Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Apricot Olympiad-Day One

Nine half-pints of springtime in a jar. It took about two hours total, including assembling everything. Danny did the bulk of the work as he wants to enter the jam in the State Fair. Last year's county fair was disappointing (he was the only entrant in his division, so he only got a participation ribbon) so I agreed to make the 150 mile trek to Grand Island in September for the State Fair. There's a local drop-off for items, so we only need to be there for the last day of the fair (to see if he won, and view the other exhibits) and the next morning when they release the exhibits (and ribbons). An overnight in Grand Island might be fun (it was an interesting city when I was there fourteen years ago).

We're nowhere near done with our apricots, but so far we've managed to make puree from the peels to freeze, and to make into fruit leather. Tomorrow, we'll bottle some nectar.
I thought this might be a good time to do a short tutorial on jam making. I would still encourage you to get familiar with the finer details before plunging in, but I also want to convey that it isn't a terribly difficult thing to do. Sometimes guides can bewilder the novice with too much detail. Since this is a very basic jam, it seemed like as good a place as any to start. I should also note that the Ball Blue Book of Canning is very helpful for the novice. The Kerr Kitchen Cookbook is also quite good. So Easy to Preserve is a good guide, and books by Ortho, and Sunset are also written for the novice home canner. I would avoid the beautifully photographed, exotic recipe cookbooks, or even recipes found on the web. Those often assume the experience of the jam maker, and don't emphasise the details that lead to the making of a safe to consume product. I have seen things on cooking blogs that sound downright deadly to me (do NOT can butter. You can not make it shelf stable at home, even if you've seen it on the Internet). When in doubt, call your local extension office (in the US). Home economists love to share their knowledge, and can tell you how to adapt your treasured heirloom recipe so it won't kill anyone (rutabaga and orange jam, anyone?). If you have an old cookery book, most recipes can be adapted to modern processing (except pumpkin butter which is surprisingly dangerous to preserve at home). Ask-people love to share what they know.

Things You Need:

A large pot for cooking (jam tends to foam up, so you need room)
A long handled wooden spoon (being splattered with hot jam isn't fun)
A jam funnel (makes everything so much easier)
A ladle
Heat proof small spatulas for removing air bubbles
A jar lifter (you can use tongs, but the lifter works so well, and really isn't an expense)
A pot to use as a canner (flat bottomed for an electric cooker, ridged for gas)
A rack for the canner so that the jars do not touch the bottom
A pot to heat lids
A damp towel for wiping treads (light colour is good so you can see if you got the jam)
Pretty much every spoon in the house for testing the set as you go along
A large spoon and bowl ready for skimming foam at the end
Pot holder, and a trivet or heat mat for resting the cooking pot on whilst you fill jars
Several layers of towels to protect your work surface as you fill jars, and then fresh ones for the cooling jars

Optional items:

A cold saucer (or three) for testing set (I prefer spoon method)
A thermometer
Instant dissolving sugar

I use my large pressure canner for water bath canning, I just don't use pressure. This way, I have an appliance that can multi-task, and less to store. It was an expensive purchase, but it gets serious use. I've never regretted the purchase. That said, if you have a large pot that a rack of some sort can be fit into, you can use it. I like the rack that can lower, and be lifted with handles, but I've rigged up similar in a pinch (and strange kitchen) using a round rack from a wok, and hangers. Try it out with water filled jars first to see how many it will accommodate.

Getting Ready:

Clean the surfaces in your kitchen, and wash your sink thoroughly. It sounds like overkill, but I like to start with a spotless kitchen. Fill your canner halfway with water (I like to bring water by the pitcher to the canner rather than lift several gallons at once). Wash your jars carefully inspecting for chips and cracks. Even small scratches can weaken jars over time, so if you've been clanging a butter knife around in a jar for several months, perhaps it would be better to start with a newer jar. You've put so much work into it, why risk an exploding jar (and the mess of cleaning it up). I do not buy second-hand jars for this reason.

Wash the jars, rinse thoroughly, then fill with water and set in the canner. Turn the canner on with the jars still in it and bring to a boil. Let them boil five minutes. Return to low, and let jars keep warm. Your jars are now sterilised. This process is best to start before you being preparing the jam so that the clean jars can sit in the warm canner water ready to be filled. I do not use the oven to sterilise jars. That's just me. Place lids in a saucepan of water and set on low. You want them warmed, but not boiled.

As the jars get ready, prepare your work surface with a couple layers of tea towels. Place a hot pad where you will be setting the pot. Arrange the screw bands on the towel, along with the funnel, spatulas, damp towel, jar lifter, tongs, spoon and bowl for skimming, and a towel for handling jars as you adjust the bands (I use my apron, for this, but that's me).

