Can-do: Canning, freezing all the rage again

Story by Theresa Curry

No one’s buying cars or new homes, but families everywhere are investing in jars, lids and giant pots to preserve the fruits of Virginia’s harvest and save a few dollars in the process.
According to Nielsen figures released last fall, canning and freezing supplies were posting unit sales growth of 14 percent, and the trend has gained more steam as the first vegetables and fruits ripen. Jarden Home Brands, owner of the popular Ball line of home canning products, had already seen a 30 percent increase in sales of jars and lids in early June, with the main harvest season still weeks away. 

Preserving food in glass and freezer jars is not exactly a new trend. Families from Waynesboro to Winchester are using the same Ball and Mason jars their grandmothers used, replacing only the vacuum lids each year to make a perfect seal. Others, just beginning, are investing in brand-new pint, half-pint and quart jars in the growing numbers that drive the sales increases noted nationally. At the Waynesboro Kroger, non-foods manager Jody Coiner reports a steady increase in the sale of canning jars and lids; and out in Stuarts Draft, Gary Eavers is expanding The Cheese Shop’s line of canning and pickling supplies to meet the growing demand.

Those who haven’t canned before often start with jelly and jam, the perfect way to capture the sunny taste of field-ripened strawberries now on the wane, and the raspberries, blackberries, cherries and peaches just beginning to come in. Because of the high acid and sugar content of fruit jams and jellies, they’re processed using an “open kettle” with boiling water, instead of the more involved pressure canning that vegetables require.

Jams have a history as old as the crusades, when travelers returned to Europe with sweet preserves. Sailing ships lay on bottles of jellied fruit to provide some vitamins to prevent scurvy as well as a little sweetening to make the hard bread and biscuits more palatable during long voyages. Almost any fruit will form a gel if simmered down long enough, and with enough sugar added. That’s because of the natural pectin that’s present in fruit in varying degrees. Although there are wonderful, traditional jams and jellies made with only sugar and fruit, local cooks usually add extra pectin, sold commercially, for several reasons. The long cooking required in cooked-down jams sometimes diminishes the fruit taste; and sometimes the amount of sugar needed overpowers the wonderful, complex taste of natural fruit.

Commercial pectin recipes used to call for added water and more sugar than fruit, a recipe that stretches the precious fruit but tastes rather sweet and bland. There’s a whole new line of pectin products now, that require less sugar for a nice gel, and limit the cooking time for jams and jellies. After making several batches of strawberry jam, I found that four cups sugar to six cups fruit was a good ratio for sweet berries. To do this, you’ll need a pectin product advertised as “low-sugar” or “no sugar.”

A thorough discussion of all kinds of jelly and jam making is available on the website of the National Center for Home Preservation (www.uga.edu/nchfp/index.html), which includes instructions for preserving all kinds of produce, as well as recipes and detailed directions for full-sugar, low-sugar and no-sugar jams as well as jams and jellies using no commercial pectin.

Meanwhile, Valley experts with years of experience have some tips to help you get started:

1. Find a cheap or free source of fruit
Making jam is not a thrifty endeavor if you head to the grocery store to buy your berries. Bertha Showalter, of Stuarts Draft, has made jam for years using the berries she finds wild on her own farm, and the cultivated fruit that neighbors bring her. If you’re willing to pick your own berries, you’ll probably save enough to make this project worthwhile. When calculating the cost of your jelly-making as compared to buying jelly or jam, make sure to compare your yield with high-end preserves rather than the brands on the shelves filled with water and corn syrup. Another cost-saving measure recommended by Showalter and Harriston jelly-maker Rowena Sullivan is to buy bulk “Dutch Gel” pectin at The Cheese Shop in Stuarts Draft rather than the small boxes that make one batch and cost as much as $3 each. Showalter sells her jams from her home in Stuarts Draft, and Sullivan is a regular at the Staunton-Augusta Farmers Market.

2. Use the best fruit
Showalter and Sullivan pick their berries carefully and use certain berries for more flavorful jam. Showalter says she prefers the wild fruit because of its concentrated flavor. Sullivan says that some berries, like red and yellow raspberries, are wonderful as fresh fruit but don’t have the intense flavor that makes the best jam. For that she likes the darker raspberries, grapes and blackberries.
“Don’t pick only the biggest berries,” warns Sullivan. This not only makes it hard for the grower, but also is unnecessary. Often, the smaller berries have more flavor. She makes a jam packed with flavor from a combination of blackberries, raspberries and the buckberries that grow on the farm of Glenn Sullivan, her son.

3. Take advantage of modern technology
“Sterilize everything,” advises Susan Randall, who sells the jellied products of her Elk Run Farm at the Staunton-Augusta Farmers Market. Grandma may have used paraffin and scraped off the mold, but scientists now believe that mold residue may be more harmful than once thought. Use new jar lids and sterilize them in boiling water, along with the rings, tongs and funnels. Wash jars in hot, soapy water, simmer them, and keep hot until you fill them. Most jelly makers process the filled, sealed jars in boiling water for at least ten minutes to make sure of their sterility and for a better seal.

4. Learn to work with pectin
It comes either powdered or in a liquid, and takes a lot of the guesswork out of jelly making. Resist the urge to use instructions that call for a lot of water and sugar that far exceeds the amount of fruit. Sullivan makes freezer jam for her family, a method that reduces the processing time and results in jelly and jam with a fresh taste and bright color.


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