Put it away

If you do much canning, you have to find a place to store it. If it is only a few jars you can just stick them in a kitchen cabinet, but that won’t be enough space if you really get into canning. Years ago when I was canning everything I grew, I had to build some sturdy 2 X 4 and plywood shelves to hold it all.

2 X 4’s and plywood have gotten expensive over the years and I wanted to find an easier way to store my canned goods. I went to my local big box home center and found some plastic shelving on sale that was perfect for the purpose. After I got home I brought the shelving into the basement and assembled it in one of the spare basement rooms. When I went to use it, though, I found that the design of the shelves was fine for storing large object but no so good for small items, like jars. There are ribs and hollows that help provide shelf strength, but that provide an unsteady base for storing jars. In order to use those shelves, I would need to get some cardboard or hardboard to put on top of the shelves to make a good storage surface. Additionally, I needed to attach the shelving to a wall because it couldn’t be allowed to stand free and possibly fall over or rock. Storing the jars in their original cardboard boxes would work, too, but I didn’t have boxes for all my canned goods.

I had originally intended to put the new shelving unit into a closet type space I have in the basement. I couldn’t do that, though, because there were shelves there already. I decided to knock out the existing shelves to create room for the new shelving unit, but after several whacks with the hammer failed to dislodge the old shelving, I said the heck with it and decided to use the existing shelves to store my jars of food.

Storage1The shelves do sag a bit in the middle, which is why the jars are placed at the left and right ends. I figure if I couldn’t take them out with a hammer they will probably be just fine with those relatively few jars on them. If I were to do a lot more canning, I would redo the shelves, making the spacing between them smaller and reinforcing them.

When I can stuff, I make sure that I label each jar with what it is and what date it was put up. I like to use a permanent marker on the lid. Use a fancy paper label on the jar if you want, but they can fall off and then where are you? Besides, I can see them all at a glance when the info is written on top. You can see this on these jars –

Storage2Also, when I can the same thing several times during a season, such as the green beans, I always put the more recently canned jars in the back so that I grab the oldest stuff from the front as I use it.

So while that may not be the most ideal storage solution, it works for right now. It’s in a cool basement, not exposed to a lot of light, and on a sturdy shelf. The plastic shelves I bought? Extra storage space never goes to waste. They will be used.

Last of the pressure canning – 2013

Yesterday I picked the last significant batch of green beans. I cleaned and snapped them last night and tonight I canned them Only enough for five pints, and one of those pints was skimpy. Unless something unusual comes along, I should be done with the pressure canner for the year. There are a few beans still growing, but only enough to pick and eat.

I picked what cucumbers there were, too. They are not doing well either. Most of them were misshapen and stunted. I think that if I want to make some pickles this year I am going to have to hit the farmstand for cukes. I suppose I might get more off my plants, but nowhere near what I was hoping.

I was talking to my friend, the master gardener, on Saturday about the lackluster performance of my garden this year. We were talking about soil testing and he told me he doesn’t usually bother with that in his own garden. He puts down several bags of compost every year and that does it.

That got me to thinking that I really am expecting more out of this garden than I deserve. After all, all I did was turn the soil over several times and plant. I didn’t rake out the old grass nor did I supplement the soil in any way. I fertilized the tomato plants and the cucumbers with some generic fertilizer, but I doubt that helped much. If I’m still able to garden next year I will have to invest in the soil.

Mission accomplished

Finally, green beans are in the jars and heading for the shelf –

GreenBeans_3Thirty-one pints, altogether. It was very disappointing that I couldn’t can the first and second harvest. It was just too late to salvage those beans for canning. I’m also less than thrilled about the quality of the beans in this third picking. They were bigger than I like to use and I hope they will be good. I haven’t tried any of the canned beans yet, but I’ll let you know when I do.

Here is my set-up for canning green beans –

GreenBeans_1I like to raw pack my green beans, meaning that I put raw beans into the jars, rather than cook them for a bit before canning them. Since you process the beans in the pressure canner for the same amount of time whether you can them raw or hot, I feel the beans do better without the extra cooking required to hot pack.

The day before I washed all the beans and then I snapped them all into pieces about an inch and a half long, more or less, as well as removing the ends. That’s a lot of work by itself, and I find it easier to split the whole canning process into two days by doing the actual canning the next day.

In my canning arrangement above, I have my bowl of raw, snapped beans on the counter, my canning funnel, ladle, head space gauge/bubble remover, magnetic jar lid lifter and a teaspoon. I work on a clean towel to control splashes and to soften the work surface for the jars. The jars, by the way, do not need to be sterilized like when I make jam as they will sterilize in the canning process. The have been washed in hot soapy water, rinsed, and placed upside down on another towel on my kitchen table.

On the stove, on the back right, is my hot water canner filled with distilled or soft water heated to boiling. In front of that is a small pot with water heated to simmering that contains my lids. On the front left is my pressure canner filled with about an inch or a little more of water that has been heated, but not to boiling.

