I love canning. It’s a ridiculous amount of work at totally the wrong time of year, when you consider how much time you spend stirring boiling fruit over a hot stove in close proximity to a giant pot of boiling water, but then you get these shining jewel-colored jars of delight. Something about lining up homemade preserves on shelves makes me feel like no matter what the economy does, everything is OK.
I don’t have a pressure canner, so I really only do fruits, pickles, and tomatoes (though I know lately the Ag Extensions have been reporting that the acidity of tomatoes is just on the borderline). Sometime I’ll have to get a pressure canner, but really that’ll wait until I have a really big garden — otherwise, why bother? Right now I have plenty of room in our small chest freezer for leftover vegetables.
I didn’t grow these peaches, but they’re from Michigan — Benton Harbor, actually. I’ve been there! I bought Michigan sugar, but just regular ol’ Sure-Jell, of whose provenance I am unsure. I got about 4.5lb of peaches, which worked out perfectly. Originally I wanted to do three batches: One plain, with the skins on; one with cinnamon and nutmeg; and one with vanilla. After I got everything out I realized I was only going to have about seven jars, so I decided just to do plain old preserves… but with half the skins left on, because I like the texture it gives to the finished product.
First thing was to peel some of the peaches. I used slightly underripe fruit; the pectin in fruit hits its maximum level just before the fruit is fully ripe, and goes downhill from there. I find I can use less sugar and still get good peach flavor with fairly firm peaches. Just cut an X in the blossom end (opposite of the stem end), drop into simmering water for a minute, then plunge immediately into ice water. The skin becomes fairly easy to slip off. I had 10 peaches and skinned 6 of them. Witness the peach carnage!
I’ve had a few incidents with slippery knives and sticky hands, so at this point I just squished them through my fingers like I do with whole peeled tomatoes, thus killing two birds with one peach pit (ha! ha!) — getting the fruit into small pieces and removing the pits. Despite the appearance of the cutting board, I just did this directly into the saucepot.
Now would perhaps be a good time to mention that while all this peach dissection was taking place, I had my canning pot (really, it’s a large stockpot) going with gently boiling water, in which I sterilized the jars and bands for about ten minutes. The lids, because of the heat-activated seal, go into a smaller pot and I just pour boiling water over them and let it cool. Everything then goes to rest on the towel on the left; it’s really best not to set hot glass jars onto a solid surface because the temperature change can cause shock and breakage.
For this batch, I essentially followed the directions in the Sure-Jell Low Sugar box; it calls for 3c of granulated sugar, but I went with about 2-3/4c because I knew my fruit probably had a decent amount of its own pectin. The sugar is measured out, then 1/4c is set aside and mixed with the box of Sure-Jell (1.75oz), then added to the fruit — which I cooked for a little bit on its own and went over with a potato masher, just a little, to avoid GIANT CHUNKS.
Then, the truly exciting part begins. By this point the jars were sitting on the towel, awaiting their delicious new contents, and I was standing in front of the stove with a wooden spoon and wishing I’d thought to make myself some tea. Luckily, it was about 60F and windy, so I had a nice breeze coming in. To make jams and preserves, you really have got to bring the mixture to a full rolling boil. I have cooked with several people who get something to the point of just simmering, decide they are tired of staring at it, and declare it to be at a full rolling boil. Nope. You need to wait until it’s still bubbling vigorously even while you stir. It takes longer than it should, so you should probably make yourself tea first.
Once a full rolling boil has been reached, you add the rest of the sugar, return to — guess what? — a full rolling boil again, and boil for one minute. At this point it’s good to work fast, and if you have a wide-mouthed canning funnel (I don’t), it’s a bit easier. Ladle the fruit into the jars, leaving at least 1/4″ of empty space at the top so they can seal. Wipe down the threads and jar lips (if you don’t, they might not seal, and that’s more of a pain than doing it in the first place), and put the lids on. You want to tighten the ring fairly tightly for the sealing process, so water doesn’t sneak into your lovely preserves — I feel like I’ve said this before. Have I? After they’re sealed, you can take the ring off altogether, since the seal is at the lid, but nobody wants boiling water strong-arming its way into the jam party. It helps to use a towel to hold onto the jars while you tighten the rings down — they’re really hot. No, really.
Gently lower the jars into your canning pot; it’s really a good idea to use a canning rack, and I should have. I don’t worry about it as much with a gas stove but I was convinced the electric cooktop was going to overheat the glass and make everything go explosionary. The water must cover the jars by at least 1-2″; it’s a good idea to have another, smaller pot of water boiling so you can top up as needed. Bring the water to a gentle boil, throw a lid on there, and boil for 10 minutes, assuming your altitude is about sea level. After that, you can take the jars out, again gently, and again set them on a towel to cool.
It is at this point that my favorite part of the entire process takes place. As the remaining air in the jar cools, it shrinks, creating a vacuum seal, and you’ll hear the jar lids go “ping!” as each one seals. The cats think it’s pretty hilarious, too. If you don’t want to sit around and count pings, you can come back later and test the seals — the lids shouldn’t pop up and down when pressed, like baby food jars. If they do, the seal’s no good, and you should either refrigerate those and use them right away, or reprocess — which, yes, involves reheating the fruit, refilling the jars, etc. When I wipe the jars down well, I almost never have problems with sealing. Maybe one jar in 20 will have a sealing failure, and that’s probably an overestimate.
Let everything cool down; the pectin, like Jell-O, won’t really set for real until it’s cool. Actually, sometimes it takes up to two weeks to set (I’m looking at you, apricots), which is a mystery I haven’t bothered to Google yet. Label the jars, because even though you think you’ll remember what’s what, there will be a time next year when you can’t remember what this orange gunk in a jar is. I like peach preserves with cottage cheese, oatmeal, or crackers and cream cheese. Or toast.
- 4.5lb peaches, washed, partially peeled if you like, and chopped or smashed fairly coarsely
- 3c/375g sugar (I used 2-3/4c because of underripe fruit having more pectin)
- 1 box Sure-Jell LOW SUGAR pectin
This should yield about 7 or 8-8oz. jars of preserves. Enjoy!