Every cook has their culinary bucket list. Things they want to attempt making, but are hard projects even for the expert. For me, one of the items on the top of my list was canning. As a big believer in eating seasonally, I’ve yearned for the know-how that would allow me to preserve the flavors of the season for later in year.
Apparently Atlanta is not a big canning town. Either everyone’s big-haired grandmother (bless their hearts) passed down these essential skills, or no one has an interest because no matter how hard I Googled, I could not find any local classes on the subject. Well, OK, there was one in August, but that meant I would have to wait and miss strawberry season- gasp! The fact was, I was going to have to go at this alone…
I took it upon myself to order some books, read all that I could online, and watch YouTube videos on the subject until my eyes were sore. After feeling like I had a basic understanding of the process, I ordered a starter set online for water bath canning. It came with a giant pot and all the little gadgets to make the job easier.
While I had heard that pickles were the best canning project for a beginner since they have a naturally high acid level thanks to the vinegar, I was feeling fairly confident about making a jam. I was not going to let my novice status allow the best of strawberry season pass me by. Plus, I read that jams are pretty fool proof as well (as long as you are sticking to a tried and true recipe that use a high acid content fruit). For you novice canners out there, high acidity is super important when water bath canning to prevent botulism. The spores can’t grow in acidic environments, so having high levels keeps your food safe for shelf storage.
I found this delicious sounding jam in my book, Food In Jars, and settled on making it after finding the perfect strawberries at the market. Here is a link to a variation on the recipe I choose. (As a novice canner myself, I want to share my story, and let the experts give you the recipe and instructions.) After hitting up four different stores to find the right jars, and calling various others to secure liquid pectin verses the powdered type everyone seemed to carry, I was ready to roll.
I must say, the best part about this recipe was that the strawberries had to “macerate” overnight in the fridge, meaning sit with some sugar so the strawberry solids would break down and turn juicy. After all that hulling and slicing, I didn’t have to jump right into making the jam, which was nice. Plus, it meant I could start fresh the next day.
To be honest, though, by the way things went, I’m not sure that fresh start made a difference. It all started off good and well. I managed to get the water boiling in my extremely large water bath pot, sanitizing the jars while I was at it. It was the jam making that actually caused all the problems.
I should have paid more attention to the instructions, which clearly read, “this jam will foam madly,” and not turned my back on the stove to clean dishes. While I was loading some glasses into the dishwasher, I heard the telltale over boiling sound, and when I looked back red foam was rushing over the ledge of the pot and jumping for the burner. I quickly turned off the heat and started stirring with a wooden spoon, but this foam was something serious. Finally after it went down, I did my best to clean off the area around the burner before turning the heat back up.
All was well again in my little kitchen. I had my candy thermometer in the jam secured with a twist tie to the handle of the pot measuring the temperature to 220F so I could achieve the proper set. When the meter finally hit the winning number, I set the timer on the oven for two minutes, giving it the correct amount of time to chemically change forms into a thick jam. Suddenly, a giant flame leapt up from the burner and engulfed my jam pot. I leaped back in total shock, mentally recounting where the closest fire extinguisher was. ”Now isn’t this just peachy”, I thought. ”My first jamming experience, and I’m about to burn my apartment complex down.”
Suddenly, my body kicked into gear, moving the towels away from the flame and turning the burner off. The twist tie holding the thermometer to the pot slowly started dripping black plastic onto the stovetop. I rescued the device from imitate destruction and set it safely aside.
The flame continued to burn for another 5 minutes, at which point I contemplated grabbing my camera to document the disaster for you all, but thought it best not to leave the monster alone for fear it leap up onto my wall the second I turned my back. It seems as though all the foam that boiled over earlier had ignited once it reached that 220F temperature.
After everything finally cooled down, I moved the pot to another burner and got things going again, this time to much success. I knew I had achieved a good ‘set’ to my jam when I noticed that the burnt foam had actually turned from liquid to hard candy on my stovetop. That was a fun mess to clean up later, trust me.
The rest of the process went fairly smoothly. It turned out I didn’t have enough jam to fill the proper amount of jars because of the over boil, but the leftovers were put to good use in some ice cream that I made later. There were also a few minutes of concern that my water bath pot was going to explode while it was at a full rolling boil, and that my cooling jam jars were going to project shards of glass straight into my eye after breaking from the drastic temperature change, but all’s well that ends well.
The whole experience was made positive after I heard the first lid ‘pop’ closed, meaning I had achieved that necessary seal for shelf storage. Full disclosure: I heard the sound from my hiding place in the laundry room as I didn’t want to be anywhere near the jars when they combusted, which of course, never happened.
If you, like me, have preserving on your culinary bucket list, here are some tips I can share beyond the normal advice you will find out there:
- Seriously, if you can take a class, do it. I can only assume having some hands on instructions would have really saved me from all my mishaps and given me the confidence I needed. However, as I have proven, it’s not impossible to do this on your own. Just be overly attentive, start with a clean kitchen, and don’t multitask.
- Whatever type of jam you are making, invest in the proper equipment to prepare the fruit. My huller and slicer were huge time and sanity savers when prepping the strawberries.
- Watch your jam! The whole fire incident could have been prevented if I was watching my jam and stopped it from boiling over. Unless you’ve tested the recipe before, stay vigilant for foam!
- When doing small batch canning, fill your entire water bath pot with jars even if you won’t be using them. Once the water comes to a rolling boil, the jars will move around if there is space to do so. Having a full pot, even with empty jars, will prevent the ones with jam from tipping over or breaking.
As I write this, my three jars of Strawberry Vanilla Jam are sitting on my counter trying my patience. I’m really excited to test the seals, but I have to wait 24-hours to do so. Fingers crossed it worked out, but if not, I’ll just throw them in my fridge for storage.
Up next, I plan on pickling some asparagus. I hear they make good Bloody Mary stirrers. Have you canned before? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section, especially if you have some more tips to share. Here is to helping everyone NOT burn their houses down!