My process goes like this –

I place a dozen empty jars in the kitchen sink and fill them all with the hottest water that comes out of the tap in order to heat the jars a bit to avoid shocking them with the boiling water. To tell the truth, I’ve never had a problem with that. As I need a jar, I empty it into the sink and place the jar on the towel. Placing the funnel in the jar’s mouth, I grab a couple of handfuls of beans and drop them into the jar. I will then cover the top of the funnel with one hand while shaking the jar with the other to help settle the beans into the jar.

One of the problems with raw packing green beans is that they don’t “squish” like when they are hot, so you have to make sure you pack the jar as tightly as you can while still maintaining the required one inch of head space (the amount of space between the top of the water and beans in the jar and the top edge of the jar). Shaking the jar helps, but after that I still have to press the beans down a bit and add or remove beans as needed for head space (usually without the funnel in place).

After I have the beans to the correct level, with the funnel back in the jar, I use the ladle to take boiling water from the pot and pour it into the jar over the beans. It usually takes about two full ladles. It is essential to make sure there are no air bubbles lurking among the beans, as the bubbles will surface during processing and lower the surface of the liquid. You want the water to cover the beans for proper processing and storage. To help with this, I use the bright green plastic head gauge/bubble remover. You can use a chopstick (I recommend plastic, not wood or bamboo) or a plastic knife instead – something stiff that won’t scratch the jar.

I run the bubble remover down the middle of the beans in the jar and along the sides. As this disturbs the beans I just so carefully packed, I need to “re-seat” the beans. I use the teaspoon for that, as my fingers are not asbestos and the water is hot. I also use the teaspoon to remove water from the jar if I have added too much. I am careful with the metal spoon to be sure not to scratch or chip the jar.

Once the beans and water are at the proper level, I wipe off the rim of the jar, remove a lid from the simmering water and place it on the jar. I grab a band and finger-tighten it – no band wrenches allowed! Then the jar goes into the canner, sitting on the rack at the bottom of the canner. This canner holds nine pints on a layer. After placing all the jars on the bottom layer, I check the level of the water in the canner. It should be about two inches up from the bottom of the jars. I place the second rack on top of the bottom layer of jars and start adding jars to the top layer. You can see the top layer here –

GreenBeans_2If you compare the color of the beans in the jars here to the finished beans, you can see that they definitely “cook” during processing. For people who prefer their beans fresh, I can see where this could be a problem, but I actually like my canned beans.

Once the canner is full, I lightly lube the edge of the lid where it meets the canner body, and the place the lid on the canner. At this point, the pressure regulator weight is not on the canner. When tightening the lid clamps (there are six), I want to keep the lid as even as possible. I tighten opposing pairs of clamps to help with this. Again, you don’t need to break out a wrench – fingers will tighten the clamps more than enough.

Once the lid is on I crank up the heat and wait for steam to start coming out of the steam vent. This can take a while. When I have consistent steam coming from the vent, I start the timer for ten minutes. This allows the canner to exhaust the air and fill with steam. After ten minutes I place the ten pound hole of the pressure regulator weight on the steam vent, which starts the pressure building. Since I have a pressure gauge on the canner, too, I can watch for when it gets close to the ten pounds of pressure.

I mentioned in my last post that I haven’t had my pressure gauge on my canner checked for some time and converted the canner to using the pressure regulator weight. As this was the first time I have used the canner since the conversion, it was interesting to note that when the weight started letting me know that the canner was up to ten pounds of pressure, the gauge said it was twelve pounds. Usually the gauge is considered accurate enough if it tests to one pound either side of the target pressure, but this is two pounds off. If I had relied on the gauge coming up to ten pounds, the actual pressure would probably have been around eight pounds – not a good thing. I’m glad I switched to the regulator weight. No more gauge worries.

However, being new to the regulator weight way of doing things I wasn’t sure how it would go. You are supposed to set the pressure (meaning the heat under the canner) so that the weight “rocks” one to four times a minute. Well, what the heck does rocking look/hear like? Actually, it’s not too hard to figure out, although on the first batch through the canner I think the weight might have gotten a little hung up. A little tap on the side of it though and it worked more consistently. Every once in a while the pressure builds up such that the weight is lifted off the steam vent a little and shakes back and forth, which I guess is “rocking.” For the first batch I ended up watching the canner as closely as I did when I used the gauge alone, but by the second batch I had the routine down.

After maintaining the correct pressure for twenty minutes, I shut off the flame under the canner and let it cool down all on it’s own. While the first batch was cooling, I ran to the store to buy more pint jars as I had used up most of what I had on hand. I wasn’t gone too long and by the time I got back the gauge said it had zero pressure. I gave it a couple more minutes and then took the weight off the steam vent. Use an oven mitt or towel – that sucker is hot! I opened the lid and left the jars sitting in the canner for ten more minutes. Usually I just take them out, but the Ball canning book said to let them sit, so I did.

After that I used the jar lifter to take them out, taking care not to tilt the jars while removing them. I placed them on a clean towel spread on my kitchen table and listened as they sang their “pings” to me. Thirty-one pints – a good day’s work. Now I have to find room to store them.

