Adventures in Canning

Low Sugar Sand Plum Jelly by An Unrefined Vegan

Two Mothers.

Homemaking did not come naturally to my mother. Her considerable skills as a housewife were earned later in life rather than gained through example and osmosis from her own mother (who was, unusually for the times, the primary breadwinner). Fiercely protective and endowed with the patience of a saint, she took a relaxed approach to child rearing and housekeeping. She knew her way around a pie crust, mastered authentic Italian spaghetti sauce, and could hostess a fancy dinner for dad’s business associates. However, preserving and canning were not ever her thing, so I never picked up that particular skill.

I did, however, have a best friend whose mother canned. Mrs. P was the quintessential housewife and homemaker. In appearance she could have been a 1950s model for an ad touting the convenience of the latest modern kitchen appliance. Her home was both tidy and clean. She was a trained nurse, an excellent seamstress, and a gifted green-thumbed gardener. Gentle as a well-worn cotton housedress she tended her flock of three with a watchful eye and loving firmness. From the perspective of a little kid, it seemed that most of the time she was very, very serious, yet occasionally I caught the twinkle of bemusement in her light blue eyes at something silly one of us did. She also was an experienced canner.

Of Raspberry Jam and Summer Afternoons in the 1970s.

Although most of the time I spent with my friend was fun and games, occasionally we would be put to work. On summer days we’d be sent, carrying large mint green Tupperware bowls, into the tall, manicured rows of raspberry bushes that grew in the large field behind the house. There we pulled the delicate berries off of the vines and dropped them into our bowls. A few found their way into our mouths, of course. The ripe ones yielded with a satisfying ease. These were the berries that Mrs. P cooked into sweet, sticky, ruby-red jam which would eventually find its way onto thick slices of homemade bread or spread in a glorious, glossy slick between layers of Victoria sponge cake. On canning day, the kitchen pulsed with heat from the gas stove, the sunshine falling in slanted rays through the window that looked out onto the back porch. With each visit to the kitchen, I greedily breathed in the deep, rich smell of simmering berries being distilled down to their sugary essence.

Opening a new jar in the colder months that followed was bliss. With a satisfying slurp, the wax Mrs. P had melted on top of the preserves lifted off, revealing a silky-smooth top that begged a knife or spoon to be dipped into it. In my mind’s eye I can see the glistening red beads of jam clinging to the underside of the thin wax disk. Each jar preserved the previous summer with its good memories of time chattering with my friend in amongst the cool green shade of the raspberry bushes as well as the warmth and golden light of Mrs. P’s kitchen on canning day.

If I could go back in time, I would beg her to teach me. But as it is, I have to rely mostly on myself to gain this particular and slightly scary skill.

An Unrefined Vegan Adventures in Canning: Homemade Salsa

Homecanned Salsa

Thoughts on Canning Salsa.

My stomach was all in a knot the morning that I embarked on my first canning solo project, but I was excited, too. Kel had gifted me with a whole bunch of tomatoes and jalapeños from our garden and rather than turn the tomatoes into sauce I decided it was time for me to pull on my big girl pants and put my newly-purchased water bath canner (see below) to use. 

I decided to go with a very simple salsa recipe from Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving (see below) to keep the stress level to a minimum. I carefully laid out everything I would need and obsessively read and re-read the instructions for water bath canning. I’ll spare you the details (what a mess I managed to make in the kitchen! Wear an apron!), but overall, it went well. I wasn’t awed by the flavor of the salsa – it lacked depth – and I was sorely tempted to add more garlic and additional spices, but the instructions were very clear that no deviations should be made from the recipe. This has to do with the acid level that keep the ingredients from spoiling during storage. So no messing around as I usually do with recipes!

Homemade Pickled Hot Peppers by An Unrefined Vegan

Homemade Pickled Hot Peppers by An Unrefined Vegan

Thoughts on Canning Mixed Hot Peppers.

Neither Kel nor I can tolerate much heat when it comes to food, so why on earth did I pickle and can a peck o’ hot peppers? One, because I just felt like flexing those new canning muscles; and two, because I do like the occasional chopped up pickled hot pepper on a sandwich or stirred into a melty cheez dip; and three, Kel grows a whole lot of jalapeños for one of his friends so I thought I’d make a few jars for us and share a few jars with him.

