canning and preserving: refrigerator pickles

Two years ago, when we first started canning, pickles were at the top of my list for things to try. I really only like homemade pickles, having been spoiled by my grandma’s pickles growing up. So I was anxious to try to can them myself. We made dill slices, bread and butter rounds, and sweet relish. And they were TERRIBLE.

Taste wise? Fine. Safe? Perfectly. It was the texture that was horrid – total mush. I remember being so excited when we could open the first jar, and being so utterly disappointed that we wasted so much time and an entire case of cucumbers on what turned out to be totally inedible crap.

We know now that our problem was a combination of using the wrong cucumbers (waxy English ones as opposed to pickling ones) and not using pickle crisp

But before I go head first into full canning of pickles for long-term preservation, I wanted to try my hand at refrigerator pickles. Plus, thanks to my sweet husband, I had some adorable throwback Ball pint jars to use.

I used Ball’s recipe for dill slices, but cut my cucumbers in spears, since I don’t eat pickles on sandwiches. 

I believe the cucumbers we were able to get from my grandparents’ garden were close enough cousins to pickling cucumbers that we could take a chance with them. (The shine is from water and the overhead light in our kitchen, not wax.)

After cooking down some white vinegar (with an acidity of at least 5%), water, sugar, pickling spice and canning salt, you soak the cucumbers in the mixture for a half hour.  

While they are soaking, you prepare the jars with the other spice mixture and some garlic cloves, plus the pickle crisper. This recipe doesn’t call for pickle crisper, but I’m not taking chances this time around, and it won’t hurt anything. So in it went.

The jars are packed with cucumber spears, making sure to leave at least a half an inch head space. I had just enough cucumbers to fill the 5 pints the recipe intended.

After filling the jars with the appropriate amount of leftover brine, use a lid and band to close the jar, and stick them in the refrigerator to sit for at least 2 weeks. (I might have to start a pickle countdown.) They will stay good for 3 months in the fridge. Hopefully they will taste good enough to want to keep them all!

canning and preserving: green beans

On Friday, my mom let us know that my grandparents’ garden was bursting, and if we wanted to make the two-hour jaunt, we were welcome to what we could pick. So we headed north to visit my family and spend some time knee-deep in bean plants. We came home with this. (And this isn’t all we picked – some of it was distributed elsewhere.)

I’ve got plans for a lot of these items (and you’ll see some of them appear later this week). But as soon as we got home and settled, we got to work on the beans. As you can see, we had a lot of them. We like green beans fresh or canned, and aren’t big fans of them frozen, so we decided to can quarts. 14 jars this weekend with beans leftover.

We can primarily with recipes adapted from Ball, being the home canning experts and all. We’re hyper paranoid about canning safety. We will use recipes that we find other places, but we always compare the recipes to a similar Ball one to make sure the acidity ratios are similar, as well as processing times. 

For beans, canning safety requires a pressure canner. Beans are a low-acid vegetable, so they have to be done in a pressure canner since they have little natural acid that protects against the growth of bacteria, particularly botulism (whose spores can’t die in a low-acid environment unless the temperature reaches 240 degrees). This is the pressure canner we use, which can hold 7 quarts.

In canning recipes that call for salt, it helps to use pickling/canning salt as well, since it doesn’t cloud the water like iodized salt does. The kind our local stores carry is Mrs. Wages, another popular canning supply company.

We started by camping out in front of the TV, snapping the ends off beans and cutting them into bite size pieces.

An hour and 14 pounds of beans later, you have piles of prepped beans, like this.

We use the cold-pack (raw-pack) method for beans. After you wash your jars, lids and bands, you heat them in water that reaches at least 160 degrees. Once they are heated, you pack raw beans in a hot jar.

Once you have the beans packed in, add the salt and ladle boiling water into the jar, leaving the appropriate amount of head space (in this recipe, 1 inch). Head space is the distance between the top of the jar and the liquid. Put the lid and band on the jar, and place it in the pressure canner.

Then do that six more times.

You add white vinegar to the canner (to prevent discoloration of the aluminum and also hard water stains on the jars) as well as three quarts of boiling water. Follow the instructions for your particular canner and the recipe to process. Our beans had a processing time of 25 minutes, but it takes more like an hour from start to finish with the processing, since you have to allow the pressure to build and then reduce on its own. You know, so the lid doesn’t blow off.

And then you have beans. 

We store them with their bands off to prevent rusting. Plus, you can re-use the bands on the next canning project. (Lids cannot be reused, no matter what your grandma says. You might be fine, but you might get botulism if you take the chance. And I don’t take chances with killer bacteria.)

reading (and making) this week

It’s been a busy week at Next Gen House. This weekend we made a big batch of homemade bolognese sauce using the recipe from America’s Test Kitchen’s Slow Cooker Revolution book. (If you like the convenience of a slow cooker but don’t like to simply dump cans of processed soup and packets of chemical flavor mixes over frozen chicken breast, this cookbook is for you.) We were able to use ground beef and ground pork from our meat CSA with Clarion River Organics.

We also canned two batches of strawberry balsamic jam. This is the first year we’ve done a jam with balsamic and now I’m kicking myself for not having used this variant before. You can’t taste the balsamic in the finished product, but it makes the strawberry flavor deepen and burst. It’s similar to the effect that vanilla extract has in baked goods. If you’re making strawberry jam this year, definitely go for a balsamic variant. And also, cool your jars on a Christmas towel. Because it brings some festive cheer to a hot kitchen, apparently.

I also took some friends to our farmers market for the first time. It can be intimidating to go to a market like that if you’ve never gone before, but once you start to get to know the vendors and get a feel for what is available when, you gain confidence in your purchases. I even have a favorite farmer, and I try to buy at least one thing from his stand every week. (The last two weeks – snap peas!)

