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June 8, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Canning Gets Easier With ‘Food In Jars’

6 jars.jpg

Why isn’t canning an everyday habit? Sure, it’s seen a resurgence in recent years, but most people I know still think it’s a time-consuming, sweaty ordeal requiring special equipment and arcane knowledge.

I used to think that way too, and I’ve relied heavily on Northwest native Marisa McClellan to help me see how simple and fun canning really can (no pun intended) be. Making jam in small batches makes it fast and simple. (My first jam of the season, McClellan’s vanilla-rhubarb Earl Grey, was done between the kids’ bedtimes and my own bedtime.) And, if you stay away from pressure canning, the three ingredients of success are really just (1) a big pot (2) following a recipe (3) boiling water.

I’m delighted that McClellan’s “Food In Jars” blog is now a book, and that she’s in town this weekend. She’ll do a free canning demonstration at 10:30 a.m. June 10 at The Book Larder. Her canning classes June 11 and 12 at the Pantry at Delancey are sold out, but there’s a waiting list. The book’s not restricted to jams and pickles; it’s also got everything from nut butters to salsas.

She answered a few questions for us shortly after arriving here from her current home in Philly for the sold-out BlogHer Food conference taking place in Seattle today and Saturday. (If you snagged a ticket, come say hi to me Saturday — I’ll be moderating the Storytelling panel. McClellan will be at the book fair.) Here’s a bit of what she had to say:

Q: Any words of encouragement for people who think canning is too hard to take on?

A: For the people who think canning is too hard, I always tell them to start small. I find small batches just as satisfying as large ones, and they have the added benefit that you really get in and out of the kitchen a whole lot faster. I also don’t buy it when people tell me that their kitchen is too small for canning. Mine is just 80 square feet. If I can do it, anyone can.

Q: Which recipes from the blog or book would you recommend for beginners?

A: I recommend starting with the Blueberry Jam or the Dilly Beans. The reason Blueberry Jam is such a good recipe to start with is because blueberries are naturally high in pectin, so the chances of getting a good, jammy set are a lot higher than with other fruits. And Dilly Beans are great because once you’ve trimmed the beans, you’ve really done the bulk of the work.

Q: Which foods in jars might be of special interest to Northwesterners? (e.g., I’ve seen people canning Shuksan strawberries, which they can’t find on the usual supermarket shelves.)

A: For Northerwesterns, I particularly recommend the Nearly Seedless Blackberry Sage Jam. That jam is based on the one I grew up making with my mom. We’d pick the wild blackberries that grow everywhere around the Northwest and make big batches of jam with them. The jam of my childhood didn’t include sage leaves, but they really complement the flavor of the blackberries, so that’s how I make it now. However, for an unadulterated blackberry flavor, feel free to skip them.

Q: Late-summer question: Is it really worth it to can fresh peaches? They’re so good fresh in their brief season here, and the canned version doesn’t seem hugely different from the commercially canned versions.

A: Personally, I find that it is worth it to can peaches, because you can control the amount of sugar that goes into your syrup and you can do fun things like add cinnamon, star anise or a little bourbon. What’s more, canning them in glass means that they’ll never have that tinny taste that comes from the cans. However, everyone’s “must preserve” list is a little different. The most important thing is to can the things that YOU like.

Q: How can people stay safe when canning?

A: When it comes to safe canning, the most important thing (particularly if you’re just getting started) is to follow recipes from trustworthy sources. Most jams and pickles are safe simply by virtue of the fact that they’re incredibly high in acid. However, when you’re working with things like salsa, tomato sauce or chutney, it’s really important that you follow guidelines set forth in tested recipes so that you don’t inadvertently bump your finished product into an unsafe acid zones.

Photo: Six Jars. courtesy of Marisa McClellan

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