This season there are more families since World War II who are enjoying the benefits of their own “victory garden.” Back then, Americans were urged to “plant in every patch of available soil”. In doing so, folks produced a whopping 40% of the nation’s fresh vegetables in about 20 million home, school, and community gardens.
While cultivating and harvesting your own food is essential, the preservation of food is vital, particularly in our short –growing season region. Food preservation, the process in which food is kept from spoilage after harvest or slaughter, includes canning, pickling, making jams and jellies, freezing and drying. For those just starting out, resources like the University of Maine cooperative extension webinar series (extension.umaine.edu/food-health/food-preservation/food-preservation-webinar-) are available, plus numerous on-line references. One of my favorite resource books is “So Easy to Preserve”, published by Cooperative Extension of the University of Georgia.
With some basic, scientific knowledge, tested recipes, and good tools, your family can turn your Victory Garden into a Victory Pantry, enjoying the pleasures of eating your own food all year round. Because my obsession with home food preservation led me to starting a specialty food company, I’ve had the opportunity to collect some indispensible tools of the trade.
A must-have in your collection includes a large pot for a boiling water bath. Enamel canners are handy, but a large, stainless steel pot can be used for many other kitchen tasks. A deep, heavy pot for cooking jams and jellies is needed, and again, this can be used for other cooking purposes. Funnel, jar-lifter, and an acrylic food-grade measure are required for canning pickles, salsas, and jams and jellies. Of all my tools, a scale and good quality, easy-to-read thermometers are the most valuable.
One of the best places to start in home food preservation is with jams and jellies. There is nothing more delicious than transforming delectable Maine fruit into a spread. Making fruit spreads is a relatively simple process that requires a large, heavy pot, a strong arm, and a good thermometer. The challenge is to find the right combination of fruit, sugar and cooking time that yields the perfect taste and texture.
The goal of cooking the fruit is to acquire the proper gel for the final fruit spread product. There are two ways to cook the fruit: the fast way, which uses commercial pectin, and the slow, “cook-down” method, which relies upon the pectin found naturally in the fruit being processed. The pectin content of the fruit mix determines the amount of sugar needed for the fruit to gel. Adding commercial pectin to your fruit drastically reduces the cooking time, but requires a ratio of more sugar than fruit. Because my family prefers a jam that is more fruit than sugar, I have been experimenting with different cooking techniques and fruit combinations.
In the recipe for Strawberry- Rhubarb Jam, instead of specifying a cooking time, I try to cook the fruit until it has reached a temperature of 220 degrees, (or at least 8 degrees above the temperature at which water boils in your location.) This is where a good thermometer comes in handy. Weighing the fruit and sugar (remember that scale) allows for a more consistent product. If you don’t have a thermometer, another test can be made with a cool, metal spoon. Scoop up a bit of the boiling mixture, tip the spoon and let the fruit run off the side. When the jam separates from the spoon in a sheet, rather than in separate drops, or “rounds up on the spoon”, it is done.
The last batch of jam I made never reached 220 degrees, so the spread was much softer and not as “jelled”. Remember, making your own jams and jellies from Maine fruits appeals to all the senses and allows for your creativity to shine. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a few trials to master the technique, your jam will still be wholesome, healthy and delicious. Come next winter, you’ll be grateful for that taste of summer in a jar!
Please don’t hesitate to shoot me an e-mail with queries about your recipe or technique, and enjoy!