Red Currants, Dry Canning, and Family Traditions

August 31, 2017

Regular Food in Jars contributor Alex Jones is back with another post from her canning trenches. This time, she’s sharing her experience trying dry canning (aka open kettle canning) with her Canadian relatives. -Marisa

As I’m sure is the case with many of you readers, I first learned to can thanks to recipes and tips here on Food In Jars.

Marisa’s enthusiasm, knowledge, and clear, well-researched recipes and instructions have always made it easy to understand the principles of safe and delicious canning. Ever since then, I’ve felt confident in putting up seasonal produce and even developing or tweaking recipes of my own, knowing that they were based on safe, tested, well-researched information. And I’d never known anyone who practiced home preserving any other way.

That is, until I paid a visit to family in Quebec earlier this month.

My mother’s 10 brothers and sisters, as well as many of my twenty-odd cousins, still live in a section of rural Quebec sandwiched between Montreal to the north and the U.S. border to the south. I spent summers visiting there, swimming in the lake, picking berries, and getting a taste of rural life.

Now that I’m grown, I still like to pay an annual visit to the family homestead, and one of the highlights of the trip each summer is checking out my aunts’ huge, enviable vegetable gardens. (My mom seems to be the only one of the eight women in her generation who isn’t crafty, but that tendency was clearly passed on to me.)

This year, my aunt Dorothy — who grows, stores, cans, freezes, and pickles enough produce so that she barely shops for it in the winter — concluded the annual garden tour by giving my partner and I a big bowl and a directive to take a pass at her prolific red currant bush, still dripping with ruby-red fruit after several harvests and jamming sessions. Red currants being one of the few summer fruits I have trouble getting my hands on, I enthusiastically complied.

We left with two quarts of berries — but I’d have to turn them into jam before crossing back into the States or risk confiscation by the border guards, who are under orders to confiscate fresh foods like eggs and produce from travelers.

Another aunt, Patricia, came to the rescue, offering the use of her kitchen for the afternoon and even digging up some dusty Bernardin jars from the attic for me to use. But when I asked her where I’d find two large pots — one to cook the jam and one to heat the water bath — she said, “What do you need two pots for?”

After a few minutes of incredulous questions from both sides, it became clear that we had really different ideas about how to preserve this fruit.

When they put up jam, I learned, my aunts practice dry canning. This method eschews the jars’ standard 10-minute bath in boiling water in favor of heating clean jars in the oven to sanitize them, pouring a kettle of boiling water over the bands and fresh lids, filling the jars, sealing, and allowing them to cool until the seals ping.

While I was a little skeptical, I realized I’d enjoyed jam made by my aunts in this way for years before — so I let Aunt Patricia lead me through the process.

(It’s worth noting that for low-acid foods like tomatoes, my relatives will go for a water bath process when preserving, saving dry canning for only high-acid, high-sugar recipes like jam and jelly. I certainly wouldn’t have gone along with any low-acid preserving recipes that don’t stick to the standards put forth by trusted sources like the National Center for Home Food Preservation.)

After cooking the jam — using this recipe from David Lebovitz with less sugar — we filled the heated jars, topped them with the scalded lids, and waited for them to seal.

While all five of the half-pint jars I made sealed just fine after the initial cooling period, two of them have since failed, prompting a transfer to the fridge — and indicating that while good results are possible with this method, it’s less effective than a water bath, in my experience.

But otherwise, the jam looks and tastes great, three weeks later. (My aunt also stores her open jars of jam in the cupboard; signs of mold, she says, are a cue to scrape anything unwelcome off the surface and transfer the jars to the fridge. Then again, she eats jam on homemade bread almost every morning, so it probably goes pretty quickly.)

I haven’t included a recipe here, since I’m not encouraging anyone to try dry canning at home. But the experience stuck with me: So many of my crafty, foodie practices have been learned on the job or through the Internet rather than being passed down through generations. None of this was taught to me growing up by someone I knew and trusted.

