Small Batch Canning and Sour Cherry Jam

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Although I’m not as diligent about it as some people, I’ve always been one to steer clear of kitchen tools that offer little in the way of flexibility or range. This is why I’ve avoided things like egg poachers (a simmering pan of water works just fine for me) and yogurt makers (milk* in glass jars + small Playmate cooler + warm water + eight hours = yogurt). However, I recently found myself madly coveting one of those tall, skinny pots that were designed for steaming asparagus.

You see, I had a funny suspicion that the asparagus pot, with it’s slender styling and interior rack, would make a most convenient small batch canner. So, when I encountered one with a mis-matched lid at a thrift store, I determined that I could risk the $4 to see if my hunch was correct.

small batch set-up

Now, at this point in my little tale of asparagus pots, you might be asking yourself why I’d even need a pot to process small batches of jam. And it’s true that my kitchen is well kitted out in just about every pot and pan you could imagine. Thing is, the idea of pulling out the big pots is sometimes enough to deter me from cooking up a batch of jam.

If it’s 9 o’clock at night and the kitchen’s already been put to bed for the evening, the last thing I want to do is stir everything up again and create a whole sink’s worth of dishes. I hate to admit it, but there have been times when I’ve let a pound of berries or a cluster of peaches go bad because I couldn’t summon up the energy to create and then clean the mess necessary to preserve them.

sour cherry jam wreckage

For instances, when I picked up my CSA share last Thursday afternoon, included in the bounty was a quart of glowing sour cherries. There weren’t any additional cherries at the adjacent market, so I couldn’t pick up more in order to have enough for a full batch of jam. What’s more, my charming husband doesn’t eat fruit or the many desserts that are crafted from them, so I couldn’t make a small pie or tart, unless I wanted to eat the whole darn thing (and while my inner seven year old rejoices at the idea of a whole pie for dinner, the 31 year old that I am knows just how sad my belly would feel post-indulgence).

So Sunday night, after a long day errands, gardening and picnicking with friends, I took my little $4 asparagus pot on a test drive with those sour cherries. After pitting, I had approximately 1 1/2 pounds of cherries, which I combined with 3/4 a pound of cane sugar and one packet of liquid pectin (cherries are naturally low in pectin, so even small amounts of jam need a little boost). I cooked them down in a two-quart pan, which proved to be just the right size (although I did need to watch carefully for bubbling over).

two 12-ounce jars

While the jam cooked, I filled that tall little pot with water and brought it a boil. When the jam was ready, I filled my clean jars (I got two 12 ounce jars and one 4 ounce jar out of this batch), applied the lids and rings and processed them in succession (10 minutes per jar). While that’s not a USDA-recommended procedure, the jars sealed firmly and I feel comfortable storing these on the shelf. The final 4 ounce jar got tucked into the fridge.

I’m sure that some of you are wondering why I’d even go to the trouble of processing such a small batch of jam. Here’s the thing. I have limited refrigerator space. (Actually, make that limited kitchen space. I imagine that some of you have pantries that are larger than my entire kitchen.) Any time I can process something to be shelf stable and keep it out of the fridge is a good thing, even when it’s a micro-batch such as this. Also, as you may have noticed, I make quite a lot of sweet preserves and at any given time, have at least half a dozen open jars hanging out on the right-hand door of the fridge. I just don’t need to add to the open jam/butter/curd queue at this time.

So, if you’re like me and want to process even the smallest batches, without hauling out your big old canning pot, consider putting an asparagus steamer to work.

*Milk simmered to 180-190 degrees, cooled to 110-120 and combined with some plain yogurt or powdered yogurt starter.

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Canning Book: Saving the Seasons

World Community Cookbooks

I’ve been getting a number of requests lately, both over email and on the Facebook page, asking me to recommend a couple of good canning books for people just getting started canning. Happily, the canning book market is positively exploding these days (as canning grows in popularity), so there are a number of terrific new volumes for me to suggest.

Saving the Season

One new book that recently drifted my way that I was delighted to discover and am excited to recommend is Saving the Seasons. This volume is written and produced in the tradition of those classic cookbooks More-With-Less, Extending the Table and Simply in Season (this one came out about five years ago, so it’s not that old). If you know anything about those books, they come out of the Mennonite community and emphasize healthful, frugal, seasonal eating.

tomato canning spread

One of the terrific things about Saving the Seasons is the fact that it is dedicated to all forms of food preservation, from canning, to drying, to freezer preserving. That particularly great because it then becomes an all-in-one reference. It’s also got several instances (like the one you see above) in which they walk you through each step of the process with pictures. Excellent for visual learners.

