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Nancy Flynn

Dilettante Crafter tries...Water Bath Canning

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Written on February 12, 2007 1:55 PM

In my last column I promised you that at least every other month I would try a craft that is totally new to me and give you the lowdown. There are so many great online resources, tutorials, magazine articles, recipes and books that give extensive instructions on all kinds of amazing crafty things. However, these tend to be written by experts (journalism understandably requiring expertise to teach). And an expert, more often than not, finds the rudiments of her art relatively easy, and definitely worth the effort. Experts probably aren't going to tell you that their crafts are too expensive, time-consuming or difficult to be worth the time you spend. They'll give you a reason why it is more *rewarding* to, oh, make your own wine bottle corks, but honestly if it isn't your passion, you might find the process annoying and frustrating. This is all to say that my columns about trying new things will not be like this-- I am *not* an expert, and as such I will make mistakes (which I hope you experts out there will correct with comments), and also be brutally honest about how much money, time, creative energy and frustration I spend learning. Of course I'll include the expert instructions I'm using so you can try it too if you like!

On to water bath canning:

Did you grow up reading books in which the women of the family came together in the kitchen in high summer to "put up" fruits and vegetables? I did. I also heard stories about my grandmother and great-grandmother stirring and sweating in the kitchen to make preserves, and watched my mother do it when I was in my teens and she thought that peach and mango chutney would make great holiday gifts (they did, and I demanded she keep some and bring it out every time we had any kind of pork product I could slather it on). For many years my cousin sent us her homemade strawberry preserves for Christmas, after which all I wanted to eat was buttered toast and jam until the jar was empty.

It occurred to me when writing up my list of New Years Craftolutions that I should try it myself. There was a recipe and instructions for marmalade (and simple water bath canning) in the Martha Stewart Holiday magazine that inspired much of my Christmas cheer this year. After all, one of my favorite seasonal fruits, the blood orange, is around this time of year and goes away (or becomes prohibitively expensive) in only a month or so. So I set myself to the task of getting everything I needed to make some marmalade. If you want to get straight to the nitty gritty of time, cost and rewarding feelings, scroll down to the bottom of the article where I lay it all out, otherwise continue on to hear about the details!

I went to Canning Pantry to buy a pint-sized water bath canning kit. I'm just being honest about where I bought my gear, and not recommending you do so from the same site. I didn't shop around enough to really see that they were the best value or service, I just knew what I wanted and they seemed to have the largest array of things all in one place. All together, the kit includes:

*A canning pot and jar rack
*Wide mouth canning funnel
*Lid sterilizer
*Lid lifter
*Jar lid tightener

I did need and use nearly all of these things in the canning process, so if you're a total newbie I recommend just going with the kit and saving yourself the annoyance of using slightly wrong tools. If you have a nice big stock pot, you could probably get away with skipping the canning pot, and just buy a rack and a kit of tools-- and make sure you get a rack that fits into your pot!
I also bought a crate of pint-sized mason jars. First mistake- what you want for jam or jelly, unless you really like it is a half-pint jar! Pint sized is too big, and once you open the jar you have to refrigerate and consume the contents within a month, and a pint of preserves is a lot to eat in that short a time. So, get half-pint jars-- your recipe will go farther.

Another reason I told you where I got the kit and don't recommend them- they forgot to send the "kit" part in the first box, and just sent the jars, canning pot and rack. When I called to see what happened, their customer service was rude and refused to discuss it over the phone, insisting I e-mail them. I did finally get the rest of my order, but it was not a pleasant experience. But once everything came I was all set. I went to a local grocery store and bought 3.5 pounds of blood oranges(the most common variety grown in the states is the moro orange) and the rest of the ingredients. Recently I've also seen pound bags of blood oranges at Trader Joe's for 1.99, which is an excellent price. I didn't know how long it would take, so I decided to get started first thing the next morning.