I’ve never come up against resistance to contemporary techniques from anyone, let alone family who have spent a lifetime making preserves by what are now considered outdated methods. With a lower-risk recipe like jam, I just had to give this technique a try.

I might not have an acre of garden to harvest from or a my own woods in which to forage, but I was able to connect with a family tradition through this method. I don’t see myself dry canning again in the future, but I’m thankful for this reminder to learn from my elders and to better understand the way things used to be done as well as how they’re done now in my preserving practice.

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16 thoughts on "Red Currants, Dry Canning, and Family Traditions"

  • I have found that it is common practice in the uk, europe, new zealand and australia to ‘dry’ can jams and chutneys. When I told bloggers in those countries how we used a water bath canner they couldn’t believe all the trouble we go to. So I decided I would try their method and I have been doing it for the last 3 years. All my jars seal and I have never had a fail. Given that, I will continue to preserve my jams in that way until this method lets me down. I only use this method for jams, and still use the water bath method for other stuff.

  • I do a similiar method for high sugar, high acid jams: boil the jars, lids and rings. Once filled and closed, I flip the jars for five minutes upside down. Once they are upright they seal as they cool.

    1. Elizabeth, I wonder what the flipping step is supposed to accomplish? I’ve heard of this before too but I’m not sure what makes it helpful to the canning process.

      1. This is a common technique in artisanal jam-making. The jam must be above 90 degrees Celsius when the sterilized jars are filled. We seal them tightly and flip them for one to two minutes because at that temperature the jam itself is actually hot enough to sterilize the lids. We fill jars 1/4″-1/8″ full and the temperature of the jam also creates its own vacuum (resulting in a sealed jar).
        I presume this method isn’t recommended for home canning since most folks don’t have an accurate calibrated thermometer to make sure they are filling jars at a high enough temperature.

        1. Thanks for this info! If I try this technique again, I’ll check the temp with my Thermopop and use the flip step as well. This batch was definitely above the temperature threshold you mention (hovering around 215 degrees F before canning) but we did not flip the jars.

        2. I believe this used to be the recommended method. It’s how I learned to do it. I’m kinda self-taught. No internet at the time. I imagine I read in cookbooks and canning pamphlets.

  • The born-in-Italy mother of a friend uses dry canning for tomato sauce. She does what you describe above and then to seal, she turns the jars upside down overnight and checks the seal in the morning. The first time I saw her do that I had a minor panic attack about all the pasta meals I’d eaten at her house. She told me that is how her mother taught her to can while growing up in Italy. It might have been a bit safer using old varieties of tomatoes, which are naturally higher in acid than the more modern varieties, and she grows all her own tomatoes and uses old fashioned ones, but I don’t think I’d risk it myself!

    1. Yikes! I’m glad she’s always had good results with this method but would definitely avoid using this method for anything but high-acid, high-sugar recipes like jams and jellies. I always use my trusty pressure canner for tomatoes to cut down on water use and processing time.

  • Nothing makes run screaming from a canning resource faster than the statement, “I never killed anyone doing it this way.” Wow, what confidence that instills! Granted, it is probably safe most of the time, but when it’s not safe you are knowingly cutting safety corners that increase risk–you’re 100% liable. You might just cause a little upset stomach. You might kill someone. The people that do kill people probably don’t have blogs where they open with, “I’ve given 5 people botulism.” Botulism doesn’t look like mold and contamination happens while filling jars. It seems like just as much trouble to heat the jars, handle them with sterility, and fill them as it does to use a water bath or steam canner.

    Things change. Bacteria are more virulent, acidity changes in different varieties of foods, we know more than we used to, the product quality is the same–so can someone explain why anyone would advocate open kettle or inversion canning?

    Seriously, I want to know. Do you chuckle, rebelling against the USDA and all their overprotective recommendations? Less than 200 years ago we literally didn’t think hand washing with antiseptics in a hospital made sense–doctors went from doing an autopsy to delivering a baby without even washing their hands with more than water (even though there was strong evidence they could and should be using antiseptics) and then when the mothers died they did not know why. They had not killed anyone, it was a fever that killed the new mother, of course!

