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Sugar and safety: Those are the two big concerns of home cooks when it comes to canning.

When people even think about making their own jams or pickles, they experience what I call “recipe shock” about the amount of sugar required. (For example, a traditional strawberry jam recipe calls for five cups of mashed fruit and seven cups of sugar.) Many people these days want to limit sugar, either because they are diabetic or for weight control.

When it comes to food safety, canning scares many people because of one threat: botulism. They are too afraid to even try canning their own food for fear of making their loved ones sick. If you understand the science behind safe canning practices, you will know how to eliminate that risk and can without fear.

I heard these concerns again and again these last several months at events for my first cookbook, “Pickles & Preserves: A Savor the South Cookbook.” With strawberry season in full swing, here are answers to your most common canning questions with an assist from fellow canning cookbook authors, food scientists and home economists:

Sugar

Why do recipes for jam, jelly and preserves call for so much sugar?

Sugar does more than provide flavor. It plays a key role in getting the jam to set, as well as preserving color and texture and extending shelf life.

“It’s important to recognize that jams and jelly are candy. You are essentially candying the fruit to preserve it,” explained Sherri Brooks Vinton, author of the best-selling “Put ’em Up” canning books and “Put ’em Up Preserving Answer Book: 399 Solutions to Your Questions.”

Without the correct amount of sugar, Vinton explains, the jam may not set, will not have that bright, glossy color and ideal texture or last as long once opened.

Can I make jams or preserves with less sugar or no sugar?

Yes. There are low-methoxyl pectins on the market that allow you to use less sugar, Splenda and other sweeteners. Low-methoxyl pectins rely on calcium, rather than sugar, to get jams and preserves to set.

Look for low-sugar, no-sugar pectins by Ball or Sure-Jell, which can be used to make jam with lower quantities of sugar, Splenda or honey.

Can I make sweet pickles with less sugar?

Yes. But using less sugar or a sugar substitute will produce a softer pickle, Vinton notes. Reducing sugar or replacing it with Splenda in a traditional recipe is unlikely to work. Instead, look for low-sugar pickle recipes or ones that call for Splenda.

Why can’t I just replace sugar with Splenda?

Fletcher Arritt, a food science professor at N.C. State University, explains that sugar and Splenda react differently with water when making jam, jelly, preserves or pickles. Sugar binds itself with the water, making it less available to microbes that can cause spoilage or make someone sick. Splenda does not bind as well with water, increasing the risk of microbial activity.

What about making jams and preserves with other sugar substitutes or artificial sweeteners?

Cooks can use honey, maple syrup, agave syrup and stevia with low-methoxyl pectins. The key is finding trusted recipes that call for such ingredients.

Vinton advises against using artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame and sucralose, because they become bitter when cooked and create an off flavor.

Safety

How can I be sure that I’m following safe canning practices?

Safety is one of the first topics McClellan, author of “Food In Jars” and “Preserving by the Pint,” addresses when she teaches people how to can. She explains that most jams, jellies, preserves and pickles are high-acid foods, which can be safely processed in a boiling water canner with no risk of botulism. “It is impossible for botulism to develop,” McClellan said. “I really stress it just isn’t going to happen.”

There are two types of canning: boiling water bath canning, which is used to process high-acid foods, such as jams, jellies, preserves and pickles; and pressure canning, which is required for low-acid fruits and vegetables, meats, poultry and soups.

With high-acid foods, processing jars in a boiling water bath, which reaches temperatures of 212 degrees, is all that is needed to kill molds, yeasts and bacteria. With low-acid foods, pressure canning is required to reach a temperature of 240 degrees, the level at which harmful bacteria and botulism spores can be killed.

The key to safe canning is following professionally tested recipes, such as those from the National Center for Home Food Preservation (nchfp.uga.edu/) and from authors you trust.

“People are very afraid of preserving their own food,” Vinton says. “They don’t have to be. Just follow the recipe.”

What about the risk of botulism?

Botulism is only an issue when canning low-acid fruits and vegetables, such as green beans, corn, peas or asparagus in salted water, or when canning seafood, meat, poultry, soups or stews. Those foods do not contain enough acid, either naturally or from a pickling brine, to create an environment that is inhospitable to botulism spores. Those foods must be processed in a pressure canner to 240 degrees to kill the spores.

Brown Sugar Bourbon Peaches

From “Not Your Mama’s Canning Book”

1 cup light brown sugar, packed

2 cups water

7 cups peeled sliced peaches, treated to prevent browning (see note)

Pint jars

2 tablespoons bourbon (per pint jar)

Stir together the brown sugar and water in a nonreactive stockpot. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Ease the sliced peaches into the boiling syrup. Stir gently to prevent scorching.

