"The question isn't who is going to let me; it's who is going to stop me?" ~ Ayn Rand, "The Fountainhead"

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Food Preservation part 4

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the April, 2012 issue of the Owl Creek Gazette, placed here with their permission.  For more great articles you can read the latest and all archived monthly editions of the Owl Creek Gazette online!

Food Preservation for Self-Reliance – Jams and Jellies
Part 4 of a 5 part series
By Roxanne Bare, owner of Terra Mater

Last month, when I was writing my article, I suggested that Spring was just around the corner. Who would have thought that we would have had a couple of weeks of summer coming at us in March?  Makes me wonder what the real summer months are going to bring weather-wise and how it will affect our gardening and food preservation goals.
To summarize what we have covered so far:  Why should you consider preserving at least some of your own food, what guidelines should you follow to keep your food safe from organisms that cause food borne illness, and last month was a brief discussion of canning methods and the proper uses of each.  This month I will discuss making jellied fruit products. 
Jelly, jam, preserves, marmalade and conserves are all basically the same.  All are fruit products that have been thickened, or gelled.    Preserves, conserves and marmalades have bits of fruit in them and are thickened to various degrees while a jelly is gelled fruit juice that has all bits of fruit strained out.  Most of the recipes for gelled fruit products are cooked but there are a few that are made without cooking.  These are usually made in smaller batches and stored in the refrigerator or frozen after the gel has set.
The ingredients in jellied food products are pretty simple.  Prepared fruit or fruit juice, sugar, and pectin are in almost every recipe.  Other ingredients often included are butter, water, spices and lemon juice.   The sugar used is white cane sugar.  Some people report that sugar made from beet sugar often leads to failure of the jelly to set.  Be sure to check the label of your sugar to see that you have purchased cane sugar.  Many times sugar beets are used to make the less expensive sugar sold in stores.  If it just says “sugar” chances are it is from beets.  Cane sugar caramelizes when cooked but beet sugar will often just burn.  
Using fruit at the peak of ripeness is needed.  Under ripe fruit and over ripe fruit will both affect the final outcome of the gel process.  Pectin is a substance that causes fruit juice to gel.  Some kinds of fruits are higher in pectin content, such as apples and citrus fruits.  Other fruits do not have much pectin so the addition of pectin is necessary to get a gelled product.   
Following directions in a recipe is very important.  Getting jelly just right is a practice of chemistry in the kitchen.  The amount of sugar, the temperature and time held at that temperature, the ripeness of fruit and the addition of pectin all need to be in proper balance to get a finished product that is perfect.   Recipes abound for all sorts of jellied fruit products.  The USDA Home Guide to Canning has a section dedicated to preparing and canning jams and jellies.  This can be found online at http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/usda/GUIDE%207%20Home%20Can.pdf.  There are also recipes to be found at www.kraftbrands.com/surejell/.  Sure-Jell is a brand name of fruit pectin.  To make life even easier, you can find complete directions and recipes on the paper inserts that come with your purchased pectin.  However, if you wish to attempt to make jelly without purchased pectin, you will need to look for recipes that do not contain it.  It is possible to make pectin at home and some fruits have enough pectin to create their own gel.  I like to save time though and not take a chance on having a failed jelly so I use purchased pectin.  As a side note, I have found that if you DO have a jam that doesn’t set as much as you would like, it makes a fantastic ice cream topping!
If you are not using a recipe that calls for refrigerating or freezing your finished product, you will need to pour the product into small canning jars and process them in a water bath canner to seal them up.  It only takes a few minutes in a boiling water bath to seal the jars.  You may remember your mother or grandmother sealing jars of jelly with melted paraffin.  While this may have worked it is now known that it is not a safe practice.  Jelly that has not been processed and stored properly may grow mold on the surface.  I can remember being told, “Just scrape it off.”  Ummm…no thanks.  The mold that grows on jelly can send ‘roots’ clear to the bottom of the jar and could release toxins into that lovely food.  So, just a few minutes in a water bath avoids that and you can safely enjoy that summer goodness even during the cold winter months.
While I have been talking about using fruit and fruit juices for jelly and jams, I would also like to mention that there are recipes for vegetable and herbal jellies that are a lot of fun to experiment with.  A dollop of red or green pepper jelly on top of a snack cracker with cream cheese is a sweet and spicy snack that is very tasty.