this jam with stalks from Washington State (I give my local produce store credit for having the origin so clearly marked). The first batch I made didn’t set particularly well after 24 hours, so I made another round, only to have that one become nearly solid (I used a full package of Sure-Jell powdered pectin that time and remembered why I don’t like it). I found that with refrigeration, the first batch finally firmed up a bit and achieved a really nice, if slightly loose texture. That’s the recipe I’ve included here. If you like your jam a bit firmer, use two packets of liquid pectin instead of one and skip the Sure-Jell.

Cooking rhubarb

And, of course, I’ll be giving away a half-pint of this jam to one lucky person. If you want a chance to be the winner, leave a comment (and if you feel so moved, share any rhubarb memories you might have). I’ll pick a winner on Friday, March 27th at 12 noon and post/Twitter the lucky individual sometime shortly after that. The recipe is after the jump.

Filling jars

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Orange-Ginger Marmalade

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I’ve never been much for marmalade. It wasn’t a condiment we kept around the house while I was growing up. When it came to peanut butter sandwiches, my sister and I preferred the strawberry jam that came in a blue plastic tub with white lid and handle, like a little bucket. My mom always had a stash of something homemade tucked in the back of the fridge for her toast, while my dad typically gravitated towards the squeeze bottle of honey.

Chopping in progress

The only person I knew who kept marmalade on her grocery list was my grandmother Bunny. She would often spread a fine layer on a piece of morning toast, or use a bit as a pork chop glaze. On occasion, she’d offer me a bite, and I always found it displeasingly puckery and not nearly sugary enough for my young taste buds.

Bubbling Marmalade

Several years ago, I watched the movie Gosford Park. There’s one scene, in the final third of the movie, in which Maggie Smith’s character is breakfasting in her room with her lady’s maid. She lifts a cut glass lid from a preserves jar and complains bitterly when she discovers that the marmalade it contains was bought, as opposed to being house-made. That scene settled into the depths of my brain and took root, sending out shoots that carried the message “homemade marmalade is always preferable to mass-produced.”

Filling the jars

Last week, that dormant message finally bloomed and I headed to the kitchen to make a batch of Orange-Ginger Marmalade. I did some research prior to applying knife to orange and discovered a wide array of marmalade recipes. Each was a bit different from the one before. Some recommended removing the zest from the fruit with a vegetable peeler, peeling the remaining pith off and then chopping, while other recipes instructed you to chop the whole fruit. After reading seven different recipes, I decided to wing it, basing my method on my previous jam-making experience.

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I chopped eleven medium, organic oranges into tiny bits (they yielded a bit over eight cups of orange) and combined them with four cups of sugar, two inches of grated ginger (next time, I’d use far more, as the flavor is very faint) and the juice of two lemons. I ended up using one packet of liquid pectin to get things to jell a bit, but if you happened to have some cheesecloth in the house, you could bundle up all the seeds and orange membrane and cook it along with the fruit, as there’s a lot of natural pectin in the seeds. I didn’t have any cheesecloth (I used up the last of mine on a yogurt cheese experiment a few weeks ago), so in went the pectin.

Jars in hot water bath

The resulting marmalade is sweet, but not cloyingly so. The chunks of orange peel are a bit more toothsome than I find to be ideal, but they add good flavor and texture, so I don’t regret their inclusion (in the future, I’ll try for an even finer dice). I do wish the ginger flavor was more aggressive, next time I make this, I’m going to mince it instead of grating it, and will use a generous three or four-inch length. However, all in all, I’ve produced a really delicious spread that is perfect on toast, scones or stirred into a dish of cottage cheese.

Sealed jars

For those of you who want to taste my marmalade, I’m giving away a half-pint. Leave a comment below if you want a chance at it. I’ll pick a random winner out on Friday, March 20, 2009 at 12 noon. For those of you who don’t win, the recipe is after the jump. This contest is now closed.

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