By Renea Winchester
Over the next month, during the height of the “canning season,” I invite ya’ll to join me in the kitchen as I prepare jams and “put up” our bountiful harvest. I’ll begin with Georgia’s pride and joy, the peach.
I could embark on a journey filled with peachy memories, but honestly there’s no time. My kitchen table is full of ripe peaches; they won’t last long.
The most important “ingredient” in this process is The Ball Blue Book Easy Guide to Tasty, Thrifty Home Canning and Freezing. Acquiring this book is high priority. Do not, repeat NOT purchase a recent edition. I prefer Edition 28 (Copyright 1966…Lithographed in U.S.A.) This edition spells syrup, “sirup” and contains recipes like grandma made. Other crucial ingredients required are: fruit, sugar, lemons, jars, lids, and patience.
Tip: This is very important. Do NOT slice all the fruit at once. I purchased a bushel of peaches believing I could “put up” the entire bushel in one day. After all, I’ve watched it done, how hard can it be? Trust me, do not slice an entire bushel of fruit at once.
Tip Two: Equally as important, do not double the recipe. Prepare one “batch” place it in glass jars, seal, clean utensils then repeat. It is remarkable how the slightest change in barometric pressure or fruit quality can affect the end product.
With this in mind, lets begin.
Step One: Preparing Fruit. Instructions inside boxes of pectin advise, “use ripe fruit free of blemishes.” It is impossible to transport fruit without at least one peach getting a “blemish.” Fruit is fragile. It will bruise. Wash the peaches then remove the “bad spots.” Slice peaches accordingly. Also, a quick word about ripeness, if peaches are very ripe (meaning soft), they will disintegrate during the boiling process, resulting in jelly, not jam. For this reason, toward the end of the cooking process, I always toss in a handful of fruit that is less-than-fully ripe.
Step Two: Slicing Fruit
Cube or slice the fruit (your preference) and place in a bowl. Immediately squeeze the juice of a lemon over the fruit. The lemon’s acid prevents browning. I never, under and circumstance ever, crush the peaches (as instructed in some pectin recipes). Texture, of course, is a personal preference.
Step Three: Should You Use Pectin?
Most fruits will jell without adding store-bought pectin. If you decide to use pectin, remember to follow the recipe inside the box. Some recipes instruct you to add the pectin first, others require that the fruit mixture be boiling before pectin is added. The order in which the pectin is added does matter. Additionally, you might want to add a thin slice of butter to prevent “foaming.” Foam isn’t harmful and can be skimmed off before jam is poured into jars.
Step Four: Waiting and Stirring
While the peach mixture is coming to a boil, now is the time to heat the jars. Place a large pot on the stove and add enough water to raise the water level to ½ an inch. Place the rings in the water (rubber side down) and place a clean glass jar on top as shown in the photo. Turn the stove eye on medium-high. Jars should become warm, but the water should not boil. Heating the jars prevents them from breaking when you add hot liquid. Don’t forget to stir the peaches with a wooden spoon. You do not want them to stick to the bottom of the pan and scortch.
Step Five: Stirring until Boiling
When you first add the fruit to the pot it will be thick and almost dry. DO NOT ADD WATER. Sugar will adhere to the fruit and begin to liquefy as soon as the temperature increases. Carefully stir the fruit. Stirring the mixture is an important process in making any preserve. Don’t allow heavy chunks of fruit to stick to the bottom of the pot or it will burn. Ideally, you want the mixture to come to a boil slowly, which can happen anywhere between ten to twenty minutes.
Step Six: How To Tell When Jam Is Ready. The Freezer Test
After the mixture begins to boil, you’ll notice most of the fruit liquefies. This is when I add the extra less-ripe fruit to keep the jam “chunky.”
It is important to test the jam before adding it to the jars. Using a metal spoon, remove a small amount and place the spoon in the freezer. Turn the heat down to low while the mixture cools. If the jam is ready it will feel “tacky” to the touch.
Another Aside: It is perfectly proper to lick the spoon. Just wash it before reusing.
NOTE: Some cooking will occur during the water bath process, and it can take up to two weeks for jams and jellies to “set up.” Keep that in mind when doing the freezer test to prevent jam you have to cut with a saw.
Using a glass measuring cup, fill warm jars with hot jam. Fill to the bottom rim of the jar (which allows ½ inch headspace). Wipe the jar clean. Place the hot lid on top of the jar and fasten ring tight, but not over-tight.
Step Eight: Almost Finished Return jars to a pot that has at least an inch of hot water in it. Gently place the filled jars into the pot. Slowly add more water until the jars are covered with at least ½ inch of water. Bring water to boil. Boil for ten minutes. Then remove from heat.
Step Nine: Remove From Water and Admire
Using tongs, remove jar from hot water and GENTLY place the jar—lid side up—on a towel that is on the counter. Do not store jars upside down. Most jars will seal within minutes. For any jars that do not seal. Unscrew the top, wipe the mouth of the jar clean and reprocess them in the water bath. If they still do not seal, place them in the refrigerator and eat immediately.