Making the Marmalade
1.5 pounds fresh oranges, preferrably organic
1 cup fresh orange juice (from 1.5 pounds oranges)
3/4 cup lemon juice (about 3 lemons)
7.5 cups sugar (about 3.25 pounds)
Step 1
Place a few small plates in the freezer(you'll see why later). Juice 1.5 pounds of oranges, and the lemons

This was easy, even with my totally old-school glass juicer.
Step 2
Rinse remaining oranges under hot water with a kitchen towel and dry. Cut the rest of the oranges into quarters, and then thin slices
This was less easy. I am torn between recommending you use a sharp knife and telling you not to, because there was definite knife slippage when the cutting board and my hands were covered in sticky juice. Just be very careful and pay close attention-- it is better to sacrifice paper thin slices for thicker ones than to sacrifice your fingers this early in the process.
Step 3
Put juice and slices and 6 cups of water into a large pot and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat and simmer for an hour (or until peels are translucent and tender)

This was easy, I stirred a lot which I don't think is really necessary, so you could call this an hour of idle time in which to do other things. Toward the end of this hour I recommend to going to Step 1 of canning below to get your jars and lids ready for the mixture.
Step 4
Stir in sugar. Bring mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until sugar is dissolved. Continue cooking, stirring often and skimming foam from surface with a slotted spoon, until oranges are shiny, liquid is the consistency of loose jelly, and mixture will set, 15 to 20 minutes. To test if mixture will set, place a small amount on one of the plates from the freezer and return to freezer for 1 minute. Press gently with your finger, marmalade shoudl wrinkle, if it doesn't, continue to simmer, 5 to 10 minutes more. Test again; repeat as needed
*Here is where things were a bit screwy. My liquid never got to the consistency of loose jelly, though the oranges were nice and shiny. I gave it an extra 10 minutes before even testing it to see if it would set, hoping it would magically turn to jelly. No dice. However, when I tested it, it set just fine, so I decided to go ahead and get on with the canning and hope that all would be well when things came to room temperature. It worked out, so don't worry too much about the "loose jelly" thing, just make sure it sets.
This is where we get to the fun part, canning. I used Martha's Canning Tips, since I was confused and annoyed by the material that came with the canning kit itself.
Step 1
Discard damaged jars. Wash jars, metal lids, and screw bands in hot, soapy water and rinse well. Place emtpy jars upright on a wire rack placed in a large pot, leaving at least an inch of space between jars. Fill with hot water until jars are submerged, and bring to a boil. Boil for 15 minutes. Turn off heat; leave the jars in the water until they are ready to be filled. Sterilize the lids according to the manufacturer's instructions. Never reuse metal lids, the seals will not work a second time.

*In my case, the manufacturer (Ball) recommended that I submerge the lids (not the screw bands) in hot water but NOT boil them-- this is important! So I put them in the handy lid rack and submerged them in a saucepan where water covered them and let them sit on the heat until there were those pre-boiling tiny bubbles in the water and then turned the heat off and left them in the water.

Step 2
Using a jar lifter or stainless steel tongs, lift the jars from the pot, emptying the water back into the pot, and place the jars on a layer of clean towels. Place a stainless steel canning funnel in the mouth of a jar, and fill with hot marmalade, leaving a 1/4 inch space in each jar's neck. Remove the funnel, and run a small rubber spatula around the edges to release excess air bubbles. Clean the rim and threads of the jar with a clean towel dipped in hot water. Use tongs to lift a prepared lid, dry it and place carefully on the rim of the jar. Screw on the band until it is secure but not too tight, or the air in the jars will not be able to escape and the jars will not be properly sealed.
*This is where the canning kit comes in-- a jar lifter rocks, and is definitely preferrable to regular tongs. My canning funnel was plastic, and worked just fine, so don't worry about stainless steel. I just dipped my towels into the hot water from the canning pot to clean the threads of the jar. Ball recommended that the lid screw band be "finger tight", which made more sense to me than "secure but not too tight", basically just screw it on until it offers a bit of resistance, then stop.
Step 3
After each jar is filled, return it to the pot of water, keeping it upright at all times. When all jars are filled, cover the pot; bring it back to a boil. Make sure the jars are covered by 2 inches of water; they should be spaced 1 inch apart and should nto touch sides of pot. Process in gently boiling water for the time suggested by this website.

