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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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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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Canning 101: How Long do Home Canned Foods Really Last?

122 | 365

You hear a lot of differing advice from people on the subject of how long it’s okay to keep your preserved food once you’ve canned it. Some people say that it’s a year to the date that it went into the jars. Others will tell you that they recently ate the last of the tomatoes their grandmother canned in the summer of ’99 (1999, that is). I’m here to tell you that it’s somewhere in between.

If you talk to one of the Master Food Preservers out there or folks from the National Center for Home Food Preservation, the answer goes something like this: “For highest quality, properly stored preserved foods are best eaten within a year of canning.” (Here’s exactly what the NCHFP says.)

Some people might read that statement and think that it means that they have exactly a year to eat through every last jar. The real answer is a bit more nuanced. You will get the very best flavor and quality from a jar that is in its first year, but there’s no internal self destruct devise inside the jar that goes off on day 366 or 367. Preserves older than a year are still safe for consumption.

Home preserved foods remain safe for eating far longer than their first year, but their quality does decline the longer the jars remain on the shelf (or in my case, under the couch). This means that the jam you made two or three years ago is probably still just fine to eat but it may not taste quite as good as did on that summer afternoon when you first put it in the jars. Chances are good, though, that it will still be more delicious than anything you’re able to buy at the grocery store.

If you have some elderly high acid preserves that you’d like to eat up but are making you nervous, here’s what to do. Pull one off the shelf and take a good look at it. In the case of jams, jellies, butters, and other spreads, look to see if it changed colors radically (a little surface discoloration is normal, but total color alternation or loss is suspect). For pickles, relishes, and whole preserved fruit, look at the quality of the brine or syrup. Has it gotten muddy or opaque? Has the liquid level dropped significantly?

If you don’t see any major change, open up the jar. Look at the surface. Has any mold or scum developed? Give it a good sniff. Does it smells funky, dirty, or boozy (do check to see if you added alcohol to the starting preserve, as then it won’t be a useful symptom of spoilage).

Once you’ve determined that all is well, give it a taste (for spreads that have darkened slightly on the surface, feel free to scrape away that top half inch). If you like how it tastes, dig in and include it in your rotation of open jars. Repeat these steps for each older jar you have in your stash.

Sometimes, long storage will rob a preserve of its flavor, particularly if it was sweetened lightly, or with honey or a sugar substitute. If it doesn’t taste like a whole lot, it may not be appropriate for spreading on toast, stirring into yogurt or serving with cheese, but you can always use up those less delicious jars in quick breads or as part of a braising liquid.

All that said, if you feel at all uncomfortable about something you canned, it is still always better to toss it than eat something that gives you pause. If you cringe every time you reach for a particular jar, it’s time to empty it out and move on.

Additionally, sometimes people try new recipes and then determine later on that they just don’t like them (not every recipe is for every person). If you made something and you just don’t like it, either give those jars away to someone who will appreciate it or dump the jars. There’s no reason to torture yourself with something you just don’t like.

 

 

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Canning 101: Is Condensation Inside Sealed Jars Safe?

plum jam

Like so many Canning 101 posts that have come before, this week’s post is prompted by a handful of emailed questions I’ve gotten recently. People have been writing to ask about the condensation droplets on the undersides of their mason jar lids. Is it safe, they wonder?

It is entirely normal to have a few drops of moisture on the underside of freshly processed mason jar lids. You experience condensation when warm, moist air is cooled. The cooling air doesn’t have the same capacity for water vapor as the warm air, so the water transforms back into its liquid state. It just makes sense to see some drops of liquid inside the jar.

It is not a sign that your jars are spoiling or that some water from the canning pot leaked into the finished product. Typically, the condensation will eventually reintegrate into the product. If it doesn’t, it’s still not a sign that it is spoiling. As long as the seal is still good and the product doesn’t look significantly altered, all is well.

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Canning 101: An Applesauce FAQ

pint of applesauce

When it comes to my own canning, I like to make a mix of fun things and pantry staples. That means that while I make plenty of highly spiced jams and fancy pickles, I also make a point of putting up a goodly amount of tomato puree and applesauce each year. I stir applesauce into oatmeal, bake it into cakes, and eat it straight from the jar when lunchtime pickings are slim.

One would think that applesauce would be a fairly straightforward thing to preserve, but it can be surprisingly tricky, particularly for new canners. After getting a number of questions about applesauce recently, I thought I’d put together a list of commonly asked applesauce questions and my answers, in the hopes of putting many minds at ease.

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What is the best kind of apple for sauce?
I don’t really think that there’s any one apple that makes the best sauce and truly, the best apples to use are the ones you have. I have cooked any number of apples into sauce and it has always been delicious. I would advise that you start with apples that taste good to you and that are relatively free from damage or rot (cutting around a bad spot or two is totally fine).

If you’re working with relatively sweet apples, you can always add a little lemon juice to balance the flavor. If the fruit is quite tart, a little sugar or honey will help adjust the sweetness.

apples

What is the best way to make applesauce?
Your apple saucing approach depends on the gear you have in your kitchen. For basic batches, all you really need is a peeler, a paring knife, and a potato masher. Peel, quarter, and core the apples. Dump them into a big pot with a little water to prevent burning, and cook them on low until they are soft. Use the potato masher to smash them into a chunky sauce.

