Saturday, August 8, 2009

Trial and Error

One of the things that I have wanted to try my hand at is canning. This past week, I gave it a shot and made my first batch of Blueberry Jam.
The reason why I wanted to try Blueberry Jam is two fold- I had a bunch of berries given to me,and I thought that it would be a simple recipe to start out with.
The first thing I did was purchase a Ball's Starter Canning Set.

The set came with a combo space measure/bubble freer,tongs to lift the jars, a water canning pot,a canning jar rack,6 pint Ball jars,a magnetic lid lifter,a jar funnel,and a Blue Ball Book of Preserving ( I didn't take a picture of the book).
The recipe was suppose to yield 3 pints,so I washed three jars,lids,and lid rings in hot soapy water. Next, I made sure I had enough blueberries. The recipe called for 9 cups crushed blueberries.
All of a sudden,I was confused. Did it mean 9 cups of blueberries which you crush,or 9 crushed cups? As with anything I do that is new to me,I tried to read too much into a simple direction and wound up double guessing myself. Now looking at it, 9 cups crushed blueberries is obviously 9 crushed cups,not 9 cups of blueberries which are then crushed. However, I had exactly 9 cups of whole blueberries. I said the heck with it, let's see what happens.Isn't the heading of this post trial and error? You can guess where this is heading.

While I was crushing ( or,to be exact,mashing ) my blueberries,I kept going back and forth to the book-what do I do next? How long do I need to do that? What is my next step?
My blueberries did not all get crushed. My potato masher wires were too far apart,and I came to realize that no matter how long I mashed,I would not get them all. Next time, I will make use of my blender. I think that will work much better.
I took a quick break from mashing and went to put water in the pot so I could simmer my jars and lids at 180 degrees for 10 minutes. The first obstacle was the pot. The pot I wanted to use was not deep enough (the water has to cover the jars during this process). The only pot I had to use that would work was my stock/lobster pot. Now, this is not a small pot.I put in plenty of water,clipped my candy thermometer to the side,and when it reached 180 I put in my jars and lids. I kept them in there until I was ready to fill them.

I put the blueberries and 6 cups of sugar in another pot and heated it,stirring until the sugar dissolved. Then,when it started boiling,I waited for the mixture to sheet,stirring every onece in a while to prevent it from sticking. What is sheeting? I didn't know either,until I read the book. There are a few ways to test jams to see if they are the right consistency to pour into the canning jars. The method I used is with a cool metal spoon. You scoop up a spoonful of the boiling mixture,take it away from the steam over the pot,tilt the spoon over a plate, and when it's ready,the mixture will come off in a sheet. Well, I kept trying and trying, but it didn't look like it was sheeting to me. I kept getting drops,though they were getting thicker and thicker. I cooked that goo for an hour. Seriously. Looking back,the plate method would've probably worked better. You take a plate and put it in the freezer. When you are ready to test the jam,you plop a spoonful onto the plate,and it should turn into the right consistency. At any rate, I know I over cooked it. I also know that not having the proper amount of crushed berries had something to do with the reason why it wasn't cooking down properly-the berry to sugar ratio was off.

While I was waiting for my jam to jell,I started to put the water canner water to simmer-that also needs to be at 180 degrees.

Therein I encountered another obstacle-I had three big pots,only two big burners on my stove,and not enough room on the stove for all three at once.

As you can see from this photo, I have a pretty basic stove-two big burners,two small ones. I would've loved to have had a nice 6 burner stainless steel stove right then! However, I made do with what I had,and put the smaller of the three pots on the smaller burner on the front right of the stove. My pot of simmering jars in right behind it,and like I said before, it is not a small pot.The two pots did not fit together well at all-I had to have a bit of the front pan off the burner to make it fit. Of course,this was the berry/sugar mixture. I voiced my concern to Rick,who was watching me from the living with great interest ( also, I kept voicing my concerns to him,so he was involved no matter what). Is the heat still going to be distributed evenly? Rick came over and looked. He took culinary arts in high school,and was a cook at some of the nicer restaurants in Portsmouth back in his late teens. He loooves to cook,and is an excellent one.It's a copper bottom pan, so it should be OK,no problem with heat distribution,he said.

Finally, I said it was close enough. One by one,and I took the jars out of the simmering water using the tongs,put the funnel in the opening,and began ladling the blueberry jam into the jars.

I filled the jars,using the head space measure to make sure I left 1/4" of headspace in each jar.( Anything canned needs a certain amount of space between the top of the jar and the food to allow for expansion).I used the magnetic lid lifter to lift the lids and rims out of the water,seated a lid on each jar,making sure the wax ring on the underside of the lid was firmly on the glass rim of each jar,then screwed the lid rings on.I had finished two and was working on the third when I realized that I was not going to have enough to fill it. So instead of canning that one, I set it aside to use. I then placed the full jars in the canning rack,which was resting on the top of the water bath pan. I then lowered the canning rack in the water. I didn't have quite enough water in the pan to cover the jars, so I poured some of the water from the simmering pot into it. I closed the lid,and set the timer for 15 minutes. I then heaved a big sigh.

15 minutes later, I removed the jars from the pot with the tongs,and placed them on a cutting board,with at least 1"-2" between them,and let them sit. The book recommends that you let them rest for 12-24 hours. The next morning, I checked to make sure the lids had sealed. There is a small raised bump in the center of the lids,that becomes flat when the jar seals itself. My bumps were flat! At least I had done that right!!! I wrote what was in the jar and the date I made it on the lid ( you cannot reuse the lids. Jars and lid rings,yes). I then put them in my cabinet.

I tried the half filled jar.I could hardly get the jam out of it. It was very sticky and verrrrrrry dense. However,it tasted great! We figured we could heat it up a bit in the microwave to soften if up if we had to. It is completely edible,and tasted really good on toast,though I had to put it on in clumps.

Sooooooo......what did I learn?

1) Don't read too deeply into a recipe. It will only cause confusion. It is what is says it is. Any changes will affect the outcome greatly.

2)When making jam or jelly,use the frozen plate test.( I still don't really know what "sheeting"looks like). If it seems like it's taking too long to boil down,it probably is.

3) Find a pan deep enough for the jars,but not so big that it crowds other pans on the stove.

4)Next time will be much better- I have a better idea of what I am doing now.

What's to can next? My garden isn't really big enough to can anything out of it this year. Pickles might be easy for a follow up......

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