guide to the harvest

The book contains a number of recipes, as well as handy reference charts. One thing to note is that the jam recipes do call for pectin (I know a number of you are hoping to phase out your pectin use, so if that’s a concern for you, be aware). I’ve yet to cook out of this book, but I’ve got my eyes on the Hot Peach Chutney and the Dilled Green Tomatoes.

baby food

A few of you have reached out in the last couple of weeks, asking about making and canning baby food. Not being a parent yet (hopefully soon though), I don’t have any first-hand knowledge to share. This book has a brief section devoted to the making and freezing (not canning though) of delicious things to feed your little one.

drying apples

Beyond all the useful information that this book offers, what I like most about it is the feel and tone with which it’s written. The co-authors (Mary Clemens Meyer and Susanna Meyer) are mother and daughter, and as you read it feels a little like they’ve opened up their pantry and shared the many ways they eat well all year round. It’s a cozy, accessible feeling and makes me want to leap up from the couch and head for the kitchen. In my opinion, that’s just what a good cookbook should do.

In the interest of full disclosure, know that I was sent a review copy of this book.

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Strawberry Rhubarb Butter Recipe

chopped strawberries

Thanks to the very hot spring we had here in the mid-Atlantic region, strawberry season has come earlier this year than it has in the last few. This has thrown my preserving time line off in the worst way and has left me unduly panicked, worried that if I didn’t act quickly, I would miss the season entirely.

However, I’ve also been stretched thin by commitments in the last few weeks and have been working hard to reserve at least a few hours of my weekend for relaxing, as opposed to filling every moment with lunches, activities and appointments with my vacuum cleaner.

chopped rhubarb

This means that I made a tough decision last weekend to skip out on my annual strawberry picking day and simply buy a flat of local strawberries instead. Thanks to my friend Albert, I was able to get a flat (eight quarts) of berries for not too much money from the Fair Food Farmstand. I was sad to miss the trip out to New Jersey, but something had to give and the picking was it. After all, it’s not like I can give up canning!

butter cooking

Thanks to that quick acquisition of fruit, I’ve now made a batch of that wonderful strawberry vanilla jam I first produced last year, as well as this lovely, sticky, spreadable strawberry rhubarb butter (I couldn’t help but pop a vanilla bean in this one while cooking as well).

This is my second batch of butter so far this year, and I am totally pleased with how it turned out. I’m finding that while I do get smaller yields with butters than jams, I far prefer having that smaller cluster of jars filled with something I know I’ll eat and enjoy than having a seemingly promiscuous quantity of jam (it might sound strange, but I still have so much jam left from last year that needs to be eaten that it feels a bit burdensome – I hate to be wasteful).

finished butter

While I was cooking this batch, I took a quick video, so you all could see what butter should look like as it’s coming towards the end of its cooking time. Check out those thick, active bubbles. That’s what you’re looking for.

Also, I wanted to point out the knife peeking out up there in second picture. Recently, I was contacted by the folks at New West KnifeWorks, asking me if I’d like to try out their knives. They sent me both a chef’s and pairing knife to try out (yes, for free). They are absolutely gorgeous and are a joy to use (particularly that handy little pairing knife). If you’re in the market for some new (although admittedly pricy) knives, I highly suggest you add these to your list for consideration.

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Ball Blue Book Winners!

We’ve got winners! Sorry it’s taken me a couple of days to get these posted, but things have just been nuts for me lately (I’m so looking forward to Monday when I can show you all the project I’ve been slaving away over for my day job. It’s pretty nifty and the Philly-area folks in the crowd are going to love it).

Jennifer (who loved on my Sour Cherry Jam) and Cari (who’s just getting started canning) are our winners this time around. Ladies, I’ll be in touch soon to get your mailing info.

If you haven’t checked out the comment section on that giveaway post, I really do suggest giving it a look. There are a ton of great recipes and suggestions in there. I had no idea what a terrific resource it was going to become and it’s all thanks to you guys and your terrific kitchen skills.

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Where to Buy Jars for Canning

jars!

One question I get a lot, particularly from beginning canners, is where to buy jars. And it’s true, it can be challenging to find them, particularly during the off-season. If you live in an urban area, it can be even harder. However, I’ve found that finding canning jars is never impossible. Here are some places to look.

Grocery stores

Unfortunately, not all grocery stores carry canning jars and their stock often varies depending on the neighborhood in which the store is located. For instance, there is always a small canning section in the South Philadelphia ShopRite (during the harvest season, they expand their stock), but other locations of the chain don’t always have canning stuff in stock. I’ve been told that this is because that area has a historically high Italian population and thus, a tradition of canning tomato products.

Another local spot (for those of you in the greater Philadelphia region) is Wegmans. Their canning section is always stocked, although its placement in the store can vary depending on the location you’re in. We don’t have any Weis Markets in Philadelphia proper, but they start appearing as soon as you get out of the city. I’ve often found jars (as well as copies of the Ball Blue Book) there.

