Straightforward Preserving: Tomato Jam!

I know, you might be looking at that title all skeptically, thinking “I like tomatoes, sure, but JAM? What are you even talking about?” This might be one you have to just take on trust. Tomatoes make some amazing jam. It’s great on toast, but especially tasty along with eggs and/or sausage. I think it’s the closest you can come in mid-winter to the taste of a fresh, flavorful tomato picked right off the plant. It’s not savory, but it’s not as sweet as other jams, and definitely not as tart and fruity. And if it’s your first canning experience, the acidic content (tomato plus added lemon) makes it a safer one.

There are a lot of recipes out there if you google a little, but I really like this trio. The first time I made tomato jam, I split my tomato haul into three pots (because I couldn’t pick!), and made a small batch of all three recipes. After that, I’ve only ever made the sweet & spicy.

I make it pretty much as it’s written, using regular light brown sugar, cloves, cinnamon, red wine vinegar and lime juice. If you’re having trouble imagining sweet jam with the flavor of tomatoes, note that the fruit:sugar ratio is much lower on the sugar end than other fruit jams: 455g tomatoes to 45g sugar in this recipe, or 10:1 by weight.

The other sweet-but-not-too-sweet tomato preserves that I’ve really enjoyed is the New York Times recipe for preserved tomatoes with lemon. They call for small pear-shaped tomatoes, but anything smaller than a golf ball will work just fine. And I don’t bother with peeling them anymore – just check that the tomatoes you’re using don’t have particularly thick skins. With most small tomatoes, you won’t even notice them in the preserves. The NYT recipe is interesting in that it has you put the tomatoes, sugar, and lemon slices in a saucepan overnight — with no heat, just room temperature over time. The next day, you add the spices and gently cook until the tomatoes start to go clear. You can remove them and the lemons and boil the syrup that remains, so that it thickens a bit. But the idea is to leave the tomatoes intact (which is why smaller is better). If you want to keep them throughout the winter, sterilize the jars first (leave in boiling water for 15 minutes), then fill and process according to the recipe.

Canning/Processing:

“Processing” canned goods requires boiling the (nearly-full) jars, with 2-part lids (shown at right).

How full you fill your jars will depend on the food you’re canning (generally 1/8″ to 1/4″ from the top of the jar).

How long you boil the jars will also depend on the food you’re canning (10 minutes up to multiple hours).

When you’re canning acid foods (fruits, jams, and pickles, for the most part), boiling water and a large stock pot are sufficient. When you’re canning low-acid foods (vegetables and meats), you have to use a pressure cooker — a boiling water bath doesn’t get hot enough to destroy potentially harmful bacteria.

Our advice when canning is to always use a recipe that’s been tested, and follow the instructions in the USDA and Ball guides. 

You don’t have to process your jam if you’re just going to store it in the refrigerator, of course. Processing is necessary for safe room-temperature storage, which gives you more time to use it (and/or more flexibility to give your canned goods as gifts to friends). But you may find it makes sense to try a recipe first — keeping the results refrigerated — and make it again w/ the processing steps added in, if you like it enough to add those steps.

Resources:

The National Center for Home Food Preservation has many guides available online for free, in pdf. They’re the source for USDA standards and guidance on food safety.

The Ball Blue Book is magazine-sized, and available most places that keep a canning display (jars, lids, equipment) from Ball. For now, this means the larger stores; Common Ground and Green Top don’t carry jars and lids at this time.

Food in Jars is a blog devoted to canning and preserving, and they have a great Canning 101 page with resources for getting started.

Sadly, one of my favorite go-to blogs (Tigress in a Jam) for jam ideas seems to have been abandoned and taken over by advertising bots, but you can find images and recipes from the participants in her jam challenges over the years on her Flickr group.

Canning Basics

Note: this is the first in a series of posts about preserving food. In subsequent posts, we’ll cover specific types of preserving, equipment, book suggestions and ideas for how to use some of your preserved food over the winter. Today, we want to cover just the basics. For more information, we recommend the Ball Blue Book, which you can find at most stores that carry canning supplies. 

just one step beyond cooking

That’s the opening header of the Ball Blue Book, and I think it’s meant as a friendly introduction to a process that can seem quite overwhelming! The possibility of spoilage, hidden dangers you’ve heard horror stories about, the lack of a pressure cooker, there might be all kinds of things keeping you from starting. But this post is designed to help get you over that hump with some tips for first-time canners.

Whatever you do, start with and follow a canning recipe. You can find them online on blogs, or in canning books or magazines. The Ball Blue Book is usually sold near the canning supplies, but you’ll also find other small booklets or magazines dedicated to canning near the checkouts — especially as the summer gets going.

The reason for using canning recipes is that they’ve been tested to be sure that the end result is safe. Altering ingredients, temperatures, times, cleaning procedures or even equipment can “affect the quality and safety” of your canning, as Ball puts it. For instance, don’t substitute the type of vinegar in a canning recipe; the % of acid is very important for germ-nongrowth!

There are courses you can take that teach you how to develop a canning recipe — I’ve always wanted to take one! I think it involves measuring the pH of the mix at various points, and checking for growth of bacteria after processing, by culturing the food. But absent that training — follow a recipe!!

Jam is one of the easiest things to start with; not a ton of ingredients to worry about, and no pressure canner needed (since fruit is acidic). The Ball page has a great intro to jam canning, with step-by-step guides to making and canning jam. Blackberries, peaches and blueberries are in season now, with apples coming soon (recipes linked on each fruit). Websites/blogs are useful, but you’ll find lots of recipes in canning magazines and books. I like the Ball Blue Book for all the standard jams and relishes, but also these books:

Our next post has links to recipes for tomato jam! Yes, tomato jam! The tomatoes you’ll find at local markets now are perfect for making jam. Stay tuned for that post!!

 

 

Putting Up, