A guide to keeping you OUT of hot water
I’m really looking forward to pickling season this year. Our pantry is running dangerously low, compared to other years, due mainly to the Great Mason Jar Shortage of 2020. Our friend Alison came to our rescue by offering up six dozen dusty jars from her basement; dust or no dust, receiving them felt a bit akin to winning the lottery!
However, although we had won the battle, we did not, alas, win the war. Once the bottles were washed and ready to go back to active duty, it became painfully aware that lids and seals were also on the “not to be found” list. As desperate as we were, we never use the sealing lids twice—we throw them out immediately to ensure that they don’t get used again, as there is no guarantee of a food-safe seal. The rings however get reused until they begin to show rust.
With not enough lids and rings for the jars on hand, we made fewer preserves as a result, and hence the pantry being close to bare. Oh, 2020, never have we ever been so glad to see the backside of a year! This year we have some catching up to do!
When we get to pickling, I always make enough for us as well as some to share; I have never had someone turn down a gift of homemade pickles. The fact that I do gift our preserves makes me even more determined to follow food-safe practices. I have had many people tell me that I’m wasting my time water-bathing items like pickled beets because they will seal on their own—but I’m just not willing to take any chances with the health of friends and family.
Unfortunately a lot of people are under the misconception that you can put anything in a water bath and be safe. But items like stewed tomatoes, for example, need to be preserved in a pressure canner. Even our locally-grown food supply has changed; there is no longer enough acidity in many tomatoes to make them safe as preserves without first applying high pressure.
This can make canning seem like a daunting and dangerous task, but that’s really not the case. Much information can be found online and books such as Bernardin’s Complete Book Of Home Preserving are invaluable. My own copy is so dog-eared that when a copy was donated to our little library, I snatched it up as a backup copy! It’s not only a treasure trove of practical preserving information, but a huge recipe resource as well.
Having the right canning tools will make the job much easier. I firmly believe that an enamel pot with a bottle basket is a very worthwhile investment; it’s large enough that there is very little chance of splash over; the basket ensures that you’re putting all the bottles in at once, retaining heat and lessening the chance of a burn. The other thing that the basket does is elevate the jars—if you’re using an everyday cooking pot you should put a barrier on the bottom; something such as a trivet as the bottles stand a very good chance of exploding if they sit directly over the heat source.
Other tools that I find helpful for preserve-making are a magnet for removing seals from hot water (seals are placed in simmering water to soften the rubber liner, ensuring a tight seal) and a funnel for putting hot preserves into the jars. All these items can be found in canning kits.
I always have a butter knife or small spatula on hand to remove air bubbles from my jars—often “floating fruit” is caused by air bubbles. You may see this with jams; the fruit will all be in the top third of the bottle and the juices will be below. It’s important to leave a one-inch headspace—more can prevent a seal and less can leave too much air which can cause discolouration, or worse, room for bacteria to grow.
There seems to be a new trend emerging of water-bathing jars without the ring attached, but this isn’t something that I’ve been doing. I do ensure that my rings are put on loosely, sometimes referred as finger tightening. If the ring is too tight it can prevent a proper seal.
I like to have a baking sheet lined with a towel that a cooling rack has been placed on, where my bottles go as soon as they are removed from the bath. The towel absorbs excess water and the cooling rack allows for air circulation. Often times the jars will “pop” almost immediately.
There are two very satisfying moments for a home canner; the first is hearing those pops and the second is seeing all your hard work lined up together. Don’t fret if you don’t immediately hear that sound; sometimes it takes a bit of time and sometimes you won’t hear it at all and you’ll need to use a finger to feel for the indent in the center of the seal.
It’s best not to force the indent but just to let it happen naturally. And then there are bottles that just simply do not pop at all. In this case you have two options. If it’s just a jar or two, you can refrigerate it for immediate consumption or you can water bath it a second time. If you’re going to do that second bath, get it done within 12 hours of the first; after that it’s a missed opportunity.
Once your jars have all popped it’s okay to completely tighten the rings, wipe down the jars and admire your handiwork. I like to store my canned goods in a cool dry place, and I like to have them consumed within two seasons at the most.
The exception to this is canned pickles; we have found with long experience that they are best if eaten within six months; after that they begin to soften.
I strongly urge you to buy proper jars for the job. The days of preserving in cheese jars is long gone. Also discard any damaged jars, especially ones that may be chipped on the rims, which will prevent a safe seal. Label your canned goods with not only the contents but the date on which they were preserved.
One last piece of advice; canning is not the time to get creative with recipes; recipes have been developed with the correct ratio of acidity; a key ingredient to safe canning. Remember also that botulism doesn’t change the color or smell of canned goods, so, “when in doubt, throw it out.”