Bring the peaches to a boil and let the mixture boil for 5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the peaches to prepared jars to within 1/2 inch of the top. Pour the correct amount of bourbon into each jar. Use a ladle to pour more hot syrup into the jar to within 1/2 inch of the lip of the jar.

Slide a sterile metal chopstick or butter knife down the side of the jars to release any air bubbles. Add more hot syrup, if needed, to bring the level to within 1/2 inch of the top of the jar. Use a damp paper towel to wipe the rims and fix new two-piece lids in place to fingertip tightness.

Use canning tongs to transfer the jars to a canner full of boiling water that covers the jars by 2 inches. Put the lid of the canner in place, return the water to a boil and let it process for 20 minutes. Carefully transfer the jars to a towel-lined counter or wire cooling rack and allow them to cool completely, preferably overnight, before removing the rings, wiping the jars clean and labeling.

Store the jars in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year. Once opened, a jar will be good for up to 3 weeks when stored in the refrigerator. Makes 6-7 cups or 16 servings.

Note: To prevent browning in peaches, stir 1/4 cup lemon juice into 4 cups of cool water. After cutting, submerge the fruit in this acid dulated water. This helps prevent the oxidation that causes browning.

Per serving: 95 calories; 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 0 percent calories from fat); 20 g carbohydrates; 19 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 4 mg sodium; 1 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Moonshine Apple Slices

From “Not Your Mama’s Canning Book”

4 1/2 pounds firm, fresh apples suitable for canning

1/3 cup lemon juice

3 cups granulated sugar

3 cups water

4 whole cinnamon sticks

8 whole green cardamom pods, lightly crushed

16 scrapings of fresh nutmeg from a rasp grater

2 whole cloves

1/2 of a vanilla bean, split lengthwise

1 cup plain commercial moonshine or 100-proof vodka

Wash the apples but do not peel them. Slice into even 1/4 inch rings using an apple corer/peeler, a knife or a mandoline. Pour the lemon juice into a large bowl and add the apple slices. Add enough water to cover the apples and gently swish with your hands to distribute the lemon juice through the water. This will help keep the apples from discoloring. Let stand for at least 5 minutes, but no more than 10 minutes, then drain.

While the apple slices are in the lemon water, stir the sugar, water, cinnamon sticks, cardamom pods, nutmeg, cloves and vanilla bean together in a large stainless steel preserving pan or stockpot. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

Add the drained apple rings to the boiling syrup and return the mixture to a boil over high heat. Drop the heat to low and simmer gently for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the apples have a rosy tinge creeping inward from the peel on the fruit and are hot all the way through. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the apple slices from the syrup to a glass or stainless steel bowl. Return the pan to a burner over high heat and bring the mixture to a boil, using the slotted spoon to fish out the cardamom pods (some seeds may remain), cinnamon sticks, cloves and vanilla bean. Remove from the heat and stir in the moonshine.

Use tongs to carefully transfer the apple rings into hot pint jars, keeping the apples loosely arranged rather than tightly packed. Leave 1/4 inch of head space in the jars.

Ladle the hot syrup over the apple slices, maintaining the 1/4 inch of head space. Use a damp paper towel to clean the rims carefully. Place new lids on the jars and fasten appropriately, whether it’s turning a ring to fingertip tightness or fixing clamps in place.

Use canning tongs to transfer the jars to a canner full of boiling water that covers the jars by 2 inches. Put the lid of the canner in place, return the water to a boil, and process for 15 minutes. Carefully transfer the jars to a towel-lined counter or wire cooling rack and allow them to cool completely, preferably overnight, before removing the rings, wiping the jars clean and labeling.

Store the jars in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year. Yields 5 pints or 20 servings.

Per serving: 198 calories; 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 0 percent calories from fat); 43 g carbohydrates; 40 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 1 mg sodium; 0.2 g protein; 2 g fiber.

Zesty Marinated Mushrooms

From “Not Your Mama’s Canning Book”

3 pounds small button mushrooms, no more than 1 1/2-inch across their widest part

1/2 cup bottled lemon juice

1 1/4 cups white wine vinegar (with 5 percent acidity)

1 cup pure olive oil

5 garlic cloves, lightly smashed and peeled

1 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano leaves

1 1/2 teaspoon dried basil leaves

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Carefully wash the mushrooms and trim the stems so they are no longer than 1/4 inch from the mushroom cap. Use the stems in another recipe. You can cut the larger mushrooms in half if you wish, but it is not strictly necessary. Add to a large stainless steel stockpot with the lemon juice and cover the mushrooms with fresh water. Bring to a boil. When it reaches a boil, set your timer and let it boil for 5 minutes. Drain the mushrooms and load them into half-pint jars leaving 1/2 inch of head space.