Conversion under pressure

FInally! The pressure regulator weight arrived in the mail today. Now I can convert my pressure canner. If by now you thought I could make a simple post, I’ll prove once again that I can take a small subject and expand it to a novel, with pictures, no less. First, here is my pressure canner pre-surgery –

CannerClosed

It is an All American Model 921, old style, purchased back in the later 1970s. That thing to the right of the lid’s handle is the petcock which I am replacing –

CannerPetcockWhen using the gauge to judge the pressure, you would raise that lever on top of the petcock so that it is vertical. That allows the steam to escape through the holes in the side of the petcock. Once you are ready to start building pressure, you flip the lever over like it is in the picture, which closes the vent. Using an adjustable crescent wrench, I start by removing the petcock –

CannerPetcockRemovedI have my new steam vent and regulator weight on hand now –

CannerSteamVentWeightThe steam vent has the same threads as the petcock, so it’s a simple replacement –

CannerSteamVentAdd the weight and it looks like this –

CannerWeightInPlaceYou can see it can be adjusted for 5, 10 and 15 pound pressures, depending on which hole in the regulator weight you set over the steam vent. In this picture it would be 15 pounds. That completes the conversion, but just to show the rest of the pressure canner, here is the inside of the body of the canner –

CannerInsideYou will note that it is discolored in the bottom, up to the level of where the water usually sits. That is normal with aluminum and doesn’t affect the performance or strength of the vessel. It doesn’t bother me so I don’t resort to tactics to get the discoloration out, but the instruction book tells you how if you want to.

Sitting outside of the canner on the left are the two racks that the jars sit on in the canner. Once goes on the bottom of the canner and if you are doing enough pints to do more than one layer (nine pints per layer), you set the second rack on top of the bottom layer of pints and add another layer. This canner is not big enough to do that with quarts, but there are canners that are.

You can also see a slight bevel at the very top of the canner body. This surface is where the matching taper of the lid fits, sealing the canner without the need for a rubber gasket. This is one of the reasons I bought this canner. I’ll never have to worry about having to buy a gasket to do my canning. You do apply a lubricant to the tapered area to help it seal and to keep it from sticking. Usually I apply a very thin smear of Vaseline. Here is the inside of the lid –

CannerLidInsideAs stated, the taper on the lid fits the taper of the canner body. The lid has little stand-offs, too, so that when you store the canner you don’t have to set the lid in place so that it would seal the canner, allowing moisture or smells to be trapped inside.

CannerLidStandoffWhen you close the lid on the canner, the stand-off fits underneath the flange near the lid clamp. I think this is intended as a safety measure, to catch the lid if you try taking it off while there is still pressure in the canner. If you look closely at the first picture in this post, you’ll see a mark on the top edge of the canner body and a small arrow on the edge of top of the lid. These are alignment marks to assure you have the lid in the position determined by the machining for the best seal.

That’s about it. I have not used a pressure canner regulated by weight before, so it will be a new experience for me. Last time I saw a pressure cooker with a weight being used was back when I was a kid, so it’s been a while. Nothing I can’t figure out, though.

Pickin’ beans – a rolling experience

A beautiful day here today. The weather is absolutely fall-like right now – low 70s, mostly sunny, a slight breeze and low humidity – and this is the middle of August? I must admit that I’ll take the hottest, most humid summer day over any winter day, but if I have a choice between that hot, humid summer day and today, I’ll take today. It was so nice, in fact, that I took the day off of work.

There were a few things I wanted to do around the house today, not the least of which was to put this together –

RollingCartYep, my rolling work/garden seat is ready to roll. Now that I’ve used it here is my “review.”

First, the specs say the weight limit is 300 pounds. I’m sorry to say that I am the right person to test that. So far it has been holding up. In fact, I think the only weak point when it comes to weight might be the seat post and the metal cross strap it is mounted on. If you raise the seat all the way up and then sit on the edge of the seat, I can see where it might be possible to bend the cross strap or possibly even break the seat post weldment at that point. This shouldn’t be a concern for someone of a reasonable weight, and after a few hours of use I have had no issue with it, but I’ll be watching that.

The seat is raised and lowered by screwing it up or down into it’s mounting bracket. There is a cotter pin to keep it from coming out all the way. Also, there is a seat height adjustment lever which is supposed to keep the seat height from changing. Once you set the seat height you want, you tighten the adjustment lever which is supposed to act like a lock nut. A good idea in concept, but it does not provide enough force to keep the seat from swiveling when I sit on it. With my size, it would take something special to make that work.

On the other hand, it’s not like the seat automatically lowers if it is not locked in place. I actually found this to be a good thing. I suppose there may be times when you would like the seat locked in one position, but as I was using it I found that I wanted the seat to swivel so that I could maneuver in the garden more easily.

There is a version of a similar cart that has a steerable front end. That is useful when taking the seat out to the garden, but once you are in the garden sitting on it, you pretty much want to go straight anyways. Also, the steering mechanism has a handle, somewhat like the metal red wagons do, and I think that handle would be more in the way than a help. To drag the seat to the garden, I took an old dog leash (thanks, Holly, wherever you may be) and attached it to the front axle. It’s simple enough to lift the one end just enough to let me drag it easily by just the two wheels on the opposite end.

