Warm days and welcome rain means August gives way to an abundance of fresh produce. Feast on it now or savor summer a little bit longer by preserving these fruits (and veggies) of Mother Nature’s labor by jamming, pickling, or canning them. We know the prospect of preserving can seem intimidating if you’ve never done it before, so we asked local experts for their best beginner tips.
1. Choose good-quality produce and use basic equipment
When you’re getting into the practice of preserving, it’s tempting to grab the most you can for the lowest price. But Beth Linskey, founder and owner of Beth’s Farm Kitchen in Columbia County, suggests using caution when it comes to bargain shopping. She’s been making jam and chutney with local fare since the company’s inception in 1981, and today, Linskey and her kitchen crew have developed more than 90 varieties sold throughout the Hudson Valley. Beth’s Farm Kitchen always uses the highest-quality produce, says Linskey, who adds that “seconds,” or produce that isn’t pretty enough for market display, are fine to use, but anything going bad “will just go more bad.” And there’s no need for fancy or expensive equipment. Most of what you need (a sturdy-bottomed stock pot, Ball jars, jar lifters) should be available at the local hardware store.
2. Stick to your recipe
The first concern of canners new and old is safety. Pickling and jamming extends shelf life by using salts, sugars, and other elements to manipulate acidity levels and preserve items indefinitely. The best way to ensure you’re doing this correctly is to use trusted recipes and follow them to a tee. Linskey suggests picking up a copy of the Ball Blue Book of Preserving, “the classic ‘first bible’ of canning,” for go-to, dependable recipes.
3. Jars will make a popping sound when properly processed
Once you’ve followed a recipe, filled your jars, and processed them appropriately, set them out on a counter or towel and listen. Jars will start to make a popping sound if you’ve done everything correctly. According to Linskey: “The lids go in, while air is forced out…it makes a lovely sound.” Sealed lids will also sound different, and less tinny, when tapped.
4. Start with small batches
Many recipes call for making large batches at a time, which, theoretically, makes sense, but Eugenia Bone, an esteemed master canner and author of The Kitchen Ecosystem (2014), suggests otherwise. She points out that if you’re new to the practice, the thought of such a large project can make the whole process more intimidating. “If you’re a newbie and you go to the trouble to make a whole case of something into jam, and it doesn’t seal, you’ll be more apt to quit.” Bone suggests “getting your chops down first” with a small batch.
5. Multitask preserving and cooking to simplify the process
In the beginning of the 20th century, people needed to stock up for the whole year and devoted a whole day or two to preserving. As we try to manage this practice nowadays, we need to fit it into our other routines. Bone suggests doing this by “building your pantry one jar at a time.” Say you’re making tomato sauce, for instance. When you go to the market, buy enough tomatoes for dinner that night as well as enough to make one pint of tomato sauce. “One pint fits perfectly in something like an asparagus steamer,” says Eugenia, which allows you to process the tomatoes while you’re cooking dinner.
6. Don’t bother canning/preserving what you don’t eat
Perhaps the best advice of all is that there’s no reason to make a batch of anything you aren’t prepared to use. For example, “If you go to the farmer’s market and you see an abundance of rhubarb, but you don’t really eat rhubarb beyond the occasional pie, don’t buy a large amount and go and try to make jam from it,” Bone says. The idea of preserving is to keep something around longer, so it’s best to do this with something you’ll actually eat. Bone suggests performing a “pantry intervention” by asking yourself what and how much you typically buy and letting your answers guide the canning expedition. If you use a lot of ketchup or tomato sauce, it may be worthwhile to add them to your seasonal repertoire.