Friday, June 3, 2011

Strawberry Preserves

After canning homemade strawberry preserves, I realize that I have never shown sufficient gratitude any time I've received homemade jam, jelly, fruits, vegetables or salsa in the past. So, if you've given me any of the above, THANK YOU. I'm in complete awe of the women who came before me, canning in Kentucky's smothering August heat with no air conditioning, doing it not for fun or for an experiment, but because it was necessary to feed their families for the winter.

Canning strawberries that I purchased at the farmers market certainly won't feed my family over the winter, but it's a baby step toward that independence I'm seeking. The recipe I chose used three ingredients: strawberries, sugar and lemon juice. For whatever reason, it required the cooked fruit to sit for over 12 hours before canning. My guess is that it needed more time to gel because the recipe didn't call for any added pectin. At any rate, the wait time basically dragged the whole process into a full-day affair, and I think I'll look for recipes without one in the future.

I had planned on canning in my largest stockpot, but found Mom's canning pot in a corner of the basement the afternoon before I canned. Score! Well, kind of score. There is no longer a lid, which means it took a ridiculous amount of time to bring the water to a boil. But it was free and allowed me to can all twelve jelly jars at once, which I definitely would not have been able to do in the stockpot.

Seeing the large vessel reminded me that I had a canning element for my old Jenn-air stove that we received along with the stove years ago when the previous homeowners left it in a house we purchased. Without the element, I'm not sure I could have safely used the large pot, because part of it sat directly on the counter. (Notice the multiple pairs of child safety scissors on my knife rack that still have to be hidden from Fred after the incident with the cat's ear.)

Another issue I ran into with the large pot is that it no longer has the metal canning rack that Mom always used when she canned jelly. I asked a friend, searched online, and determined that the rack was mainly to keep the glass jars from resting directly on the bottom of the pan, so that the high heat wouldn't crack them. As with any subject on the internet, there was lots of conflicting information, but because I wanted to use the only decorative jelly jars I had (and the ones that used to be Mom's) I didn't want to risk cracking them. I thought I found a perfect solution with the suggestion of lining the bottom of the pan with a dish towel. It quickly became apparent that I couldn't put the towel in before the jars, or it would just be a pan of boiling towel. So I carefully started placing the jelly jars on top of it once the water came to a rapid boil, using the jars to hold the towel down. I think this would have worked great with quart jars, or maybe even pints. However, it was nearly a disaster with the small four ounce jars that I used, because they were barely heavy enough to weigh the towel down. After I had about half the jars in, air started getting trapped under the towel, causing the jars to flip around and large quantities of boiling water to pop out of the pan and onto my feet. I was incredibly frustrated but determined to make it work, so I kept yelling expletives, adding more jars, and poking air bubbles down with tongs before they got too big.

Once I placed all twelve jars into the pot, the towel stayed down, the pot returned to a boil, and everything went smoothly until it was time to take the jars out of the pot, at which time I realized that specialized canning tongs exist for a reason, and that pulling boiling hot glass jars up and out of boiling water with regular kitchen tongs is pretty difficult and kind of dangerous.

Hearing those little lids pop when they sealed was magical. I was transported back in time, standing in that same kitchen listening for the lids to pop on Mom's crabapple jelly. I wish the kids had been awake for it, and I will make sure they are next time.

Not counting the time I spent in the morning cooking the preserves, it took just under an hour and half to can the twelve jars. I see lots of room for improvement and efficiency next time. I'll use some kind of cover on the pot to bring it to a boil more quickly (a cookie sheet would probably work.) Yesterday I purchased an inexpensive metal canning rack that fits the pot and a cheap set of canning tools, including canning tongs and a canning funnel, which will be handy for ladling hot liquid into the small-mouthed jars. This little project was mainly practice and a way to use the five pints of leftover berries we had. Any future attempts at canning will be in bulk, because looking at the twelve tiny jars of jelly, while it does make me happy, also makes me realize that was a lot of work for, well, twelve tiny jars of jelly.

1 comment:

  1. This is great! It's really fun to learn from a beginner/trial+error perspective. Most how-to guides are so breezily expert-like and as a result, intimidating. This process reminds me of our first few years of sap boiling and I now wish we had documented it ... though we still use whatever jerry-rigged contraption we come up with on the spot. That's part of the whole fun! Btw I have run into the lid-less stockpot prob on New Year's Eve when we boil lobsters. I use a pizza pan and weight it down with a rock. Still takes forever to boil.

    Can't wait to read more! P.S. This is Laura, can't figure out how to post under my name.