The “tool tray” under the seat would accommodate a few small tools, but you’re not going to pack a tool box in there. I used it to stash the dog leash while it was still attached to the seat. The tires came inflated and did not need any additional air, but they are pneumatic tires so I’m sure they will need to be topped off occasionally, and you certainly need to make sure you don’t roll over something sharp or pointy. The width of the whole seat did work in my garden paths.

How did I try it out? I picked green beans. I didn’t use it with the seat in the orientation shown in the pic, but had the seat turned sideways. It worked very well, and saved my back from the consequences of a long picking session. I’m really glad I bought it.

Up to this point I had harvested 6 3/4 pounds of green beans. With my bad back, I have had to wait to harvest more. Also, as I didn’t have the parts I need to convert my pressure canner, I wanted to leave the beans on the plants as long as I could. However, I could wait no longer. As it is many of the beans are way bigger than the size at which I would normally harvest them. If I waited any longer they would be good for nothing but dried beans. I probably spent at least two hours picking beans and would not have been able to do that without that rolling seat.

This was the peak of the harvest. I would usually just pull the plants up at this point because they won’t be bearing many more beans, but there are some smallish beans out there and the plants look nice out there still. I brought in 16 pounds of beans! My fridge is so full of beans I don’t think I can get anything else in there. Hopefully my back ordered canner part will come by this weekend and I will start working on putting them up. There’s a lot of work to do, but that’s why I do this.

While I was out there I harvested a couple more summer squash. I also put a little fertilizer on the tomato plants and turned the soaker hose on because I’m concerned about the progress of the tomato plants. I finally have one tomato that appears to be turning red. Hopefully it’s in good shape and not rotten on the bottom or anything. I haven’t looked at it that closely. You can just barely see the red tomato near the bottom of the far tomato plant, but only if you have sharp eyes and zoom into the picture –

TomatoPlants081313I don’t think I have posted a picture of the soaker hose in the garden. Here it is –

Garden081313

That bare spot in the near row of green beans is where I have some bunching onions planted, which is why the soaker hose is there. It then loops down to the beets, up past the cucumber plants, through the summer squash, and then has a single loop around each tomato plant. I have another soaker hose, too, and while it is too late for using it this year on the green beans, I need to get them both in place at the start of the garden, rather than wait until I have to work around plants. For as much rain as we had early in the season, the garden hasn’t gotten enough rain for a couple of weeks now, at least.

And that was my vacation day. I barbecued some chicken thighs and wrote this post, and that was enough for today. If I were wealthy I could get used to not going to the old job every day. Since that’s a total fantasy, I’m glad that I at least have as much vacation time as I do. Today was worth using up some of that time.

Weight on the way – yay!

Got an email today from the company I ordered my conversion parts from for my pressure canner. The regulator weight is shipping today. Hopefully that means it will arrive in a few days, and surely (I hope) by this weekend. I still have beans in the garden, so I am optimistic that I will be able to can at least part of my green bean crop. Yay!

Conundrum

First, let me say that it is Wednesday and it’s the first day since last Friday that my back has not been limiting my movement and activity. I can finally think about getting back out in the garden, among other things. I know there are more green beans to be picked but I think I’ll have to figure out a way to do that other than bending over at the waist, otherwise I’ll wind up immobile again.

So, the conundrum? My green bean crop, or more precisely, canning my green bean crop. To can green beans you need a pressure canner, and I have one. Actually, I’ve had it for many years, since the late 1970s in fact. I went for broke – almost literally – when I bought my canner. I wanted the best so I bought an All American, large capacity, cast aluminum canner, which was a significant investment at that point in my life. Heck, look at the prices on them today; they are still a significant investment, suitable only for someone who is serious about food preservation.

The pressure in a canner is usually managed one of two ways. The first is with a steam vent that has a weighted regulator that sits on the vent. Usually the weight will accommodate 5, 10 and 15 pound pressures, though not always. This system works by letting the steam escape through the vent tube in a controlled fashion. You know that the amount of pressure is right by listening for the number of times per minute that steam escapes from the vent with the regulator weight in place.

The other way to regulate pressure is with a gauge. The gauge displays the pressure in the canner and you have to keep a sharp eye on the gauge and keep adjusting the heat under the canner to keep the pressure in the right range. Unlike the weighted regulator that lets you know by sound what the pressure is, you cannot do something else in the kitchen while using a gauged canner because you must keep your eyes on that gauge. With many years of experience, believe me when I say that the second you take your eyes off the gauge, the pressure will go wrong.

Nowadays, a great many pressure canners have both weighted pressure regulators and a gauge, but the pressure is supposed to be regulated by the weight. The gauge is used more as a reference, particularly when the canner is cooling down and you need to know when there is no more pressure in the canner. Why don’t you use the gauge to regulate the pressure? Because they can be inaccurate, and proper pressure can mean the difference between good food and food poisoning.

