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.