Going back to listening to a food studies book on my commutes, and this morning I started Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss. It’s riveting already and I’m only 45 minutes in.

Here are some other things from around the interwebs I’m reading this week.

13 Books on the Food System That Could Save the Environment (Food Tank)
I’ve read some of these and others are on my reading list. Really looking forward to reading Foodopoly as well as Behind the Kitchen Door, having worked at restaurants myself. 

The Controversial Science of Sports Drinks (The Atlantic)
An article from last year, but one that backs up my reluctance to consume sports drinks of any kind.

Food Companies Work to Make It Look Natural (AP)
When you buy products, look beyond the marketing hype. For example, the photo of the packaged turkey breast in the article: do you actually think someone stood with a white coat and a carving knife at a carving board to shave that off specifically for your sandwich? NO.

Natural Remedies for a Travel First Aid Kit (Mother Earth Living)
Great ideas for the summer from a great website and magazine I subscribe to.

canning and preserving: grape jelly

In preparation for the coming gardening season and in order to help us shop smart, Mark and I inventoried our freezers to see what we had on hand. What did we have the most of? Grapes. Coming out our ears. Two summers ago, my grandpa’s concord grape vines were overflowing with grapes, which my parents helped him pick. We froze most of them because we were up to our eyeballs in that season’s garden produce and couldn’t deal with them quite yet. 

They have been in deep freeze for about 18 months, so we decided to spend a day making batch after batch of grape jelly. Note that first, you have to make juice from the grapes to remove the seeds. We had some extra juice we had made on hand, as well as a few containers from my grandpa of juice. Since it only takes 4 cups of juice to make 7-8 half pints of jelly, we have enough grapes to make jar after jar of jelly. (Exhausting our half pint jar supply, which is quite large to begin with.)

The juice is such a beautiful, vivid purple. But its stain potential is potent (see a photo below of our counter after it had endured a day of jelly-making).

Canning jelly or jam is about the easiest thing to can, so if you’re thinking of getting started canning, I’d suggest you start with jelly or jam. It’s really hard to mess it up, as long as you have the right equipment and follow instructions.

Jellies and jams are canned in a hot water bath, as opposed to a pressure canner. Hot jelly is ladeled into hot jars, which soak in hot water with their lids and bands while you’re preparing the jelly. Remember to only use actual home canning jars and not recycled spaghetti or condiment jars. (Most of our jars are Ball, but there are other brands. I have some antique Atlas jars from my grandma that still work.)

Bands can be reused, but only if there is no visible rust on the inside, which can interfere with your seal. You cannot reuse lids, so it’s fine to write the name and date of your product on the lid once the jar has been processed. 

So what ingredients do you need for jelly? Fruit, pectin (liquid or powder as the recipe demands), and sugar. Lots and lots of sugar. We buy our sugar for canning at Sam’s because it’s more cost effective than tons of little bags.

For this grape jelly recipe, which is the standard Ball Blue Book grape jelly, you dissolve 7 cups of sugar in 4 cups of grape juice. Yeah, 7 cups. We like to cook our jams and jellies in our dutch oven. It conducts heat very well and makes it unlikely that you will scorch anything.

While you bring the grape juice and sugar to a boil, you can have your clean jars, lids and bands soaking. We get the temperature up to 180 to make sure anything that escaped your cleaning is dead.

Once the sugar and juice mixture boils, you add a pouch of liquid pectin. Pectin is a gelling substance made from apples and citrus fruits. We use the Ball brand because it’s convenient and is pre-measured to go along with Ball recipes, which we primarily use. Pectin eliminates the back-breaking, long cooking recipes that required you to just cook it down and cook it down until it thickened. Pectin helps this recipe to take less than 10 minutes.

Once you’ve finished the recipe, it’s time to skim the thick pink foam that develops on the surface of the jelly.

Once your jelly is skimmed, it’s time to get it in hot jars. Use a jar lifting tool to get your hot jars out of the water and use a funnel to get the jelly in the jar without getting it all over the lip of the jar. We use a funnel that came in a generic home canning kit.

Fill the jar until you reach the appropriate amount of head space. Head space is the distance between the product and the top of the jar and it is the required amount of air that needs to be in the jar for a proper seal. Each recipe is different, so make sure you check yours.

We also use a washable head-space tool that makes for quick measurement instead of trying to use a ruler. It’s worth the few dollars to get the right tools.

Using a magnetic wand, retrieve a lid and band from the hot water and tighten it “finger-tip tight.” (Not enough that you have to twist your wrist hard.)

Place the jar on the canning rack that you insert into the canning pot. Your pot is full of hot water at this point, which is where the steam is coming from here. We usually do 7-8 half pints depending on the batch. Good canning racks will be built to be suspended from the sides of the pot like you see below. 

Drop the rack into the water and wait for it to boil. After the water boils, process for the recommended amount of time. If you’re in our house, watch some Star Trek. (God bless you Mark, for installing that kitchen TV.)

After the jars have processed and you’ve waited for the recommended rest time with the heat off, remove the jars with a jar lifter and let them sit to cool. We always use a clean, folded kitchen towel to rest our jars  and we like to let them sit overnight.


You’ll know the jars have sealed when the middle of the lid stays depressed and you hear a popping sound of the vacuum being created in the jar. We’ve always had success getting our jellies and jams to seal.  (Another great reason to start canning with jellies and jams; it’s almost foolproof.)

Label your jars with the contents and the month and year canned. Store them in a cool place. We have a basement canning cabinet that belonged to my gramma; every time I fill it, I think of her filling it year after year with her own canned goods.

Then proceed to try and clean your counter, which looks like this. Good luck with that.