I started out with the idea of just making refrigerator jam - that is to say, cooking down the cherries into jam, but not actually going through the canning process. The jam would have to be kept in the fridge and used within a few weeks, but I didn't think that would be a problem.
But once I'd gotten as far as cooking down the cherries, I figured, "Why not?" I had clean, un-used canning jars and lids. The recipe I was following gave instructions for canning. The rest of my afternoon was completely free. If the lids didn't seal, I'd be eating the jam in the next few weeks anyway. So why not?
I brought a pot of water to a boil about 10 minutes before the jam was finished cooking and sterilized two jars and their lids. I fished out the jars with salad tongs and set them on a clean towel. I filled them with the hot jam using a soup ladle, set the sterilized lids on top, and got the rings screwed on. Back into the pot of water they went for a ten minute boil.
And then I was done! The preserves cooled on the counter overnight and the lids sealed properly (as far as I can tell). One jar went into the fridge right away. The other went on the shelf for later.
Here's what I learned:
1. You don't actually need a lot of fancy equipment. Aside from the canning jars themselves, I used a big stock pot for boiling, salad tongs for grabbing the jars and lids from the water, and a metal trivet submerged in the bottom of the pot to keep the jars off the bottom. (I don't know how important this really is, but I was following the directions!).
2. Small-batch canning is less stressful. - Fears of "doing it wrong" have kept me away from canning. I worried about lids not sealing properly or things not being completely sterilized, and then accidentally making myself or others sick. But since I was only doing a few jars, I realized that everything felt much more in my control. I wasn't so worried about overlooking something or messing up a step. For me, this was a good way to start getting over my fears and learn the ropes.
3. Small-batch canning is totally doable in an afternoon. Until now, I'd had this idea that you needed pounds and pounds of fruits or vegetables in order to can, and that you had to set aside entire days for the process. Cooking down two pounds of cherries took about 45 minutes and the canning process took roughly another 15 minutes. So...an hour total? Totally do-able.
True, you probably need to be canning a certain minimum in order to make it worth it. I felt a little silly cracking open that first jar mere hours after it had finished cooling. But canning a couple pounds of fruit or vegetables at once seems reasonable. It's not enough to see you through the winter, but definitely still satisfying.
I'm excited to have made my small-batch canning discovery just as fruits and vegetables are starting to come into season. I hope to do much more canning in the months ahead!
Get the Recipe: Cherry Preserves from Martha Stewart - I scaled this recipe down for two pounds of sour cherries.
(Images: Emma Christensen)