In another saucepan, stir together the white wine vinegar, olive oil, garlic cloves, salt, oregano and basil leaves, and crushed red pepper flakes. Bring this mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. Fish the garlic from the boiling brine and tuck one clove in and among the mushrooms in each jar. Stir the vinegar and oil dressing well and ladle over the mushrooms in the jars, maintaining the 1/2 inch of head space. Moisten a paper towel with vinegar and use that to wipe the rims of the jars clean. Fix jar lids in place and tighten appropriately.

Use canning tongs to transfer the jars to a canner full of boiling water that covers the jars by 2 inches. Put the lid of the canner in place, return the water to a boil and process for 20 minutes. Carefully transfer the jars to a towel-lined counter or wire cooling rack and allow them to cool completely, preferably overnight, before removing the rings, wiping the jars clean and labeling. Yields 4 half-pint jars plus 1 4-ounce jar or 18 servings.

Per serving: 130 calories; 12 g fat (2 g saturated fat; 83 percent calories from fat); 3 g carbohydrates; 2 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 169 mg sodium; 2 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Peach Chipotle Salsa

From Malia Karlinsky, blogger at Yesterday on Tuesday and Ball Fresh Preserver

2 pounds (about 4) peaches

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

3 tablespoons cilantro, chopped

2 canned chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, chopped

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon chili powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cumin

1/2 cup lime juice

Wash peaches under cold running water. With a paring knife, make a small “X” on the bottom of the peaches. To peel peaches, blanch in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds, immediately transfer to a bowl full of ice and water. At the spot you made the “X” peel the skin from the peach. Chop peaches; measure 3 cups chopped peaches.

Combine ingredients and bring to a boil in a 4-quart stainless steel or enameled saucepan. Reduce heat, and simmer 5 minutes.

Ladle hot salsa into a hot jar, leaving 1/2 inch head space. Remove air bubbles.

Wipe jar rim. Center lid on jar. Apply band, and adjust to fingertip tight. Place jar in boiling water bath canner. Repeat until all jars are filled.

Process jars 15 minutes. Turn off heat; remove lid, and let jars stand 5 minutes. Remove jars and cool. Makes about 4 half-pint jars or 16 servings.

Per serving: 31 calories; 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 0 percent calories from fat); 7 g carbohydrates; 5 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 247 mg sodium; 1 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Spicy Heirloom Tomato Chutney

From Marisa McClellan, blogger at Food in Jars and Ball Fresh Preserver

4 pounds small heirloom tomatoes, chopped

3 cups apple cider vinegar

2 cups granulated sugar

1 1/2 cups golden raisins

12 ounces shallots, diced (about 2 cups)

2 ounces ginger, grated (scant 1/4 cup)

1 tablespoon red chili flakes

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1 tablespoon black mustard seeds

1 tablespoon kosher salt

Prepare a boiling water bath and five pint jars.

Combine all the ingredients in a large, wide, nonreactive pot, set over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium high and cook, stirring regularly, for 45 to 55 minutes, until the chutney is glossy and thick.

Remove the pot from the heat and ladle the chutney into the prepared jars. Wipe the rim, apply the lid and band. Place jar in boiling water bath canner. Repeat until all jars are filled and process for 10 minutes. Makes 40 servings.

Per serving: 70 calories; 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 0 percent calories from fat); 17 g carbohydrates; 14 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 150 mg sodium; 0.5 g protein; 1 g fiber.

Fiesta Peppers

From Linda Ly, blogger at Garden Betty and Ball Fresh Preserver

2 cups distilled white vinegar

2 cups water

2 tablespoons sugar

1 tablespoon Ball Salt for Pickling & Preserving

8 garlic cloves

2 bay leaves

2 teaspoons coriander seeds, divided

2 teaspoons peppercorns, divided

1 teaspoon cumin seeds, divided

3/4 pound serrano or jalapeño peppers, stems trimmed

1 cup sliced white onions

1 cup sliced carrots

In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, add the garlic, and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes while you prepare the remaining ingredients.

Fill each jar with 1 bay leaf, 1 teaspoon coriander, 1 teaspoon peppercorns, and 1/2 teaspoon cumin.

Using a sharp knife, make a few slits in each pepper. Layer the peppers, onions, and carrots in each jar, leaving about 1/2-inch head space.

Remove the saucepan from heat. Divide the garlic among the jars and ladle the hot brine over the vegetables. Let cool to room temperature. Seal with a lid and refrigerate for at least one week before serving. Makes 2 quarts or 16 servings.

Per serving: 28 calories; 0 g fat (0 g saturated fat; 0 percent calories from fat); 5 g carbohydrates; 3 g sugar; 0 mg cholesterol; 451 mg sodium; 1 g protein; 1 g fiber.

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