As we near the final days of summer we’re savoring the flavors of the season from our gardens and farmers market including berries, vegetables, fruit, and herbs. But, the tastes of summer don’t have to end here. Just ask Marisa McClellan, the food preservationist extraordinaire who runs the blog Food in Jars and has written three books on preserving. She is all about taking these last days of summer produce and keeping them forever. She talked with our contributor Shauna Sever about some simple ways to do that. Marisa also shared with us her informative Quick Introduction to Canning, as well as her recipes for Spicy Pickled Green Beans and Small Batch Spiced Blueberry Jam.
Shauna Sever: I'm excited to talk with you because preserving is a topic that I know a lot of us are thinking about right now, with the summer produce being so fleeting and so many of us having that last gasp feeling of trying to do as much as we can before it all disappears. I imagine that's less of a problem for you since you can preserve just about anything. How did this passion for preserving start?
Marisa McClellan: I grew up doing a little bit of canning with my mom, so I always knew how to do it. And then about 11 years ago I was living here in Philadelphia. One summer I went blueberry picking and came home with 13 pounds of blueberries, which didn't feel like a lot in the field but when I got them into my 80 square foot kitchen I went, “This is a lot of blueberries!” That early training and conditioning of what to do when you have an abundance – you make jam! – just popped up. I made my first batch and loved doing it. It was so satisfying, and I loved the idea that here was this experience of fruit picking and summer that I was going to be able to enjoy and share all year-round.
SS: In talking about your blueberry jam you bring up an interesting point, and I am guilty of this as well. I think of preserving as being this huge production. It's hot. It's messy. It's wet. It's all about taking heaps of fruit or whatever it is and processing it. Is there an easier way to break this down, maybe scale It down a bit?
MM: Definitely. I'm a big believer in the small batch and sometimes even the micro batch canning project. Instead of feeling like you have to devote your entire weekend to canning and preserving, I like to do tiny batches, starting with no more than like two pounds of fruit and cooking them down quickly in a frying pan or a big skillet. Putting up small amounts allows you to be in and out of a project in about an hour rather than devoting your whole weekend to it.
Marisa McClellan Photo provided by Marisa McClellan
SS: An hour? That's great; I can get behind that. What is prime canning season - if there is such a thing?
MM: I feel like mid-July to the end of September is prime canning season. The time depends on where you live obviously because it's certainly different for people in Florida than it is for people in Seattle. That’s the time of year when there's a lot of produce around and it's the time of abundance throughout the country. Depending on where you live, you may have berries or you'll have stone fruit or tomatoes. There are a lot of options and opportunities to put up when that full-throated, tumbling abundance comes at you.
SS: When we're faced with so many options of what to preserve or can, is there an easier option to start with? Maybe an easy fruit or vegetable that can build our confidence a little bit?
MM: Absolutely. The funny thing is that people typically start canning with strawberry jam and cucumber pickles. What will happen is their strawberry jam will be runny and their cucumber pickles will be soft and soggy, then they'll decide that they're not good at canning and that it isn't for them. The truth of the matter is that they have chosen to start with two of the hardest things to get right the first time. I believe the most common things are the things that are hardest to do.
SS: The first thing I ever made was strawberry jam, so I find this especially enlightening.
MM: Strawberries are really low in pectin; pectin is the fiber that holds up the cell walls of the fruits and vegetables and creates the set in concert with sugar. Strawberry jam is just hard. So, I like to advise people to start with blueberry jam first because blueberries have a lot more pectin naturally and they just are more amiable to setting up. And then on the pickle front, a pickled green bean like a dilly bean is a much easier pickle to start with because your finished pickle is going to be crunchy if the produce you started out with is a little bit sturdier. Obviously, cucumbers are soft to start so it's going to be real hard to make a cucumber crunchy after you've run it through a boiling water bath canning process. But those green beans, they soften up the slightest bit and retain their crunch in their structure; they make the best pickles.
SS: This is brilliant. What are the tools that we need?
MM: When you're going to do water bath canning, the first thing you need is a pot a big pot. It doesn't have to be a dedicated canning pot, but any sort of tall stockpot that has at least maybe let's say 8 to 12 quarts capacity is going to be your best bet. You can certainly buy a dedicated canner, but if you already have a nice stockpot in your kitchen that's going to be more useful because then you can use it for other things too. You want to put a rack in the bottom of that stockpot. That can be like a silicone trivet. It can be a round cake cooling rack. You can buy a dedicated canning rack, but, again, if you have a round cake cooling rack that you already have for you cooling cakes, you can drop that in the bottom of the pot.
From there you need a pot to cook your jam in. Depending on the batch size it can be a skillet, a Dutch oven, or a big stainless steel pot. The primary thing you want to look for is that the pot is made of a non-reactive material – either stainless steel or enamel cast iron. You want to stay away from bare cast iron because that is a reactive metal; the acid in the food that you're cooking will extract a metallic flavor from that pot and you'll never get it out. It's always going to taste a little tinny, and that's super disappointing.
SS: This brings me to my next question getting more into the technical or food science aspect of putting up food. There is a bit of a fear factor in canning that we're going to poison the entire neighborhood if we don't do it right. What are some of the things that we need to look out for?
MM: Everybody is afraid of botulism when it comes to canning, and to be perfectly honest it's really rare. As long as you're making high acid foods, those botulism spores – which are the things that can germinate into a botulism toxin – are rendered inert by the acid in your product. As long as you've got a high acid pickle, chutney, jam or jelly, you're not going to have an issue. Most fruits are already high enough in acid anyways so they're not going to encourage the growth of botulism. Knowing that is a comfort to a lot of people.
When it comes to canning, it's better not to improvise. It's better to, at least in the beginning, use recipes from reliable sources rather than make up your own because there is some science to getting a canning recipe right. And if you don't have a grasp of what's going into play about high acid and low acid foods, it's better to let someone who has that experience do that thinking for you. Good sources for recipes include the Ball Canning folks – they’ve got a website and a number of books – and the National Center for Home Food Preservation. I also have a website called Food in Jars with a lot of useful recipes, as well as three books. Again, you want to trust the experts particularly in the beginning.
Marisa McClellan is the author of the canning cookbooks Naturally Sweet Food in Jars, Preserving by the Pint, and Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round.
Shauna Sever is the author of three cookbooks (Marshmallow Madness!, Pure Vanilla and Real Sweet). She is the voice behind the baking blog Piece of Cake. She's appeared on the Today show, Food Network, Home and Family, Serious Eats, Chow and Ulive.com. Her writing and recipes have been featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, Fine Cooking, Family Circle and USA Weekend.