Out west, I’ve found that WinCo can always be relied on for canning jars, lids and other useful products (in the summer, they put the jars on special and they’re super affordable).

If you can’t find the canning section in your local grocery store, make sure to search out the odd corners, like that seldom-used hardware aisle and at the end of the pet food section (truly, I’ve found jars in both places). The Acme markets around here only stocks jars during the summer months, but they keep them on the baking aisle. It’s also good to look near the plastic wraps and boxes of tin foil. And don’t be afraid to ask grocery store staff where their canning section is. If they say that they don’t have one, suggest that they start carrying canning stuff. Customer demand is a terrific way to increase the availability of canning supplies.

Hardware stores

While canning supplies tend to be a seasonal item for hardware stores, a number of them will stock jars during the height of the canning season. I’ve found that Ace and TrueValue stores can be some of the most reliable jar destinations out of the traditional hardware store genre.¬†You can also order jars from their websites, but make sure to select the “ship to store” option, to save yourself the shipping costs. You’ll have to pick up the jars when they arrive, but I always prefer a quick errand over $20-30 in shipping fees.

Side note: There used to be a wonderful little independently owned hardware store across the street from my apartment building and they carried jars (I bought some of my very first canning jars from them about six years ago) and so many other useful items (like the tube light bulbs that fit the fixture over my kitchen sink). However, they didn’t survive the slumping economy. Lesson learned: support your local hardware stores.

While in Lancaster County, PA last weekend, I found myself in the most amazing home goods stores I’ve ever encountered (that’s where the picture above was taken). Called Good’s Store, their canning aisle was truly a thing of beauty. They had all sizes of jars (even my beloved half pint, wide-mouth Kerr jars), canning pots, pressure canners, pectin, cookbooks and more. Truly, seeing such preserving abundance in one place was enough to make me a little giddy.

Jar and Closure Distributors

There are a number of jar distributors located around the country. Their primary business is to supply jars to commercial food producers, but they’re also happy to sell to the general public. You can either order online from a jar distributor, or, if you have one in your region, you can often place an order and pick it up at the warehouse. Fillmore Container is my closest jar distributor and whenever I need a large number of jars, I’ll place an order online or over the phone, and arrange to pick up in person. It’s the very cheapest way I know of to get brand new jars.

Used jars

There is absolutely nothing wrong with buying used jars, as long as you give them a good once-over before you plonk your money down. Check the rims for any chips or cracks and make sure that they’re fairly free from major staining and scratching. Haunt your local thrift stores, garage sales and flea markets for good jars. My personal rule is that I don’t spend more than $4-5 a dozen when it comes to used pint jars (I’ll go a bit higher for quarts), because much more than that and they start to get as expensive as a box of new ones (depending on their size).

For more of my tips on buying used jars, check out the post I wrote on the subject last year.

Online

The one problem with buying jars online is that the shipping costs quickly get prohibitive. Glass is heavy and so the shipping can sometimes double your costs. However, for us urban dwellers, it can often be the only way to get your jar fix, particularly if you’re looking for a special size/shape (again, I call out those wide mouth, half-pints I love so much).

On Amazon, I like the seller Brand Variety for jars because their shipping structure is one of the more reasonable I’ve found. For all other canning stuff, I turn to Lehman’s. I love the stainless steel canning funnel they sell.

Craigslist can also be a good place to find used jars, depending on the level of jar competition in your area (I’ve found that it’s a heck of a lot harder to get used jars off CL in Oregon than it is here in Philly. The canning revival got there first, I guess).

Now, to make this post even more useful, please share where you find jars! Let’s here from the other regions of the country, which grocery and hardware stores are most reliable in your area?

Comments { 78 }

Ball Blue Book Giveaway

ball blue books

Hey canners! My apologies for the radio silence of late. I was out of town on a little vacation over Memorial Day Weekend (Thursday through Monday) and when I returned, work turned into a noisy and demanding beast. It looks like it’s going to continue in that vein for the next 12 days (I’m working on a very cool project that will be launching on June 14), so posting round these parts will be spare.

However, do know that this site is never far from my mind. In fact, while shopping for jars this weekend (isn’t that what everyone does on their vacation?) I stumbled across a terrific deal on copies of the Ball Blue Book. It’s the 2008 edition, but all the canning info is still relevant and I’ve been told that it’s only one recipe different from the 2009 version. I picked up two copies to give away here.

You have until Sunday evening (June 6, 2010) at 11:59 p.m. to leave a comment and enter the giveaway. In your comment, share your favorite fruit preserve recipe. Feel free to write the recipe out or link to where people can find it. Let’s spread the love for those jams, jellies and other preserves!