More accurately, it should be “Moron canning,” in light of the fact that, before I start my next canning rant, I’m going to tell you the story of my crabapple jelly.
It began weeks ago, when Kevin and I were invited to dinner at the home of our friends Julie and Greg. We had just turned the corner onto their street when I spotted the tree full of fruit, which Kevin had to inform me were crabapples. You’d think I’d know, but I didn’t.
I nabbed a bag full.
I took them home, washed them, and put them in the fridge, and there they stayed for a couple of weeks while I was too preoccupied with turkeys and bluefish and deadlines to do anything about them. Then, finally, I processed them.
There were four cups of them, and I cut them in half and boiled them in water, just to cover, with a few pieces of star anise. I strained the juice through a coffee filter. It was one lousy cup. One lousy cup! The recipe I read said that eight cups of crabapples should yield four cups of juice, so I figured my juice was just super-duper concentrated. So what if I’d only get one lousy half-pint of jelly – it would be super-duper jelly!
I boiled the juice with ¾ cup of sugar while I put my one lousy half-pint jar, with its ring and lid, in boiling water.
This should be a no-brainer, I figured. Crabapples are one of the highest-pectin fruit going, and my juice is super-duper concentrated, so there should be no problem with the set. And a taste of the mixture confirmed that it actually tasted good.
It boiled for about ten minutes. That ought to do it. I put a metal spoon in the liquid. It was still absolutely liquid. Not a hint of gelling.
Okay, I’ll give it a few more minutes. Five more. No gelling. Another five, still no gelling. And not even a hint of progress. It looked as liquid as it had when I started this process.
Meanwhile, it was reducing like crazy. Remember that I only had a half-pint’s worth to begin with. I couldn’t lose much. It was disappearing before my very eyes, and desperation set in.
Maybe my spoon was too warm — I put one in the freezer. And I’d read about the test where you put plates in the freezer ahead of time and use those to test for gelling, but of course I hadn’t done that. So I pulled out a yogurt container filled with frozen lobster stock and put a drop of the liquid on the lid.
It didn’t gel. A few minutes later, I tried the frozen spoon. That didn’t gel either.
True confession: It is only as I write this that it occurs to me that the point of cooking is to activate the pectin, a process that is distinct from, and unrelated to evaporation. I could have simply added a little water, couldn’t I?
Shit. Now you tell me.
Instead of adding water, and being patient. I took my little jar out of its boiling water, and poured in the crabapple jelly. I wiped the edge, put on the lid, and prayed to the kitchen god Pan that this particular batch would defy the precepts of chemistry and gel in spite of itself. And me.
As my one lousy jar of crabapple jelly cooled, I listened for the pop of the lid that never came. I kept tilting the jar in the vain hope that the jelly would tilt with it.
One thing I’ll say for it, it’s a beautiful color.
But I didn’t come here to waste your time with stories of my canning ineptitude. I came here to waste your time with another cantankerous rant. To wit: what’s with the water bath?
My first inkling that requiring a water bath for everything you put in a mason jar is overkill came when I wrote about my very first canning adventure. With the oversight, guidance, advice, and assistance of my friend Mary, who can can anything that’s stopped moving, I turned the surfeit of fruit from our friend Dianne’s raspberry and blackberry bushes into a very successful batch of jam.
I wrote about it, and was surprised to find a continental divide surface in the comments. Here in the US, every single recipe for jam – every last one – tells you to process the finished jars in a water bath. But all the commenters from the UK, as well as what few UK references I’ve seen, say that you don’t have to.
Just to be clear – we’re all on the same page with vegetables, meats, and other low-acid foods. Those require a pressure canner, which goes one step farther than a water bath by pressurizing the water and thus raising the boiling temperature. But for things with high-acid fruit and plenty of sugar, British canners don’t bother with the water bath. It’s the pressure canner or it’s nothing.
If that weren’t enough, I also harbor a strong suspicion that they re-use their lids.
They don’t seem to be dying from botulism in droves. In fact, they average about one case per year – a lower per capita rate than ours. This could just be because nobody reports it the authorities. Stiff upper lip and all that. But it could be because there isn’t any more botulism in the United Kingdom than there is in the United States. This, despite the fact that no canner ever puts her jam in a water bath.
Get that? Nobody over there does. Everybody over here does. What’s up with that? The fruit is the same. The risk is the same. The chemistry is the same.
Is it American germophobia? Do we use water baths for the same reason we overuse antibiotics? Is it fear of litigation? Is every author and authority afraid of being sued over moldy preserves? Or is it merely a byproduct of the Revolution? We ditched the monarchy and adopted the water bath.
I say we here on this side of the pond ought to dispense with the water bath (no need for a compensatory adoption of the monarchy). For jams and jellies, and maybe even for pickles (although I’d appreciate some expert input on that one), I think we ought to simply sterilize our jars and live dangerously.
Are you in?