More on canning

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.

Nothing doing.

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?

27 people are having a conversation about “More on canning

  1. An Australian on another blog I read not only reuses caps but uses recycled commercial jars and caps.

    Also, I drink unsweetened iced tea. I find glass beverage jars and make my tea in those. I do not expect a long unrefrigerated shelf life and don’t treat my teas as if they had been canned, yet every time I open one I get that pop like I would if I opened a bottle just out of the case. I don’t water bath and I don’t even use boiling water – just hot from the tap. I haven’t died yet.

  2. Is it American germophobia?

    Hilariously so. The others are just too polite to mention it, but it’s a hilarious topic of dinner party conversation after every trip. Just like you laughing at our teeth.


  3. Oh boy. I’ve been pegged. I’m a born & bred upstate New Yorker, I make jam out of just about every type of fruit & I’ve never used a water bath in my life. Ever. I wash the jars, etc good – fill up a clean pan with hot tap water for the lids and off we go. It hasn’t killed the kids off yet.

  4. i recycle lids.

    there. i said it. and why WOULDN’T you? just boil the shit out of them and even the rubber is just fine. (and officially, “boil the shit out of it” equals 2-3 minutes boiling time).

    As for jelly… I had to take home ec in school, and jelly was something we learned to make. with home ec gone from schools, i wonder how these arts will continue. bring more crab apples and i’ll either teach you how to make jelly or you can sit there typing and watching as I do so:)

  5. I’ve never understood this waterbath for jams either. In Australia it is unheard of and I think completely unneccessary. I’m in my fifties and my grandmothers, mother and MIL and everyone I know always used little discs of cellophane and a rubber band to seal their jam. It dries as tight as a drum and is airtight enough apparently. Pickles too.
    The preservation comes from either the sugar in the jam or the combination of vinegar and sugar in the pickles. If you mess with the quantities perhaps a waterbath is needed, but I use the old recipes and have never had mould on my jam or pickles. I’ve heard exclamations of horror at the amount of sugar used in sauces and pickles and jams but it’s what preserves the stuff people!
    My MIL sometimes poured parrafin wax in the top of the jar to seal it too, but I disliked the bits that were left when she levered it out, and it worked no better than the cellophane.

  6. Following on what Mereth said, I do make jam using much less sugar (half the recommended amount) as I prefer more fruit flavour, but it must be kept refrigerated; that done, it lasts for a year or more. You just need a big fridge!

  7. My understanding on the jams and jellies thing is that it IS the sugar that does the actual preserving. My older sister used to make apricot jam and plum jam and always poured paraffin on the top. I don’t mind water bath canning jam…it gives me a better sense of security.

    I think the trick with getting stuff to gel properly is to bring it to the right temperature, for one, which is 222F, and for low pectin fruits, some lemon juice helps. But I’m relatively new to this, having only been canning for a year now. But I made raspberry and blackberry jam for the first time, and they were both delicious, although the raspberry jelled perfectly, but the blackberry is a little runny.

    Somewhat unripe fruits are supposed to be better for canning because they have more pectin in them.

    But answer me this: why is it gel, and jelled?

    Probably has something to do with those Brits and their aversion to canning jellies and jams….

  8. Lids schmids, here in the UK we use a little wax disc that you plop on top of hot preserves, and a bit of shrink wrap stuff over that, secured with a rubber band. I only put lids on for decoration. Though, for pickles and chutneys I use kilner jars.

    Last year I sterilised all my jars in the dishwasher, and let them air dry just before filling them. I didn’t notice any more spoilage than boiling or sterilising in the oven. I’m still alive, though I can’t rule out brain damage or memory loss…

    Don’t give up on the crabapple. It’s an excellent “mixer” fruit for adding pectin to soft fruits. Plus it blends with just about any flavor and adds bulk to small harvests. Crabapple and elderberry is very nice, AND if you add ginger and other spices, you can turn it from jam for your toast into chutney for cold meats. It’s excellent with venison – in anticipation of your fall hunt.

  9. Canners — So it looks to me like lots of people are playing fast and loose with canning rules. Only Paula reports using a water bath for jams. But think of the energy involved if most American canners boil huge pots of water to bathe their jars. Perhaps that’s what’s causing global warming.
    (And, Paula, I believe ‘gel’ and ‘jell’ are either synonyms or different spellings of the same word. Both are acceptable in any tense.)

    The crabapple jelly, I’m happy to report, is delicious. We used it as a glaze on some chicken thighs Kevin grilled last night, and it was excellent.

  10. martha in mobile says:

    I pickled a mess of okra last week and felt dangerous and wanton because I didn’t sterilize the jars. I don’t think I am quite ready for foregoing the water bath just yet…

  11. As I am moron canner too I found this to be a very interesting post, glad to hear that I am not the only one trying to figure out why we have to be so very careful with highly acidic foods. Don’t tell anyone but I even tried the trick of boiling a few used lids with a tspn of baking soda to help reform the seals…it worked like a charm. I’m not going to use them right now but will be saving a few of my undamaged used lids for “just in case.” Your jelly sounds delicious.

  12. I’m with Jen (and I’m also British!). I’ve made countless jars of jam with jars cleaned in the dishwasher, a wax disk popped on top of the jam and a re-used lid to top it all off. Never had any problems. I’m frankly astounded at how complex canning seems to be over here – is it a conspiracy to put people off trying it?