My pressure canner has only a gauge, which was common when I bought it. To use a gauge alone to regulate pressure, it has to be checked to make sure it is accurate. Everything you will read says that this should be done yearly. The truth of the matter is that I have never had the gauge on my canner checked and it has never failed me. But I have not used the canner for many years and I do not want to trust the gauge alone. I need to get the gauge checked. Usually the recommendation is to contact your County University Extension office, and I have, but mine doesn’t currently check pressure gauges. So what to do? Buy the parts to turn my dialed pressure canner into a weighted canner.

This is pretty simple to do. With the gauge arrangement on my canner, there is a petcock that vents the canner. Once the canner is producing steam, you let the steam escape for ten minutes and then shut the petcock, which allows the pressure to build in the canner. Current models have a steam vent instead of the petcock. To convert, you need to buy the steam vent and the regulator weight. Depending on where you buy the parts, this will probably cost you at least $25., plus whatever shipping, tax, etc.

I had been planning on using the pressure gauge on my canner to put my beans up this year, but the more I thought about it, the less I liked the idea. After failing to find a local source, I fired off my order for the conversion parts to a online merchant whose web site said the parts were in stock, and were reasonably priced.  You’ll note that I harvested my first green beans on July 27th, but I didn’t place the order for the parts I need until July 30, and I wasn’t about to pay for exorbitant express shipping, either. This obviously meant that I would have to wait to can my beans, and hope that they would still be in decent shape to can. And then on the 1st I picked more green beans, still with no parts in hand.

As is almost always the case, just when you count on something being “in stock,” you are sure to be told that something has been back ordered. Damn! So I get the steam vent in the mail on Saturday, the 3rd, but the regulator weight isn’t expected in stock again until that same day, so I’ll have to wait for that part to ship, too, before I get a chance to do any pressure canning.

Do I just wait until the part gets here, or do I do something else? No, I just can’t feel good about using the gauge alone. I would if I could have gotten it tested, but not without. The only other alternative I can think of is to buy another pressure canner. Well, if I got a smaller canner, that could be useful for smaller batches, rather than having to drag out the big canner.

Off I go on a hunt, and wind up right back where I was. Yes, I could buy a decent pressure canner locally. The best price for what I would consider to be an acceptable canner runs around $89.00. Do you have any idea how many cans of green beans I could buy at the store for that much money? The idea is to be saving money, not investing in something new; something that I would probably not be able to come out ahead on in the remaining years I have left on this earth. Nope, makes no sense.

So here I sit, waiting for the company to tell me when they get the part in. I’ve sent an email to them today, hoping to get some info, but so far, nothing. I’m playing a waiting game here. I would hate to lose all the green beans I grew (except those that my neighbor and I have eaten) but if that’s what happens, so be it. At least I’ve had the pleasure of growing something.

Jammed up until fall

Today was blueberry jam time. I had purchased six pints of blueberries at the same time I had purchased the sweet cherries with the intention of making jam using the Ball® Jam & Jelly Maker. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a simple recipe for blueberry jam using the jam maker or otherwise. Finally, on the Ball (www.freshpreserving.com) web site I used the “Fresh Tools” menu to get to the Pectin Calculator (under “Reference Tools”), where I was able to specify the fruit, what I wanted to make, and the pectin I wanted to use, and have it give me a recipe that I could scale to fit my needs.

I went with low sugar for this jam. I didn’t want it overwhelmed with sweet. After processing the jam pretty much as I processed all the others, I ended up with eight half pints, plus just a little.

BlueberryJamJam on an English muffin is the best thing. However, making jam from the whole blueberries does give it a bit of an odd, coarse texture, though nothing terrible. And wouldn’t you know, after making the low sugar version, I found that this might have been better a little bit sweeter. Then again, if I had made it sweeter, I probably would be thinking it was too sweet. Never a happy medium, I guess.

That ends my jam making until the fall when I think I will make some apply jelly and apple butter. The Jam & Jelly Maker would work for apple jelly, but apple butter will have to be done the old fashioned way. I need to find a place to score some free apples. Hmmm, I wonder if those apple trees are still standing on the vacant property where I once lived.

Sweet cherry jam

Sorry, I was lost in the early ’70’s there for a moment, with the tune for “Sweet Caroline” going through my head. I’m back now, with more jam. Sweet cherry jam to be precise –

SweetCherryJamI turned into a real rebel with this effort. I definitely wanted to go with the low sugar version of this jam. I didn’t know exactly how many pounds of cherries I needed to buy, so I decided that however much I bought I was going to turn into jam.

The Ball pectin that I use is called “Flex Batch,” implying that you can increase or decrease the recipe by varying the amount of pectin and other ingredients. Within reason, of course, as jam and jelly recipes are not meant to make really large batches. They just don’t work when they get too big.

The low sugar recipe calls for 3 2/3 cups of prepared cherries, and I wound up with six cups. Not only did I adjust the recipe, I decided to make it all in one batch in the automatic Jam & Jelly Maker. You are not supposed to make a batch that will yield more than two pints in the J&J Maker, but I had read reviews from various users where they had even doubled the batch size without any problem. My experience with the strawberry and peach jam told me that the contents of the pot did not get too high while cooking, so I thought I should be okay to do all five cups of cherries at one time.

