The prettiest sight on a cold winter day is not the snowflakes swirling outside; it's the bright reds, greens, and yellows of the past summer's produce preserved in the pantry. A spoonful of fruity homemade jam or corn relish really can make your winter meals come alive.
Plus, with the emphasis on eating locally produced foods, preserving the bounty is a great way to save money and eat healthier, with no additives or chemicals and you get a much better taste.
It doesn't matter if you live in the city or the country because fresh ingredients are available everywhere you look, with more coming each passing week right on through fall. So now's the time to get busy and start jamming and canning.
Canning, for those unfamiliar with the process, is preserving food in glass jars that have airtight metal lids sealed with boiling water. It can be as simple as strawberry jam or applesauce, or a bit more complicated like making onion marmalade.
Many cooks are fearful of canning because of safety concerns, but numerous books and Web sites will help you learn how to pick, prep, and preserve. And with so many misconceptions about canning and preserving it's best to learn all that you can before getting started.
Knowing the best basic tools is a good place to start, but learning about the best way to handle, prepare and process your food will ensure that your food is indeed safe. Also, knowing which methods to avoid at all costs (open canning, steam canning, oven canning, and microwave canning are a few examples, as well as using the dishwasher or adding an aspirin tablet as a food preservative) is crucial to a successful and safe canning process.
Using paraffin or other wax to seal jars such as jams, preserves and jellies is another outdated method that also is considered unsafe. According to the USDA, the lid and ring method with a boiling water bath (usually five minutes for jams and jellies) is safer because an incomplete seal with paraffin and the absence of a heat treatment might result in mold and toxin production in the jelly.
Be sure to follow the precise guidelines for each preserving method, using only tested, approved methods. The bottom line is don't experiment or take shortcuts.
Start simple. Jams and jellies are easiest, so try one first and work your way up.
Prepare your ingredients as specified in the recipe. You can do this a day before canning if you like so that it doesn't seem like such a long process the following day.
Do not use overripe fruit. Canning doesn't improve the quality of food, so if you start out with low quality, it will only get worse in storage. To keep fruits from darkening, put the cut fruit in a solution of one-teaspoon ascorbic acid (also known as powdered Vitamin C) and one gallon water or Fruit Fresh. Drain before canning.
Do not add more low-acid ingredients (onions, celery, peppers, garlic) than specified in the recipe. This might result in an unsafe product.
Don't add substantially more seasonings or spices, these items are often high in bacteria and excess spices can make a canned item unsafe.
Do not add butter or fat to home-canned products unless stated in a tested recipe. Butters and fats do not store well and might increase the rate of spoilage. They might also slow the rate of heat transfer, and result in an unsafe product.
Thickeners: With the exception of Clear-Jel, which is USDA approved, do not thicken with starches, flour, or add rice, barley, or pasta to canned products -- this applies to savory products (such soups and stews), sauces and pickled items. Items that thicken products will absorb liquid during processing and slow the way in which the food heats.
Do add acid (lemon juice, vinegar, or citric acid) to tomato products when directed in the recipe.
Canning jars. Use standard Mason, Ball, Kerr, etc., jars for home canning. Do not use jars larger than specified in the recipe, as an unsafe product might result. Prepare the two-piece metal canning lids by washing them in water and following the manufacturer's instructions for heating the lids (some need to be covered with hot water for a minute or more -- in steaming, but not boiling water)
The flat lids can be used only once, so discard after use. The screw bands can be reused as long as they are in good condition. Do not reuse lids from commercially canned foods.
Check jars for seals within 24 hours of canning. Treat jars that fail to seal properly as if they are fresh (refrigerate and eat soon).
Fresh Tomato Salsa
1 red onion, chopped
1 white onion, chopped
1 yellow onion, chopped
6 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped
2 banana peppers, chopped
3 green bell peppers, chopped
3 (6-ounce) cans tomato paste
½ cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1½ tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1½ teaspoons ground cumin
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup white sugar
8 pint canning jars with lids and rings
Combine the onions, tomatoes, banana peppers, green chile peppers, tomato paste, white vinegar, garlic powder, salt, cayenne pepper, cumin, brown sugar, and white sugar in a large pot. Simmer until thick, about 3 hours.
Sterilize the jars and lids in boiling water for at least 5 minutes. Pack the salsa into the hot, sterilized jars, filling the jars to within ¼ inch of the top. Run a knife or a thin spatula around the insides of the jars after they have been filled to remove any air bubbles. Wipe the rims of the jars with a moist paper towel to remove any food residue. Top with lids, and screw on rings.
Place a rack in the bottom of a large stockpot and fill halfway with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then carefully lower the jars into the pot using a holder. Leave a 2-inch space between the jars. Pour in more boiling water if necessary until the water level is at least 1 inch above the tops of the jars. Bring the water to a full boil, cover the pot, and process for 10 to 15 minutes.
Remove the jars from the stockpot and place onto a cloth-covered or wood surface, several inches apart, until cool. Once cool, press the top of each lid with a finger, ensuring that the seal is tight (lid does not move up or down at all). Refrigerate after opening.
Yield: 8 pints
Source: Adapted from allrecipes.com