Take advantage of summer's bounty by choosing fresh, firm fruits and vegetables versus overly ripe, bruised or damaged ones.
Don't forget to adjust your processing time if you live at a higher altitude. The higher your altitude, the more processing time you'll need. For example, for 6,000 to 8,000 feet, you'll need about 15 minutes more processing time.
Wash jars and lids in hot soapy water or run through a full dishwasher cycle to begin the sterilization process. Sterilize jars by boiling in hot water for 10 minutes. After jars have been sterilized, keep them in a 300-degree oven until ready to use. Prepare lids and screw rings according to lid manufacturer's instructions, as products may vary.
For an easier and better seal, wear rubber dishwashing gloves when tightening rings.
It's 1979, and I'm 11 years old. I'm sitting at my granny's rickety, kitchen table — the one where an empty matchbook stuffed under the right leg keeps it from jiggling. I'm eating an oversized, fresh-from-the-oven potato roll, doused in butter and slathered in homemade peach jam.
Steam rises from a gently rusted, boiling-water canner set atop the old electric range Granny bought from Montgomery Ward in 1952. Nearby, a row of empty pint jars line the counter waiting to be filled and processed.
Granny frantically scrubs a pile of pickling cucumbers. "Get on over here and slice up these onions," she commands, while reaching for a jug of cider vinegar. "Got to get these cucumbers in ice water, so we can pack 'em up before dinner."
I glance across the room to see more rows of canned pickles: sweet pickles, dill pickles, even Granny's famous seven-day pickles glistening inside spotless glass jars in the afternoon light.
In just a few hours, we'll carry eight more pints of crisp, turmeric-infused bread-and-butters down into the coolness of her basement, where they'll rest alongside jars of whole peaches, pole beans and last year's chow chow relish.
This is canning season, and as a young girl, I'm both fascinated and frightened by the whole process — vats of boiling water, potentially dangerous steam, unusual chemical ingredients like pectin and pickling salt.
For many years, my grandmother's kitchen mutated from the culinary haven of a sweet, little home cook into a mad scientist's laboratory brimming with the unusual. Strange tongs, wide-mouth funnels and chartreuse-colored rubber gloves abounded. Phrases like, "whatever you do, don't touch that" and "back away from the stove" were repeated often and with insistence.
Today, I've witnessed the canning process repeat itself in my mother's kitchen with hours of pitting, peeling, soaking and simmering, coupled with the occasional steam burn or pesky quart that refuses to "pop."
For us, canning is as much a family tradition as holiday turkey. It represents the bounty of the season. Whether it's summer's sweet corn or vats of early fall apple butter, generations of mothers have found deliciously creative ways to store their gardens in immaculately clean jars.
A classic method of preservation thought to have originated in 19th-century France, canning — like drying, pickling or smoking — is simply another way to save foods from spoilage and keep them for future use. The canning method involves sealing the food and then heating it to a temperature that will destroy any contaminants.
Higher acid foods (such as pickles, relishes and jams) are commonly processed in a water canner, while lower acid, starchy foods (corn, peas or meats) should be cooked in a pressure canner and heated to 250 degrees to reduce to risk of bacterial contamination.
The expert women in my life taught me that it's better to start with higher acid foods, then work up to heavy-duty pressure canner foods such as meats or beans — once I got my "canning legs."
Granny even took her own advice each summer, when she opted to focus her attention on high-acid, cooked apples, letting our lone male canner, my grandpa, handle the pressure canning of his homemade breakfast sausage preserved in pork fat.
Granny would fill her apron with Early Transparents (a mushy, pale green apple gathered during the summer from her backyard tree), and then spend hours making batches of her tart 'n' sweet applesauce.
As an adult, I now follow my mother around the kitchen as she creates delicious homemade jams using fresh peaches from the local farmer's market.
One afternoon, I patiently watch her as she tests the jam to see if it's properly "set up," which she does by pouring a little on a plate and placing it in the fridge. A few moments later she shows me the plate.