I don’t have a lot of pictures for the cherry jam – only two really – the one at the top and this one –CherryPitterI don’t eat sweet cherries and have never cooked with them, and it has actually been many, many years since I cooked with sour cherries. It dawned on me that I needed a cherry pitter. After reviewing my options, this OXO Good Grips Cherry and Olive Pitter seemed like the best bet. Yeah, you only pit one cherry at a time, but it’s not like I’m going into mass production. I found the pitter at my local Bed, Bath & Beyond, but at $12.99 I thought I should be able to find a better price elsewhere online. Hmm, no such luck, same price online. However, I did have a 20% off one item coupon from BB&B, so back to the store for the best deal.

I washed the cherries in a colander a few at a time and then pitted those few right after washing them. I’m paranoid about leaving pits in the cherries, although it’s unlikely you are not going to see any missed pits as you are spreading jam. To help alleviate my concern, I pitted into a plastic container, listening and watching for the pit to fall into the container and emptying the container after each small batch. While the cherry pitter worked pretty well and is well constructed, it was nowhere near 100% consistent in removing all the pits. Still, as I was watching so closely I was able to catch the cherries that didn’t pit and do it manually (although I did find half a pit as I was putting the finished jam into jars – you just better plan on missing one).

So, here I have bowl full of pitted sweet cherries. The instructions for almost all jam is to cut up the fruit and then mash it (usually in a single layer) with a potato masher. Do you know what a pain it is to try to cut up sweet cherries? Small, round things that do not want to stay under a knife? I finally succeeded in cutting several up and went to mash them. Did you know that sweet cherries are pretty sturdy little fruits? They don’t like to be mashed any more than they like to be cut up.

I suppose if you like really chunky jam you just proceed like that. Me? It just was just too much work and looked like it would result in some pretty inconsistent product. Out came the food processor. A few minutes later and wham, bam, there you have it – cherries chopped and ready for cooking. Yes, I’ve read that you shouldn’t use a food processor because, at least with some fruits, it reduces the effectiveness of the pectin that is in the fruit. I don’t know if this is true for sweet cherries, but I didn’t care. It worked much better than the chop and mash method.

Loading up the J&J Maker, the larger amount of ingredients didn’t seem to fill it too fully. It looked reasonable to me, so I set to “jam” and added two minutes to the cycle time, thinking I should since I was cooking more. Other than the increased recipe and extra cooking time, I processed the batch normally. While the contents did riser higher in the pot when they reached the boiling stage, they didn’t come close to overflowing the pot, which I was very happy to see. That would have been a hassle to deal with.

I canned and processed the jam in jelly jars as usual in the hot water bath canner. I ended up with six half pint jars and one 4 oz jar. I let them cool completely and afterwards removed the rings and washed off the outsides of the jars. With my strawberry and peach jams, if I turn the jar of jam on its side, the jam stays put.  I found that my sweet cherry jam wasn’t quite so sturdy. The 4 oz jar is fine and doesn’t do anything when I tilt the jar, but the half pint jars seem a bit loose. There is one jar in particular (why just one jar?) that seems to have a particularly soft, dang near liquid, set.

I haven’t opened a jar yet to try it, so I’m not sure how it will spread. I suspect that if it is stored in the fridge it will firm up a bit, but still be softer than the strawberry or peach jams. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I do want to be able to spread it instead of ladle it.

It got me to thinking, though, about Thanksgiving or Christmas. How did I make that leap? The more liquidy jar of sweet cherry jam looked to me like it could be the base for a great ham glaze! Who says jam is only good for spreading on bread?

That’s it for . . .  sweet cherry jam, bum bum bum, good times never seemed so good . . . sigh, sorry, back in the 70’s again. Gotta go play that song.

Peach Jam, FreshTECH and canning

PeachJamI’m a jam makin’ fool here. The only jam, jelly or preserve I have made before has been apple jelly and apple butter. (When you have free apples, you have to do something with them.) For some reason I’m in the mood for jam making this year. I’ve already made more than I will probably use in a year, but that won’t stop me. This time I’m tackling peach jam. Prepare yourself for a long post here, because I will cover the whole jam making and canning process. I also have lots of pictures for those who get tired of reading the words.

Now, I don’t have much experience with peaches. When I was a kid my mother would serve them out of a can but never fresh. I may have eaten a fresh peach at some time between childhood and now, but if so, I can’t remember. I’ve never baked or cooked with them, nor canned them. I used to work in a produce department so I know about peaches and can tell when they were ripe, but peaches have never been high on my “to eat” list. However, peaches are in season and on sale and I have empty jam jars, so peach jam, here we come.

I don’t have any pictures of prepping the peaches, but I think I would feel kind of silly if I did. Hell, I feel silly anyways. First, I wanted to skin the peaches. Easy peasy. You slit an “X” in the bottom of the peach, dunk it in boiling water and then in ice water and the skin just slips off. Well, that’s true, but when you lose track of time and boil them for two minutes you really start to cook the peaches. Don’t do that. I did them in two batches and the forty-five seconds the second batch spent in the hot water was plenty.