    Now global warming is another issue altogether …. don’t get me on my soapbox! (But my current beef is with all these people who have windows and don’t know how to open them .. and would rather run their air conditioning incessantly).

  13. One more thing I forgot to mention: in the UK, both jelly and jam are called jam (jelly is sometimes called seedless jam). Jelly in England is Jello.

    Bloody foreigners.

  14. I think jelly is overrated (though beautiful) and requires too much sugar. In our house, we “jam” all our fruits aka simmer ’em down until saucy and can them (and despite the wild and reckless Europeans, I do the traditional water bath canner with new lids every time, though for my own brand of craziness, I just hand wash my jars).

  15. I’ve never used a water bath for my jams or jellies. I don’t have a dishwasher, so I do boil my jars and lids. I use new lids most of the time. I’ve always used the low sugar recipes and never had a problem with gelling. Raspberry jam is the one I do most. Grape jelly if the grapes are prolific.

    I have a ton of tomatoes and would like a recipe for sauce that I could make and then freeze for later. What have you got for me??


    • I had tons of tomatoes two years ago. I actually made jelly out of some of them. Very good, although I must confess I did the water bath thing. Scared not to. Better safe than sorry?? I may try reusing lids as I will know within a few hours if it sealed or not. I have heard of turning the jars upside down to seal too. Have not tried that either. I save my recklessness for rock climbing and rappelling. I’ll dangle my ass off a cliff on a little rope but boil my lids. Momma didn’t tell me not to jump off the cliff though. She taught me to boil my lids.

      I digress. In addition to the jelly I dried cherry tomatoes (and small romas) by the boatload, made vegetable leather, V-8, salsa, pasta sauce and about everything else you can think of. My best idea was to simply cook down into a paste and canned or froze for sauces throughout the winter.

  16. Have re-used lids. Just check them first and clean. Since I go low sugar on my fruit preserves, do water bath. BUT I don’t always go for drowning the jars. Just enough to get the temps up to get a good vacuum seal. Low sugar fruit preserves still good more than a year later, despite the instructions in the ball book!

  17. i canned all my peaches this year using white grape juice and a tiny bit of citric acid. been a week and no discoloration yet. much lower sugar content….. apparently, white grape juice is a great stablizer and pretty neutral for fruit. but i did water bath em for 20min.

  18. Thanks for this. For years I’ve been wondering why Americans call it “canning” (when you use jars) and do that whole pressure/water bath thing. Generations of Brits have safely made jam (has bits of fruit in it) and jelly (clear, made with just the strained juice) without doing the water bath thing. And yes, we re-use jars (why on earth wouldn’t you? If you have to buy new jars every time, you might as well not bother) and either wax discs + cellophane or re-used (sterilised) lids. I wash my jars thoroughly (by hand is fine, though I do mine in the dishwasher) and then put them in a 100C oven while I’m making the jam. My jam keeps for years (currently eating some 2007 apricot jam).

    Yes, you do need to respect the sugar ratio, because it’s the sugar and the acidity of the fruit that make this method safe. For non-acid foods, you do need to do proper pressure canning.

  19. I never water bath – perhaps Canada is sufficiently Brit-like? I do remember telling someone who asked that they didn’t need to (this was on an American web-site) and oh my the telling off I got! Like I had a secret agenda to kill Americans one jar of jam at at time! I say if it isn’t killing those who don’t, it can’t be that necessary.

    My own crabapple jelly story is from when the kids were little. They picked two whole bags of teeny tiny decorative crab apples. All about the size of a large marble, if that. I did’t have the heart to tell them what a pain they would be to work with so I used them. And ended up with the the most beautiful jelly I’ve ever had. Deep dark pink and flavour that was out of this world. And no set problems! I’ve used decorative crabs every since.

  20. My theory is that the USDA recommendations for all types of canning were written on the presumption that Americans are filthy idiots. The canning process is therefore intended as a definitive remedy for all manner of food mishandling. If you live in squalor at 9000 feet of altitude, don’t bother to sterilize your jars, can’t accurately use a measuring cup, and start with fruit that’s not quite fit for human consumption any longer, then follow these over the top guidelines, and by gawd, you won’t be able to sue us for your food poisoning. In other words, they build in multiple fail safe procedures to overcome (an assumed) pervasive stupidity and lack of basic hygiene. And yes, the germ phobia thing is right on the money.

  21. Hope you enjoyed the crabapple syrup anyway. Would appreciate your opinion on varieties of crabapples best for jelly. Also glad for the effort on one food per day from H, F, G, or garden. I’m trying to figure out the nutrition and quantity requirements for a full year of sustenance. Enjoy your blog.

    • Hi Salmo — Now look what you’ve done. You’ve made me confess that I have absolutely no idea which crabapples are best for jelly. I use whatever I find by the side of the road — how’s that for discerning?

      Good luck with your sustenance!

  22. I water-bath, but I don’t submerge. Basically, you use a frying pan (steel, though I assume cast iron and glass work fine) and put the jars in upside down, so the water comes up to the shoulder.

    You can sterilize your jars like this and let the steam do the work, and you can process your jars like that, too. Seems to work fine, and there’s a LOT less water (and getting burned) involved. YAY!

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