Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving 2015 Edition

Anyone that's been reading this blog for any length of time knows I'm a fan of the Ball Blue Book, with several different editions in my possession. Techniques may change with the years, and better understanding of food safety, but the recipes published within the pages are reliable. You don't go to the Blue Book for the exotic, you go there for straightforward recipes that produce predictable results.

Many a person new to preserving has found reassurance in the Blue Book. Easy-to-read diagrams, stern warnings about food safety, lists of materials required to complete the job-that's the Blue Book's claim to fame. Will the recipes be something so new and different no one else will be giving them at Christmas? No, but whatever you give at Christmas will be unlikely to poison the family if you followed the instructions. Over time, new recipes are added (I remember my excitement at discovering the roasted red pepper spread) and in recent years the editors have included recipes that use the finished, preserved product. The newest edition being reviewed here has taken that idea a step ahead giving suggested uses. That's a smart addition, as it is easy enough to find use for a jar of pear mincemeat, but nine pints might present issues after Christmas has come and gone. Anyone that's ever made Victoria Rhubarb Sauce will know what I mean when I say, "You can't give the stuff away." If you've gone to the trouble of preserving it, you'll want to find some ways to make use of it as well.

Immediately, upon flipping open the new Blue Book I was impressed with the quality of the paper. That might sound like a silly thing, but canning books take a beating on the counter top as you work, exposed to all manner of spills, splatters, drips and steam. The pages are heavy, and coated with a glossy material that I would guess resists sticking together better than the older editions. The binding is done in such a way that the book can be opened without it flipping over to another page, but without putting too much stress on the spine. Again, for a paper-bound volume that gets a good amount of use under harsh conditions, that's an advantage worth pointing out.

Preserving goes in and out of popularity, and the new Blue Book takes that into account, with step-by-step instructions for people that might not have grown up in a household where canning was an activity. The new Blue Book has switched from drawn illustrations of the gelling-point, to colour photos showing exactly what the jam will look like sheeting from a spoon. It is true that some things are better expressed in drawings than photos, but this is not one of them. The person responsible for the decision to add photos should be given a prize-a jar of jam or something, as the photos were long overdue.

I noticed that the new Blue Book also makes a change with respect to altitude. Previously, it was standard advice to add 1 minute for every 1,000 ft above sea level to the processing time. The new recommendation does a flat five minutes for 1,000-3,000 ft (and so on, as the elevation increases) which leaves less to chance.  I also like the addition of a reminder with each recipe that the rim of the jar must be wiped before adjusting the lids, and that there should be a 5 minute cool-down still in the canner before removing the jars. That advice while basic, is important and was missing from previous editions that assumed mentioning it once at the beginning was sufficient. The new Blue Book assumes that not everyone reads the introduction thoroughly before leaping in (you should, but "people being people" I'm glad to see someone had the sense to repeat the information with each recipe).

Preserving isn't limited to canning, and the new Blue Book has expanded sections of dehydrating and freezing. If you've taken the time to blanch and freeze your produce, the Blue Book will furnish you with good advice for making sure it will be in tip-top condition when you go to use it. The recipes for freezer jam are also interesting, and useful for people that might enjoy a homemade jam but are wary of the work involved in water bath canning. If you enjoy lemon curd, there's an excellent recipe for a freezer-safe variety. I've successfully made that one (it is delicious) and can attest to how well it keeps in the freezer. I like to think if I have frozen cake layers and curd, I'm ready for any sort of dessert-based emergency. Don't laugh, cake emergencies happen!

My only complaint with the new Blue Book is with the overall tone of the text. I don't need cliches like, "tempt your tastebuds" or worse, "Yummy" in my Blue Book. There's something borrowed from the content-farm-food blog posts in the language and it is off-putting. The recipe tip that mentioned bratwurst and yoghurt was enough to make me slam the book shut, take a deep breath, and accept that preserving is reaching a new generation, and that I've probably already outlived my usefulness in the world generally speaking. You like yoghurt on your brats? OK, eat what you like.  There's still plenty of classic recipes in the Blue Book to keep us old timers happy...but please, stop with the food-blog talk. At least I haven't run across anything, "Kissed" with salt, or caramel or yoghurt (ewwww).

If I could offer a suggestion for future editions of the Blue Book, I would like to see recipes for smaller batches. Today's home canner isn't necessarily putting-up the year's harvest from the kitchen garden, and might be uncomfortable with several quarts worth of something. A few pints of pickled pears make more sense when you are buying the pears at the grocer.

Overall, I'm pleased with the new Blue Book, and the better photographs and instructions. Some of the new recipes sound intriguing (Apricot-Chipotle Sauce) and some of them sound er...interesting (Zucchini in Pineapple Juice?!). I watched my ten year old son excitedly flip the pages plotting next year's State Fair entries, and studying the new sections with interest. I'm not being compensated in any way by Ball or Jarden Brands for this review. I bought the Blue Book with my own money, and I consider it money well spent. There's something in there for the beginner as well as the seasoned preserver. There are many preserving books on the market with beautiful photos and fancy recipes. I've discarded more than a few when I noticed how they were more focused on pictures than food safety, and the recipes sounded to my experienced self like failures waiting to happen. Coffee table books have their place (on the coffee table, generally) but in the kitchen, in the throes of preserving, tables and counters piled high with produce, you want solid advice and tested recipes. The blue Book delivers both.


Beth Waltz said...

Preserving means grape jelly to me. Cleaning out the wire fence grape arbor and fending off the wasps. Damp wiping the Concord grapes with cheap paper towels. The spooky jelly bag drip, drip, dripping over the sink. Getting chased out of the kitchen 47 times because the boiling water for the jars was dangerous, you idiots! Then the great ordeal of pouring, followed by the mysterious sealing with parafin wax. Loved to lick the jellied wax leftovers!

Goody said...

@Beth Waltz
In recent years it has been difficult to find Concord grapes unless you have the vines. I used to buy a crate and do all the juice making, letting it stand overnight so it didn't get crystals, etc. I've since discovered that you can make excellent grape jelly from bottled, unsweetened organic juice. Much less work and mess, but not the same.

Still, you can't make a grape pie from juice and I do miss that. Slipping the grapes from their skins and using a food mill to remove the seeds was a hell of a job, but oh...grape pie is a wonderful thing.

We get, "Concord-style" grapes from California that neither smell nor taste like a Concord, and they are seedless. I've seen them marketed as, "Jelly Drop Grapes" but no self-respecting jelly would want to be associated with anything that dull.

Parafin is a no-no these days for canning (because everything goes through a water-bath canner) but it sure was fun to play with. I have old cookbooks that show layers of coloured jellies in wine glasses coated with a wax top. I wouldn't dare try it today, but I'm sure they were consumed with no harm done. Sometimes we're probably too safe for our own good.

Mim said...

I'd never heard of that book, but it sounds excellent. We've had a glut of apples this year in Britain - a warm spring plus a dampish summer have made the trees really productive. Even my shoulder-high one in my garden is cropping heavily.

Yoghurt on bratwurst?! NO. BAD!

Goody said...


Do you dry any, or do they all get baked or bottled?

Mim said...

I'll be chopping them into crumble-filling-sized chunks and freezing them.

I don't think we're anywhere near as good at preserving here in the UK as you are in the US. Aside from pickling stuff in vinegar, and making jams/chutneys, it's not a big thing. I don't know anyone who dehydrates foods or bottles them, though I know the WI did have a big push towards bottling and canning during both wars. Possibly our climate's too damp for successful drying, though bottling would work.