Allison Carroll Duffy's 5 Essential Things Every Home Canner Should Know

Expert Essentials

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It's June and the summer fruit is starting to roll in, which basically translates to jam time in my kitchen.  Like many people, I love jam but sometimes I'm a little taken aback by how much sugar is called for in many classic jam recipes.  For this reason, I always keep a box of Pomona's Universal Pectin in my cupboard.  Pomona's is a low-sugar pectin, meaning you can make jams and jellies using very low or no sugar. 

Accomplished home canner and blogger Allison Carroll Duffy has been working with the people behind Pomona's to create a new cookbook, just released this month, with recipes that use this marvelous product.  Read on for her take on the 5 essential things a home canner should know!

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Allison Carroll Duffy is a self-defined "food preserver, vegetable gardener, cook and foodcrafter." She has been preserving for almost 15 years, an activity she links to her deep, life-long interest in food and food culture (as well as her prolific vegetable garden).  She has trained as a Master Food Preserver and holds a Master’s degree in Gastronomy from Boston University. Allison teaches canning and preserving classes, writes about food preservation on her blog CanningCraft, and has appeared several times on her local TV station to spread the word about how fun and easy canning is.  She lives in Maine, with her husband, 2 young boys and her ever expanding vegetable garden.  

Allison's book was just released this month (look for a review here soon!) and can be found at your local library, independent bookstore, or Amazon: Preserving with Pamona's Pectin by Allison Carroll Duffy.  You can also follow her adventures in the kitchen on her blog, CanningCraft.

5 Essential Things Every Home Canner Should Know

  1. Ingredients matter. 
    Always use the freshest, highest quality ingredients available, especially with low sugar jams.  "The fruit you're using is going to really show in the final product," says Allison.  "Sugar can mask and dull some of the true taste of fruit so when you aren't using it, the quality and flavor of your fruit is especially important.  For example, I once made a jam with oranges that were a little past their prime and while it was fine, I noticed a huge difference in taste when I later made it with really fabulous sweet oranges."  

  2. Ripeness matters.  
    "In several of my recipes, I'm very specific about the ripeness of the fruit. Very ripe fruit is used not only for its sweetness and natural sugar content, but also for its mashability. If you're using a mango, for instance, you're going to want a very ripe, soft fruit." 

    But under-ripeness can also be a factor.  While it's true that slightly under-ripe fruit can be used for its natural pectin (not an issue if you're using Pomona's), Allison also likes to use slightly underripe fruit when she needs the fruit to hold its shape, such as with a conserve which calls for chunks of fruit.  "The fruit is still ripe," she clarifies. "But just barely."

  3. Details matter.
    "I'm not meticulous in most areas of my life," says Allison,  "But I'm very particular around canning, and paying attention to all the details is very important. Many of the steps in jam making might seem like little things but they can have an impact. When using Pomona's, for example, you need to really be sure that the jam comes back to the boil or the jam might not set. Or when the instructions say to wipe the rim of the jar, it's important to do this well because if there's any fruit on the rim, you may not get a good seal."

  4. Organization matters.  
    "Set out your ingredients and equipment ahead of time." cautions Allison. "That way you'll have everything right at hand and you won't be rummaging around trying to find things in the middle of the process. This also helps me to prepare mentally for my project. I lay out all the tools I need on a dishcloth next to the stove. I think this helps the whole process to be not only more successful but also more enjoyable because I'm not as frantic."

  5. Recipes matter.  
    "You should always follow a recipe. This was really tough for me to learn because I've always been the kind of cook who made up her own recipes, even as a kid," says Allison. "But there's a reason for why recipes are important. The acidity levels in food are what help to prevent spoilage and nasty things like botulism. Some ingredients like vegetables are naturally low in acid, so they need vinegar or lemon juice to bring up their acid levels. Even things like fresh ginger and garlic are low acid. So for safety, be sure you follow canning recipes!"

  6. Bonus tip: Attitude matters.  
    Stay positive, keep trying, and have fun. "Sometimes jams don't work and that's not unusual. Even if you do everything right, occasionally a jar won't seal or a batch won't set. Experienced canners know this but new canners can get discouraged. So I want to encourage people to stay with it and keep trying!"

    And having fun is key. "We can always buy jams at the store if we really want to. The reason we make jam at home is to for control over the product and because we enjoy the process. While I am interested in making a high-quality product for my family, what I really value the experience of making jams. Some people like to do it solo and it's a very meditative time, and some are very social and like to do it with friends.  Either way, remember to have fun!"

More than anything, safety matters.  Allison recommends having a thorough understanding of the jam making process before you get started.  She suggests taking a class or getting a really good book, one that will give you comprehensive information on safe home canning practices.  She recommends the National Center for Home Food Preservation is a great online source as well. 

But what about essential equipment?

The pot. As long as you are going to be canning high-acid foods (jams and jellies fall into this category) you don't need to use a pressure canner.  "A water bath canner will do just fine," says Allison.  "You don't have to go out to the store and buy a new one as long as you use a pot with a lid that can also fit a rack inside, and can fit all your jars appropriately spaced.  The rack is essential because that keeps the jars elevated so that the boiling water can circulate around the jar. A jar lifter is really the best way to get the jars out of the water.  Even tongs don't work as well."

Beyond that, Allison likes to use a bubble freer to free up trapped air bubbles (a butter knife will do in a pinch); a headspace tool to be sure you've got enough room between the preserves and the top of a jar (a clean ruler will work); and lid wand which has a magnet on the end to lift the lids out of the hot water (a butter knife will work here as well).

Update:  Allison would like to add a canning (or wide-mouthed) funnel to her list of essential equipment.  This makes filling the jars so much easier and helps protect the rims from spills and dribbles.  

Thank you, Allison!

(Images:  Jeff Scher)

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