(Will make about 5 pints or 10 half pints-I always prepare more jars than I think I need)

2 quarts ripe, peeled, crushed apricots (save the peels for fruit puree)
6 cups granulated sugar (measure it ahead of time to avoid scrambling)
1/4 cup bottled lemon juice (the acidity is better controlled than the varying strength of fresh lemons)

Crush the fruit (I use my hands, but a potato masher is good too) and place in a large heavy stockpot with the lemon juice. Slowly add the sugar, stirring as you go. you'll want to keep stirring until the sugar dissolves. The heat should be on medium. It is best to bring the fruit slowly to a boil. At some point, it will begin to foam like mad-this is normal. Keep stirring. If it looks like you may overflow, try reducing the heat, or even skimming a bit off. You should really use the largest pot you can get for this. When it comes to a boil, increase the heat to medium-high, but WATCH OUT because it may start to splatter. Again, you can adjust the heat but the best response is to keep stirring-it prevents bad splatters. You may wish to wear long sleeves, but they should be close fitting. Or just be tough.

You'll need to start checking about five minutes after the boil. Take a spoon, dip it quickly into the jam and hold it sideways. If it runs right off the spoon, it isn't ready. If it falls in thick drops, it is getting close, and if it sheets before dropping off , it is time to bottle. If you chilled a saucer, drop some jam on it and return it to the freezer for a couple minutes. If you run your finger through it and it looks set, you're good. With the exception of marmalade (which can get intensely hard) a little over is better than a little under. That said, if you prefer a softer fruit spread, adjust accordingly. You can re-make jam that doesn't set after 24 hours, so don't worry if you end up with apricot soup (though it makes a good ice cream topping and you can just call it sauce rather than jam).

Return your canner to high heat. Remove your pot of jam to the hot pad on the work surface, and skim off any foam. With your jar lifter, grasp a jar, empty the water from it back into the canner, and quickly take it to your work surface. Place the funnel in the mouth, and ladle jam to 1/4 inch from the top (this is the headspace). Remove the funnel, take a spatula and run it around the inside edge of the jar to break up any air bubbles. Use your damp cloth to wipe the treads clean. With your tongs, retrieve a lid from the hot water. Place on jar. Adjust a screw band over it, and tighten (you don't need to be Herculean with it, fingertip tight is good). Use a towel (or apron) to do this as the jar is hot. Using the jar lifter, return the jar to the canner, and repeat with remaining jars. Lower the rack into the canner, make sure there is enough water to cover the jars by two inches (you can use the water from heating the lids if need be) place on the top, and bring to a full rolling boil (you'll see a steady stream of steam). The jars will need 10 minutes for half pints or 15 for pints. You need to add 1 minute for each 1,000 feet you are above sea level. For me, that works out to an extra minute and a half.

While the jam processes, clear off the sticky pot and work surfaces, wipe it down, and lay new towels down. You will be placing hot jars on it, so depending on how well the surface takes heat, you'll want a good cushion to protect your table/counter/etc. I use about 5 tea towels on my wooden sideboard. If you have large enough heat proof pads, use them.

When the time is up, carefully remove the lid (AWAY from you), and kill the heat. Let the jars sit in the hot water for 5 additional minutes as a cool down. This will prevent cracks from the change of temperature, particularly in a cold room. At the end of the 5 minutes, remove the jars with the lifter to the towels, and leave them alone for 12-24 hours (pints should go 24). Keep away from drafts if you can in the beginning. You don't want to disturb the jars when hot as they can burst, but it also disrupts the set of the jam. Apricots don't have much pectin, and even with the lemon juice, it can take a day to set.

Testing for seals:

As the jars cool, you should hear them "ping". This is the seal. When cool after 12-24 hours, remove the screw band (don't worry if they've come loose in the canner, it won't affect the seal). Check the seal by pressing down in the centre of the lid. If it stays down, you're good. If it failed, you can either re-make it, or keep it in the fridge to use within a month or two. I don't bother for one jar, but if you had several fail, it would be worth it.

The jars should not be stored with the screw bands as they can rust. Wipe your jars with white vinegar to remove any hard water deposits from the glass, and to clean any bits of jam that might have clung. Label with date and ingredients (nice for gift giving). Store upright in a cool dark place. Use within the year.

So that's it-basic apricot jam. You can try different additions (a splash of brandy never hurt anything), or using store-bought pectin for a fresher-fruit style jam (it takes less time, but I personally think it lacks the depth of traditional apricot jam) or even other fruit (raspberry goes nicely with apricot as do sultanas for a conserve). Unless you are using a low-sugar pectin for special diets, you really can't mess with the amount of sugar-it requires it for the proper set. There are recipes formulated for artificial sweeteners, and I would use them if you desire a low-sugar/no sugar jam. I would not try to adapt this in equal parts substitute.

I hope this was helpful, and that it served to make canning less intimidating. Let me know if you try it.


Connie said...

Oh my gosh. Back in the days when I was a little hippie nature girl I used to make jam all the time. It really is so much fun. I loooooved putting the paraffin on top. Now I just waddle to the grocery store for Bonne Maman. Thank you once again for the little trip down memory lane. Xxxooo

Sue said...

Domestic goddess at work in the kitchen! Bet you even have a pretty apron to wear. Hope Danny gets an award!

Curtise said...

Yes, I hope Danny wins a prize too, you two are the dream team of jam making!
I suppose any process with which you are unfamiliar can seem intimidating - a long list of instructions, lots of equipment, all that jazz, but you've certainly explained it clearly and in words I understand! But really, I don't want to bother making my own - I just want you to give me a jar or two of yours! xxxx