Taking the skins off like that works really well. They do slip off pretty easily. Slippery describes the fruit, too, after you’ve taken the skin off. Be careful or you’ll be playing “catch the greased pig” across the counter top (and hopefully not across the floor). This makes it tricky to cut them up, too. Fortunately they don’t need much cutting – a quick slice along both sides of the pit, a quick twist, and these freestone peaches came apart in two halves.

Now here’s where my inexperience with peaches came into play. As I pulled the pit out of the peach, it seemed like the peach fruit that had been right next to the pit was “tough”.  I don’t know if it really was, or if it would make a difference once you cook it up, but it seemed to me that I should trim that area out. Wow, what a chore. Remember what I said about being slippery? Not to mention the fruit that I wasted. I’ve since found out that I didn’t need to do that. Oh well – live and learn.

After my experience with the sweetness of the strawberry jam, I decided that I wanted to make a low sugar version of peach jam. I had bought eight goodly sized peaches, based on information I had found in a peach jam recipe, and thought that would be enough. Well, it was, but then I had a dilemma. If I made low sugar jam, I needed more fruit than sugar. I was fine with that, but when I got done processing all the fruit, I found I had enough for about a batch and a half.

I didn’t really feel like trying to deal with a half batch and, coincidentally enough, the one and a half batches worth of peaches I had would make two whole batches of regular sugar jam. Well, I went for volume, so I did the two regular sugar batches instead of the low sugar. To cut to the chase on that issue, the regular sugar tastes fine, but is, once again, a little sweeter than I would like. Oh well – next year . . .

So, I had all my peaches cut up and mashed with a potato masher and all the ingredients assembled. Using the Ball® Jam & Jelly Maker, the first thing you do is sprinkle Ball® RealFruit® Classic Pectin over the bottom of the cooking pot. No, I don’t know about using another brand of pectin, but from what I’ve read the Ball pectin works well and since that was specified in the recipe, that’s what I used. I used the required three tablespoons –

PJ_PectinInThe recipe is pretty simple. If you want the recipe, this is it –

2 2/3 cups crushed peaches (about 2 lbs or six medium)
3 Tbsp Ball® RealFruit® Classic Pectin
2 Tbsp bottled lemon juice
1/2 tsp butter or margarine
3 1/3 cups granulated sugar

That’s from the Ball web site – http://www.freshpreserving.com – it is supposed to make four half pints.

To the bowl of crushed peaches I added the lemon juice and mixed it in a bit. I then poured the fruit evenly over the top of the pectin in the pot. Then I threw in the 1/2 teaspoon of butter.  I guess it isn’t necessarily required but is supposed to keep foaming down. So far it has worked for me. Here we are at this stage –

PJ_WetIngredinInTime to start cooking. I pressed the “jam” button and “enter” and the stirrer began stirring. In the meantime I got the sugar ready to add –

PJ_SugarWaitingYeah, that’s a lot of sugar. At four minutes into the 21 minute cycle, the Jam Maker beeped, telling me it was time to add the sugar. I poured it in as the stirrer continued stirring. They say not to just dump it in all at once, so I distributed it as the stirrer stirred –

PJ_AddSugarAfter this, I put the lid on and let it do its cooking –

PJ_AfterSugar

Before I had even started preparing the peaches for the jam, I had filled my hot water bath canner with enough water to cover the jars by and inch or two and got it heating up. Since I have hard water, I always pour a couple of glugs (what? me measure?) of white vinegar into the water to keep minerals from building up on the jars.

PJ_WaterBathCannerI washed my glass jars, bands, lids and canning utensils with the usual hot, soapy water and rinsed them all well. I always wash more jars, bands and lids than I think I need, just in case. Better to have them ready than to need them and not have them. After washing the jars I set them upside down on a folded towel on my kitchen table –

PJ_CleanEmptyJarsThe right side of that towel is reserved for the processed jam jars when they come out of the hot water bath. You need to have someplace to set the hot jars that will not thermal shock them. Setting them directly on a granite counter top would not be a good idea. Once  I have the water in the hot water bath canner up to a simmer, I put five of the half pint jars into the hot water –

PJ_EmptyJarFromCannerNote the handy-dandy jar lifter, which is essential. This is actually me taking a hot jar out of the canner to fill it, but it looks pretty much the same as putting the empty jar into the canner. If you do this like me, here’s a word of warning. As you submerge the empty jar into the almost boiling water, the water can rush into the jar and spit back out at you. Been there, done that, don’t do it – it hurts. Submerge them slowly and carefully. I’ve never had a jar break going from room temperature into the hot water, but I suppose that could be a possibility to watch out for. The jars are supposed to sit in the simmering water for at least ten minutes. Here are the jars sterilizing in the hot water bath –

PJ_WBathCannerWithJarsMeanwhile, I have also filled a saucepan with a couple inches of water and heated it up to simmer. This is for the lids. I put a couple of tablespoons or so of white vinegar into this water to keep the lids from getting coated with hard water mineral. I get the water to the right temperature (again, simmering, not boiling) and then I slide the lids into the hot water one at a time, dropping them on different sides of the pot so they don’t all stack up in one place –

PJ_CanningLidsI also prepare my canning area right in front of the Jam Maker and get my tools set up –

PJ_CanningToolsThe “stick” on the left is my magnetic lid lifter, used to take the lids out of the hot water (I don’t have asbestos fingers). There’s my canning ladle that works pretty well for getting into the corners of the Jam Maker’s cooking pot. My dark green filling funnel is on the right and that light green translucent thing is a tool to help remove bubbles from the jars and a head space gauge. In the past I’ve used a plastic picnic knife for removing bubbles and an actual ruler to check head space, but this was a cheap tool that can be used for both. In addition to these tools I use a silicon spatula to help scrape the last of the jam out of the pot so none is wasted. I also keep a teaspoon handy in case I overfill a jar and need to take some out.

