Gear up for summer's bounty
Your opportunity to capture the harvest is upon us. Local rhubarb is here. And then it’s on to berries, cherries, peaches, apples and pears — an amazing journey that won’t slow down until the fields of corn are spent, tomato vines are finally too tuckered and chilled to fruit, and our filbert trees have yielded their nutty treasure.
So while the pace is still leisurely, it’s a good time to gear up for the season. Like any other form of cooking, there are a few tools you’ll need to have on hand. Things like canning jars and lids, for example, are a necessary part of the process, so you might as well obtain them.
Then — and this is a very important part — set aside a few square feet of kitchen or garage space for these supplies. A box or shelf — whatever it takes to keep all of the essentials organized in one place. Experience has taught me that at those rare moments when time, energy and inclination are aligned you don’t want to undermine your enthusiasm by having to assemble all of the gear.
Gearing up for preserving includes resources and essential equipment.
Your best starting point for up to date, reliable and safe information is OSU Extension, extension.oregonstate.edu/food/preservation, where you can dig into hundreds of publications on food preservation, from making jam to canning tuna.
Canning book(s): Arrange to have at least one basic guide on hand that offers basic and reliable information and conforms to all of the wishes and recommendations of the United States Department of Agriculture. Many such books come in multiple editions. In order to make sure your information is up to date, do not purchase any edition that’s been published earlier than 1988, which is when major changes in recommendations for canning tomatoes were made.
Number one on my list is “Ball Blue Book - Guide to Home Canning, Freezing & Dehydration,” by the Altrista Corporation.
Processing pot/boiling-water canner: Most of my canning recipes provide two choices for storage, which influences how you finish a recipe: refrigeration or room temperature. Refrigeration (or in some cases, freezing) is the easiest approach. Simply ladle your prepared jam (or relish, or jelly) into clean containers, add a lid, and place them in your refrigerator for up to a specified amount of time.
But since most of us have limited refrigerator space, I’m starting with the premise that at some point this summer, you’ll want to take the extra steps to “can” a batch of your jam, fruits, pickles and relishes so that they can be stored at room temperature. To do so, they need to be “processed” in a boiling water canner.
These pots don’t need to be expensive and heavy-duty. In fact, they’re typically made from lightweight aluminum or enameled metal. But they do need to be large enough to hold at least half a dozen canning jars and enough water to cover the jars by at least one inch.
Canning jars: They’re made from sturdy, tempered glass designed to withstand the heat and jostling of a boiling water canner. It’s a false economy to substitute recycled mayonnaise or commercially made jam jars, because they may break during processing, and then all of your efforts will be for nothing. Canning jars can be found all over the place this time of year, including supermarket and department stores. And since these jars are sturdy enough to use over and over (unless they’ve developed nicks or cracks), you may even find an adequate supply of them at garage sales or thrift shops.
Canning lids: If you’ve bought new canning jars, you will also get your very first supply of two-piece canning lids, because they will be included. They’re composed of a flat, round lid or “insert” that comes with a rubberized “sealing compound” around its edges. The second part of the two-piece lid is called the “ring” or “metal screw-band,” designed to hold the lid in place. The flat, round lid is a one-time-only piece of gear, because the rubberized sealing compound needs to be fresh. The rings, however, are reusable, as long as they aren’t rusted or dented. So keep an eye out for those at garage sales if you want to save a few pennies.
Jar funnel: It’s designed to nest on top of an empty canning jar and direct a ladle-full of preserves down into the jar without leaving messy glops on the jar rim or counter. You need one, trust me.
Jar lifter: The manually operated forklift of the canning world. Designed to grip a filled-and-capped jar securely around its neck for placing in and removing from a boiling water canner, you really have no alternative method.
Lid Lifter: This 6-inch-long “wand” with a magnet embedded into the business end is used to fish out the lids from hot water. OK, let me back up a moment. ... In the early phase of a canning project, you’ve cleaned your two-piece lids by bringing them to a boil in a pot of water. You leave them in the boiling-hot water until you’re ready to cap a filled jar. At this point, the magnet end of the lid lifter is used to attract a metal lid or screw-band from the water.
Rack: Keeps jars off the bottom of the boiling water canner during processing. Also eliminates jostling among the jars, which helps eliminate breakage. You can use the racks that come with the canning kettles. However, I made my own rack many years ago from 1/8-inch galvanized hardware cloth (cut in a circle to match the inner circumference of the boiling-water canner), stapled on 6 small wood laths (cut in graduated lengths to provide maximum support of the round of meshing. Unlike the commercially made wire racks, this homemade rack produces a perfectly smooth-bottomed-yet-raised surface for jars to sit on.
Thermometer: For determining when your batch of boiling jams and jellies have reached the “gel point.” Although a candy thermometer, clamped to the inside upper rim of the pot, will work just fine, I prefer using an “instant read” thermometer to monitor the progress, which eliminates a dangling piece of equipment when you’re trying to give the preserves a good stir.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Email her at email@example.com, or see her blog at www.janrd.com.