I selected a small batch recipe from Preserving by the Pint (see below) for its ease and quickness. While the jars were sterilizing, I sliced into rounds a pound of various hot peppers (Anaheim, jalapeños, and serrano) and put them briefly into a red vinegar and pickling salt mixture that had come to a boil on the stove. After ladling the peppers into the sterilized jars, it was a quick 10-minute rolling boil followed by a 5-minute rest in the water before removal and letting the jars rest for 24 hours. Each jar made that satisfying little “pop” as they cooled, letting me know the seal was good. Next time I’ll try a recipe with a bit more flavor to the pickling, but this was a good start.

Homemade Strawberry Jam by An Unrefined Vegan

Thoughts on Canning Strawberry Jam.

There’s not much better in this world than the small of strawberries simmering on the stove. This canning project went smoothly (except for my jars keeling over in the water bath). After cutting up the strawberries and mashing them, I cooked up a simple jam from Preserving with Pomona’s Pectin (see below). I used Pomona’s Universal Pectin which allowed me to make a low sugar jam. Originally I’d planned on making their fruit juice-sweetened version, but my grocery store does not carry white grape juice. I wasn’t confident that I could substitute purple grape juice due to the unknown acidity level.

I ended up having some extra jam – not enough to fill a jar – which I just popped into the refrigerator for us to eat within the next week or so. I didn’t get that reassuring “pop” sound from the lids as the jars cooled which worried me, but apparently this doesn’t always occur. The other issue I had was that the fruit separated from the gel while cooling. This is not uncommon either, but it was new to me so I went scrambling to the internet for answers. There are a number of causes for this, one of which is that the fruit isn’t in small enough pieces, and I think that was the issue with my batch. As suggested, I flipped over the jars during the cooling period to redistribute the fruit, but this was only a partial success. Next time I will pay more attention to the size of the fruit and the cooking time. Thankfully, after a 24-hour rest, the integrity of the seals checked out.

Low Sugar Sand Plum Jelly by An Unrefined Vegan

Low Sugar Sand Plum Jelly by An Unrefined Vegan

Thoughts on Canning Sand Plum Jelly

Since the sand plums used in this recipe came from our own property, I was quite excited about “putting them up.” Preparing these tiny plums is time-consuming because the tough skins and pits need to be removed. But, the end result is worth the effort. For this batch I used a low-sugar recipe for “regular” plums and fresh mint. The taste combination is heavenly. It’s currently my favorite jelly. (Check out my sand plum refrigerator version for a quicker, easier method for getting similar delicious results.)

By the way, the biscuit recipe I used (see photos) came from Minimalist Baker. They are delicious and Miyoko’s European-Style Cultured Butter worked perfectly.

Low Sugar Sand Plum Jelly by An Unrefined Vegan

A Word About Pressure Canning

Pressure canning is required when preserving foods low in acid (such as vegetables) and it’s a bit more complicated than using a water bath canner. Thanks to a friend of mine, I got an excellent tutorial (and took home several jars of tomatoes) on how to use a pressure canner. I’m not quite as intimidated as I was, but I have to admit, the thought of pressure canning still scares me. But if I want to expand my preserving options, I’m going to have to take it on. I’m looking at this canner and this propane stove with a target date of summer of 2020…

Some Books & Websites On Canning.

The Water Bath Canner That I Use.

I love this thing. I opted for an electric water bath canner rather than buying a big pot because I’m lazy and also easily frightened by things like exact temperatures and exact times. This canner takes the temperature issue out of the equation.

Actually, I got it primarily because I have a glass-top range and it’s not recommended to place a pot filled with lots of water on this type of stove as the glass can crack. It’s also difficult to maintain a steady temperature because these types of stoves cycle the heat on and off.

This modern marvel removes the temperature guesswork and it is dead simple to use. It comes with a recipe booklet, a canning rack (though I ended up replacing it with something sturdier since my jars kept falling over) and a perforated steamer lid to tame the boiling water. It has a spigot on one side to easily (if slowly) drain the water – and – it comes apart for easy and compact storage. It has performed perfectly for me every time. It can also be used to dispense hot beverages and cook soups, stews, and chili. I doubt I will ever use it in that capacity, however, since I have an Instant Pot for those types of foods.

If you’ve made it this far in the post (wow!), I hope you have found it interesting and informative. I am a LONG way from being an expert, but I have thoroughly enjoyed my canning adventures and am looking forward to “putting up” more foods as the seasons and years pass.

Line of Jam Jars by An Unrefined Vegan

From left to right: salsa. pickled jalapeños, tomatoes, pickled red onions, lavender jelly, peach-raspberry jam, sand plum & mint jelly, blueberry jelly, bourbon peaches 


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