Have more produce that you know what to do with? Consider canning. And if canning sounds too intimidating, try some of the “almost-canning” recipes out there, things like freezer jams and refrigerator pickles.
Canning is simply packing hot food into sterilized jars and then heating them enough to destroy microorganisms that cause food to spoil. This is done in hot water with special lids. The heat forces air out of the jar and then as the jar cools, the rubber seal hardens and prevents air from getting back in until you open the jar to serve.
You don’t need a pressure cooker to can most of our favorite home-canned foods. You can simply use a large pot that is big enough to completely submerge whatever size jars you’re using. This “hot water bath” method doesn’t get the food in the jars as hot as using a pressure cooker, but it’s a safe method for fruits, jams, jellies, pickles and similar preserves. You also can do tomatoes and salsas in a hot water bath as long as you use recipes specifically approved for canning. (Tomatoes can be rather low in acid, so you need to add vinegar or citrus to get the acid level up so the food preserves well.) You can do vegetables in a hot water bath as long as they are pickled, like pickled beets or pickled peppers.
You’ll need a pressure cooker only if you want to do food that contain meats (like soups and chili), poultry, seafood, dairy, and non-pickled vegetables, including green beans, and seafood.
Whatever you can, use only recipes from a reliable source, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, university extension, or a canning supplies company, like Ball. Or look for recipes or cookbooks approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some online recipes may not be safe for long-term storage.
The only specialized equipment you’ll really need are canning jars and lids and rings. You can use hand-me-down or garage sale jars as long as they’re made specifically for canning and the new types of rings and lids fit on them and they have no chips or cracks.
You can buy canning jars, lids and rings at most supermarkets. Jelly jars with lids cost about a dollar each. Quart jars with lids are about $4 each. But even if you never use the jars again for canning, they’re great for other food storage.
You can use just about any large pot, such as a stockpot with lid, that will allow you to submerge the jars with an inch or 2 inches above their tops. Water should flow underneath, but you can use a cooling rack or any other rack to rest them on. You also can wire or twisty tie together three or more canning rings to cleverly elevate the jars off the bottom of the pot.
If you’re just making freezer jam or refrigerator pickles, any glass or plastic food container with a tightfitting lid will work.
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Some recipes call for pectin, including instant, fast-acting pectin, which thickens jams. This usually is available at better-stocked supermarkets.
If you’ve never canned before, try making jam. It’s quick and easy, taking most folks under two hours. It’s also a fun cooking project with kids. Simply cut up, cook, and mash fruit, adding sugar and any flavorings and thickeners. Simmer in a pot and then pour hot into sterilized jars. Then boil in the water bath as directed in the recipe.
Insider tip: If you’re going to use up the jam in less than a month, you don’t even need to do the water bath. Just pour hot into any container that has, with its lid, been sterilized by dipping into boiling water. Keep in the refrigerator for a month or even the freezer for up to a year, if you wish.
Freezer Jam and Refrigerator Pickles
If even a hot water bath sounds like far too much trouble, try freezer jams or refrigerator pickles. No special jars or processing needed.
Freezer jams are basically just mashed up fresh fruit with sugar and thickening added. I actually prefer them to traditional jams because you can make them less sweet and I think they have a fresher, brighter flavor.
One of my favorites is the Peach Melba Jam, a Ball recipe. I could eat this by the spoonful, and it’s beyond heavenly served slightly warm over vanilla ice cream.
Refrigerator pickles are another annual favorite. I’m a bit of a cucumber and pickle fiend, but not enough to make my own homemade pickles — except for refrigerator pickles. Part cucumber salad, part true pickles, they’re simply cut up cucumbers that are long-marinated in a brine. They tend to be less crisp than traditional pickles, unless you add calcium chloride, sold by Ball as “pickle crisp granules.” They’re great to put into potato and pasta salads or as a salty, refreshing treat alongside a sandwich or barbecue.
My hands-down favorite pickled veggie recipe is Pickled Red Onions. I make these up one quart jar at a time and try to keep some in my fridge at all times. They’re fantastic in green or potato and pasta salads, and excellent on just about any sandwich or burger. The recipe is so easy it’s hardly a recipe and more a technique. Use on other veggies, too.
Peach Melba Freezer Jam
5 tablespoons instant pectin
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups finely chopped pitted peeled peaches (about 4 medium)
1 cup crushed raspberries (about 1 6-ounce containers)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Whisk sugar and instant pectin together in a bowl into well blended. Then add peaches, raspberries and lemon juice. Stir 3 full minutes.
Ladle jam into clean jars and top with lids. Let stand until thickened, about 30 minutes. Serve immediately. Refrigerate up to 3 weeks or freeze up to 1 year
Note: If you want, add a teaspoon or two of brandy or rum for even more intense, complex flavor.
Pickled Red Onions
1 or 2 red onions, sliced as thinly as you can manage
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup hot water
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Fill a large quart jar about halfway with water. Zap in the microwave until the water is boiling, to sterilize the jar. Pour out the water.
Add apple cider vinegar, salt, sugar and water into a large jar, about one quart in size. Heat in the microwave for just long enough to get the liquid really hot, but not boiling and to dissolve the sugar.
Add as many onions as you can but not so many that they are not covered by the vinegar mixture. Wash the lid in soapy, very hot water and rinse. Put on the jar. Then put the jar in the fridge for at least one hour, or store in the fridge for up to one month.
Note: If you want, add fresh or dried herbs for additional flavor, such as dill or tarragon.