If you have a food mill or a tomato press with a saucing screen, you can skip the peeling process and put the cored and quartered apples right into your pot. Add a little water, over the pot, and simmer until the apples are tender. Then, work them through the food mill or tomato press. You’ll end up with a peel-free sauce with a uniform texture.

If you want to include the skins in your finished product, core and quarter the apples. Put them in a pot with a little water and cook until soft. Once they’re tender, work the apples through a blender in batches, pureeing until the apple skins are integrated. This works best with a high speed blender, like a Vitamix, Blendtec, or Ninja, but can be accomplished in regular blenders or with an immersion blender if you’re persistent.

I personally like a chunky applesauce, so often use an approach that blends the first and second techniques. I core and quarter my apples, but leave the peels on. I simmer the sauce until it’s tender. Once the fruit flesh has started to separate from the peels, I stand over the pot with a pair of tongs and pull the skins off the fruit. I work those peels through a food mill, to catch any bits of sauce, and then mash the remaining naked apples with a potato masher. You get the color and some of the vitamins from the peels and still retain the chunky consistency.

Apple-Pear Sauce

Do I have to add anything to my applesauce to make it safe for canning?
Nope. Because apples are naturally high in acid, you don’t have to add a thing to it to make it safe for boiling water bath canning. What’s more, apples also have a goodly amount of sugar, so they keep well once canned.

Can I add things to my applesauce?
Yes! You can add spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, citrus zest, citrus juice, sugar, honey, or maple syrup (though use maple syrup in conservative amounts. It is lower in acid than other sweeteners and if added in large quantities, can impact the finished acidity of the applesauce.

How long do I process applesauce in a boiling water bath canner? 
If you live under 1,000 feet in elevation, you process pints for 15 minutes and quarts for 20 minutes. If you live above 1,000 feet, your processing time adjustments can be found here. Times and pressure amounts for processing a pressure canner can be found here, though it is not necessary for safety and can often lead to product loss.

apples

I just took my jars of applesauce out of the canner and they are leaking! What did I do wrong?
First of all, know that applesauce almost always siphons like that. It’s hard to prevent it entirely, but you can do a couple of things to help minimize it.

The first is to minimize the amount of air you work into the apples during the saucing process. Apples pushed through a food mill or tomato press can take on more air than those mashed with a potato masher. The air isn’t the end of the world, but it will expand during the processing, which will then force some sauce out of the jar.

The second thing to do is to let the jars cool gradually once the processing time is up. The worst siphoning typically happens in the moments just after you pull the jars out of the canner, when they’re still really hot. Instead, let the jars sit in the canning pot for 10-15 minutes after the canning process is done. Once your timer goes off, you slide the pot off the burner and remove the lid. Let the jars cool slowly in the pot. After the 10-15 minutes are up, pull the jars out. They may start to siphon some, but it will (hopefully) be less than you’ve experienced in the past.

apples for pie filling

If my jars siphon, but the lids eventually seal, is my sauce still safe? 
Yes! No matter how much they leak, if the seals are nice and tight, they are still safely shelf stable.

The surface of my applesauce has turned brown! Is it still safe? 
It is! That is normal oxidation. You can either scrape off the brown layer or just stir it into the rest of he sauce.

If there is mold on the outside of my applesauce jars, is it still safe? 
Yes! Sometimes you end up with a little bit of residual applesauce on the outside of the jars because of the siphoning I mentioned up above. It’s that applesauce residue that is molding. As long as the seal is still good and firm, the sauce inside the jar is perfectly safe.

There are some air bubbles in my finished, sealed jar of sauce. Is it still safe? 
As long as those air bubbles aren’t moving around, they are fine. You can read more about air bubbles in finished products in this post.

If you have an applesauce question that you don’t see here, please make sure to leave a comment and I’ll update this post.

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Canning 101: How to Swap Vinegars

white vinegar

When I first started canning, I used a lot of distilled white vinegar. It was cheap, readily available, and a lot of the traditional recipes used it so I figured I should too. However, I found that I didn’t always love the flavor of white vinegar.

It was unrelentingly acidic and just didn’t bring anything interesting to the jars of pickles and chutneys in which I used it. Gradually, I started shifting from white distilled to apple cider, red wine, and white wine vinegars (I’ll use champagne vinegar when I can get it, but it’s pricy).

You might think that I was doing something potentially unsafe with my vinegar switch, but I wasn’t. That’s because I was making sure to only swap other 5% acidity vinegars in for the white distilled. As long as the vinegar has the same acidic concentration, you can always pull out one vinegar and replace it with another.

Whenever you buy a jug of vinegar, it should say right on the label (like the one in the picture above) that it has either been diluted or reduced with water to 5% acidity. There are a couple of cases when your vinegar won’t be 5%. Rice vinegar is typically sold between 4% and 4.3% acidity (however, Linda Ziedrich has a formula that allows you to still use it with all your favorite recipes) and in some commercial settings, apple cider vinegar is being sold at 4%.

The moral of the story is that as long as you read the vinegar labels carefully and make sure that you’ve got a bottle containing vinegar that has a 5% acidity, you can use whichever you’d like in your pickles!

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