    Don’t get me wrong, I love dirt. I think the world we live in is too clean, we are not exposed to enough germs, we bathe too much, etc. But I will not risk my life, or anyone I would shared canned goods with, over some prideful statement that this is how people have done it for years and so it’s fine.

    1. I understand your concerns; however, in reading this post, I’m not finding any chuckling over “…rebelling against the USDA and all their overprotective recommendations”. Rather, I sense a great respect for those recommendations, but also an acknowledgement that there are other developed and safety-conscious cultures where things are done differently. I did not learn canning from my family, either, and that longing is powerful. If I discovered a group of long-lived and healthy cousins who did things differently, I’d try it, too, with an awareness and understanding of the possible (but very minimal) risk.

      1. It is not denounced as unsafe in the post and the comments here are a testimony to that. They are all encouraging it. Alex states the recipe won’t be shared so as not to actively encourage others but then the base recipe is linked, and then noted that the sugar is reduced, which can also alter stability/pH.The fact is that you have no way to know if you’re being safe or not since you don’t test for pH and botulism in your preserves when you open them, so the attitude of, “I’ll do it until I have a problem,” is woefully misinformed as your first and only problem may be sending someone to the hospital. Sure, odds are if you don’t get a good seal it will just result in some moldy jam that you can detect, but not everything is so clear. Botulism grows in a sealed jar and when recipe modifications are made you don’t know your resulting pH. I repeat, how is that worth it? I’m actually looking for someone to intelligently answer about how this is smart or needed. They even post that they didn’t get a good seal on 2 jars out of 5 in the batch; over dozens and dozens of batches I’ve done with water bath and steam canning I’ve had 2 jars that didn’t seal. Seems pretty inferior, even if not too dangerous, since you know, you haven’t killed anyone.

  • I haven’t done dry canning, but, a few years ago, I picked up a steam canner for $2 at a garage sale and gladly use that over a water bath for high-sugar things like jam and syrups. I put the jars, lids, and rings into the steam canner to sterilize while prepping the jams and the whole process works beautifully. I love it!

  • I have a friend who was born in Germany who uses this method for her jams and jellies. I think they are a bit more prone to developing mold, but it is certainly easier. I always heat my jars in the oven rather than putting them in boiling water because my well water is so laden with calcium and minerals the jars come out coated. The only hazard I see is that heating them in the oven increases the stress on the jars and I probably suffer more broken jars as a result.

  • I live in Switzerland and dry canning is the norm here. Last year I saw a pumpkin/orange marmalade at the famers’ market. I had read in a number of places that pumpkin is not easy to can at home, so I asked the vendor what did she do special with the water bath or did she use a pressure cooker. She had no idea what I was talking about. I told her that I was originally from the US and that I use a water bath for all my jams/perserves. She had never heard of that. They do exactly what Alex’s family does.

    A week ago, I was in France grocery shopping. They sometimes have really cool canning jars in different shapes so I went to take a look. There was a new type I had never seen before. On a closer look, it had a type of seal that used wax! I hadn’t seen that in years.

    For me, I stick with the water baths but it is interesting to hear about the differences.

  • I didn’t realize this was called dry canning. I always do my jams and jellies this way with the added step that I return the filled jars to the oven for 15 minutes to finish the vacuum and the seal. I learned this method from The Blue Chair Jam cookbook and believe that the author sells her jams canned this way, so I am confident this is a food safe method (given the rules around what you can sell in the US!) I have rarely if ever had jars not seal this way, so I suspect the problem was the lids, not the process. I’m not sure what anyone would see as unsafe about this method, since sterilization in an oven (provided your oven thermometer is accurate) is the same as sterilization in boiling water and the contents are already cooked for a long time. If you are making some relatively low acid and unprocessed, like canning tomatoes, then obviously the contents need to be cooked through some type of process like boiling water bath canning.