When I think of canning, I think of my grandmothers. They had impossibly huge gardens and come harvest time, they set up jar upon jar of preserved goods. I am interested in this notion of eating fruits and veggies at the peak of perfection, and saving some for later when you know you can't have them at the peak of perfection. (The fresh-picked strawberries of summer will always taste better than the shipped from a greenhouse somewhere strawberries of winter)
This time though, I was more interested in the rate at which my husband and I consume things. It may take us a month or more, for example, to make it through even a small jar of jam. But these recipes are sometimes sort of time consuming to make, so you really hate to just churn out a single 8-oz jar. That was my motivation for buying some very basic supplies and taking the plunge into canning as a preservation method.
I knew I would initially be interested only in very small batches, likely of pint and half-pint jars. For that reason, I elected not to purchase a full-blown canning kit, complete with a huge canning pot, all the requisite tools, and a bunch of jars. Instead, I decided to use one of my 8-qt stock pots as the canning vessel. I purchased a set of very basic tools and some half-pint jars (with lids and rings) from Wal-Mart. The tool set included a wide-mouthed funnel for getting the goods in the jars with minimal mess, a magnetic lid lifter for getting the lids out of the hot water when you're ready to use them, a set of canning tongs for lifting finished jars from the pot of water they've been boiling in, and a little apparatus for measuring head-space in the jars once they're filled. The one thing I felt that I was missing was a rack to place at the bottom of the pot. I rigged it by laying some of the rings from jars that I was not using in the bottom of the pot and hoped for the best.
The recipe I chose to start with was Caramel Pear Butter from the October 2008 edition of Bon Appetit. Since you're really only supposed to store canned goods for roughly a year, I elected to cut the recipe in half. Cleaning and cutting up the pears took some time, but the recipe was very straightforward and easy to make (though it definitely takes some time). Thanks to the wide-mouthed funnel, jar-filling was easy-peasy and finished in no time. The instructions implored me to remove bubbles that form between the pear butter and the walls of the jar before processing. I took care of a lot of the larger bubbles with a small rubber spatula, but there were quite a few smaller bubbles that I just left alone. Does anyone understand the purpose of removing those bubbles?
Processing the jars of pear butter in the boiling water bath was also really quite easy. The one problem I encountered was that they wouldn't stay upright very well on my rigged canning rack. They all sealed properly and everything looks fine. It's just that some of them were boiled at a sort of awkward angle. I don't understand why this would make any difference, but if anyone knows otherwise, please do let me know.
I did come across some very nice (and sometimes mildly frightening) internet resources as I was thinking through my canning project. The National Center for Home Preservation has some really good basic information, such as what you can and cannot can, what you should can via the pressure canning method and what you can process via the boiling water method, and proper processing times for various foods. Canning Pantry looks to be a very good source for various types of canning equipment. And if you'd like to scare yourself out of canning (or trusting anyone else's canned goods), read this site to learn all about botulism.
I found the experience interesting and rewarding. The pear butter was very delicious and I'm happy to know that I have three more jars (carefully labeled and dated) tucked away in the cabinet. I'm tempted to convert some of my frozen strawberries into jam and process in the same way. Plus, there are always pickles to consider - I do love making pickles. I won't can another thing though till I acquire a proper canning rack.
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