*This part is really neat. Air bubbles will come out of your jar when you put it in the water-- don't worry, this is the seal happening, not water rushing into your lovely jar of jam. Don't worry too much about all the 2 inches, 1 inch stuff-- if you have a proper rack for your pot, the jars will be spaced far enough apart, and if you have a tall enough pot full of water, it should easily come at least 2 inches above your jars.
Step 4.
Remove the jars from the water bath with jar lifter, and place them on a rack to cool for 24 hours. As they cool, vacuums will form and should seal jars. Press down on each lid. If lid pops back, it is not sealed; refrigerate unsealed jars immediately and use within 1 month. Sealed jars can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.
*This part was fantastic! I expected the seal to happen sometime within 24 hours. Oh no! Within 30 seconds of removing the jar from the water and putting it on the rack there was a little "thwock!", and the vacuum button on the lid was sealed tight down. So neat.

And luckily there was some marmalade left over in the pot that didn't fit in a jar, so I put it in a plastic container in the refrigerator to enjoy right away

The Nitty Gritty
Time: 8:00am-11:45am
*I won't lie, it took all morning, though much of it was idle time waiting for things to boil or get to the correct consistency. It is fairly hands-on, though, and quite messy. If you include clean-up time, it was more like 8:00am -12:30.
Cost: $3.00 per jar
*I am not factoring in the cost of the canning equipment, since that will be amortized over the amount of preserves I make as long as I have it, and I will be preserving again. The cost includes the ingredients and jars, and is a good value when you consider that other blood orange marmalade on the market costs up to $16 a jar.
Reward, or Was it worth it?
*In a word, yes. I won't lie to you-- it is time consuming and VERY messy, with many fiddly steps and the fear your jam will not set, your jars will not seal, and it will all be for nothing. Also, there is a lot of good jam to be had out there for relatively little money, so if you're not into toast and jam, and it doesn' t sound like something you'd want to try to at least give as gifts, maybe it isn't for you. I do recommend canning only a really, really favorite fruit when it is in the peak of its season, so you know you'll love it, and it will be the best it could possibly be. However, the little pop they make when the vacuum seals the lid is priceless and like magic, and seeing the pretty jars filled with yummy red fruit in your pantry is wonderful. It is also totally delicious on toast, and fun to give as a gift to someone you know will appreciate it.

comment by West Coast Crafty on February 12, 2007 3:40 PM:

wow! I'm so impressed! :)

comment by Vigilantesjustice on February 12, 2007 4:30 PM:

Oh my, I've been considering doing some canning for ages... just never got up the gumption. I guess this is the kick in the pants I needed! ;-) Thanks for the info.

comment by researchasaurus on February 12, 2007 5:28 PM:

I made blood orange marmalade last year. It's so beautiful isn't it? I had good luck using a citrus zester (like the one you see here ) to remove the peel and then just taking off the white part and chopping up the fruit. The zester makes delicate curlicues of peel in the jam which is pretty.

I've never bought a lid rack or a lifter. I use a round cake pan, put the lids in a single layer and then cover them with hot water. I use a regular table knife to lift them out.

And as for the jars, I wash and dry them, and then fill the sink back up with clean water at the hottest temperature I can find. I take them out one at a time to fill.

There are many funky jars out there too, even 1/4 pint jars, which I've stacked on top of each other in the canner with good success. That's a fun way to stretch your jam as far as you can for holiday gifts or whatever.

Canning is the best!! Thanks for this cool article.

comment by Knits4Fun on February 13, 2007 8:31 PM:

Great article. Thank you for the step-by-step--something I'd like to try someday myself.

comment by chase on February 13, 2007 8:41 PM:

did you use non-treated oranges? I'm always afraid of the potential chemicals on fruit peels....

still the jam looks delish and I adore blood oranges too!

comment by Nancy Flynn on February 14, 2007 6:57 PM:

Thanks for all the comments, and the expert advice too, researchasaurus!

The recipe specifies organic oranges for just the reason you mentioned, chase. Obviously going organic raises the price of your produce substantially (another good reason to only preserve things you love). If nothing else, they recommend hot water and a good scrub on the peel of conventional fruit before using.

comment by jenjar985 on February 19, 2007 9:58 PM:

Thanks for the article! I have been after my mom for several summers to teach me how to can stuff {she used to can all the time when I was little} and she always says "next year." Now, maybe I will just jump into and can on my own. :)