So, twenty-one minutes have passed and the Jam Maker has beeped its final beep at me. I hit cancel, unplug the appliance and take the lid off, being careful not to set it someplace that will be damaged by something hot, nor into cold water. The jam is done and ready to can –

PJ_CookingDoneFirst, let’s take out that stirrer. Use a hot pad or oven mitt – that thing is hot!

PJ_RemoveMixerScrape the stirrer off with the silicon spatula, but don’t hang onto that stirrer any longer than you need to. Now it’s time to start filling jars. Refer to the earlier image to see how to take a hot jar out of the hot water canner. (There should be a winky smilie here – it’s getting so I can’t write something without wanting to use a smilie at some point.) I set the jar right on my laminate countertop without a problem, but it is a better idea to have a tea towel or paper towel or something under the jar if your countertop is cold or cool.

Putting the filling funnel into the neck of the jar, I start to fill it with the ladle –

PJ_JarFilledKeep the jar as close to the cooking pot as you can while filling it to keep from dripping all over. Once the jar is filled, take the funnel out and check the head space with the gauge or a ruler –

PJ_CheckHeadSpaceIn this case it is supposed to be 1/4″. Um, I guess I didn’t say what “head space” is, which is the distance from the top of the jam or jelly to the top of the jar. Sorry. Jam and jelly require very little head space. After you fill a couple of jars and check the head space, you’ll find that you can judge the head space pretty well from where the jam comes up to in the funnel. If you overfill the jar, use a teaspoon to take some out or to put a little more in if needed. After you have the head space right, wipe the rim of the jar with a dampened paper towel –

PJ_WipeRimYou want to make sure that there is nothing on the rim that will keep the lid from sealing correctly. Also, if you have really dribbled all over the outside of the jar it would be good to wipe that off as well as you can. Next, use your magnetic wand or asbestos fingers to get a lid out of the simmering water –

PJ_GetLidThe lid does not need to be dry; a quick shake will get it dry enough. Place the lid on the top of the jar (do I really have to say, “seal side to the jar?”) and then take a band and finger-tighten it. You should not make like a gorilla and really crank the band down because air will need to exhaust out from under the lid during processing and over-tightening will make this difficult if not impossible. I usually find that the filled jar is so hot that I can only finger tighten the band before I burn my little fingers anyways. Don’t use a band tightener unless you have lost all muscle tone, in which case what are you doing trying to make jam anyways? Here’s with the lid and then with the band added –

PJ_LidOnRingOnNow carefully take your jar lifter and place the filled jar into the hot water bath canner –

PJ_IntoCannerBy the way, when I start filling the first jar I usually crank the heat up on the hot water bath canner to get the water started back to boiling because even though it has been simmering it will still take time to come up to temp. Here is the canner filled with four jars –

PJ_FullJarsInCannerHard to tell but the water is about an inch and a half or two over the tops of the jars. The lid goes back on the canner and I wait for it to start boiling. When it does, the processing time begins with the timer set for ten minutes. (During this time, if I am making another batch of jam, I wash up the Jam Maker to get it ready.) After ten minutes of boiling I shut the burner off and then let the canner sit for five minutes.

After the five minutes I take the lid off the canner and use the jar lifter to move the jars from the canner to the dry, folded towel on the kitchen table. They sit there until they are completely cooled. During this time you will, or should, hear the lids “ping”, “click” or “snap” (choose your own sound effect) as a vacuum is formed in the jar, pulling the middle of the lid down. This indicates that you have a good seal and good product. If the center of the lid doesn’t “suck down” you can try reprocessing the jar, or just stick it in the fridge and use it first.

Here are my first four jars –

PeachJam_Jars4Purty, ain’t they? I wound up with eight jars, total, and a little extra which I put in a small bowl and put in the fridge to use first. Tastes pretty good, if a little sweet.

After the jars have cooled completely, I remove the bands and wash the jars off. Sometimes you get a little haze on the glass from hard water. Washing the jars off usually removes that, or a wipe with a vinegar dampened paper towel will.

That’s the way I do it. Now, don’t bitch at me if you think I am doing something wrong, but if you want to be nice about it I am happy to take suggestions. Also, this process is, to the best of my knowledge, the correct and current way to do this, but please don’t go by just my instructions. Check out a couple of different sources. In addition to the manual and recipe book that came with the Ball Jelly & Jam Maker, I refer to the latest edition of the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.

So, what’s next? Hmmm, sweet cherries are pretty plentiful right now. All I need to do is find them on sale someplace.