"See? It looks like honey, and that's what you want," my mother tells me.
Frantically, I scribble down her random aside (which becomes my culinary nugget) and continue to watch as she stirs the sweet-smelling pot with a wooden spoon.
I can see my granny, too. It's as if she is superimposed over my mother, gently directing her to stir with less force or add a tad more sugar to the bubbling peaches. And in that moment, we're all in the kitchen together — pouring, sealing and preserving everything that makes summer wonderful.
This deliciously sweet, fruit-based spread is enhanced with just a tough of ginger, lending it a nice spiciness. This particular style of jam making harkens back to a traditional method often used by my West Virginia grandmothers: thickening the jam without adding pectin (a commonly used gelling and thickening agent). However, if you find your jam is taking too long to thicken on its own, you can add one tablespoon of powdered pectin to the mixture to speed things up.
Makes 8 to 9 half-pint jars
6 cups sugar
2 tablespoons Fruit Fresh (a powder that keeps fruit from browning)
7 cups peaches, peeled, pitted and diced
3 cups canned, crushed pineapple, drained and lightly chopped
3 tablespoons crystallized ginger, finely minced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Special equipment: candy thermometer
In a small bowl, mix together sugar and Fruit Fresh. Set aside.
In a large, nonreactive bowl, mix together peaches, pineapple, ginger, lemon juice and sugar mixture. Let mixture sit at room temperature to macerate for 3 hours.
Gently mash the mixture with a potato masher to break up any chunks, and then pour mixture into an 8-quart Dutch oven set on medium-low heat. Simmer uncovered for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring with a wooden spoon every now and then.
Insert a candy thermometer. When the temperature reaches 220 degrees, the mixture should have thickened. (Note: You can place a teaspoon of the jam on a plate and place in the fridge. After a few minutes, if the mixture has the consistency of honey, then it's ready.)
Pour finished jam into sterilized half-pint jars using a wide-mouth funnel, leaving about 1/4 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles by running a small plastic spatula around the inside of the jar. Wipe the jar rims clean. Seal with sterilized lids, according to manufacturer's directions. Place jars in a water canner filled with water that reaches at least 1 inch over the jar. Once the water comes to a boil, process for 5 minutes.
Using canning tongs, immediately remove jars and place in a draft-free location on a rack to cool. Any jars that do not seal (the lids should not press up and down when center is pressed) should be re-processed or enjoyed immediately. Label and store cans in a cool, dark, dry place for up to a year.
This recipe is from my book White Trash Gatherings: From-Scratch Cooking for Down-Home Entertaining (Ten Speed Press 2006).
Makes 8 pints or 4 quarts
6 to 7 pounds pickling cucumbers, well scrubbed and thinly sliced
2 red bell peppers, chopped into medium-sized chunks
1 green bell pepper, chopped into medium-sized chunks
2 1/2 to 3 pounds onions, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, halved
1/3 cup pickling salt (pickling salt is salt that is free of any additives, and is available at most supermarkets)
4 cups sugar
3 cups apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons mustard seed
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 1/2 teaspoons celery seed
Have 8 pint or 4 quart jars sterilized and ready.
Mix cucumbers, red and green peppers, onions, garlic and salt in large bowl and cover with cold water. Refrigerate uncovered 5 to 6 hours.
Drain off water and discard garlic. In a large stockpot, bring sugar, vinegar and spices to a boil. Add the cucumber mixture. Return to a boil and then immediately take the pan off the heat.
Pour mixture into sterilized jars using a wide-mouth funnel, leaving about 1/2 inch headspace. Remove air bubbles by running a small plastic spatula around the inside of the jar. Wipe the jar rims clean. Seal with lids according to manufacturer's directions. Place jars in a water canner filled with water that reaches at least 1 inch over the jar. Once the water comes to a boil, process for 10 minutes.
Using canning tongs, immediately remove jars and place in a draft-free location on a rack to cool. Any jars that do not seal should be re-processed or enjoyed immediately. Label and store cans in a cool, dark, dry place for up to a year.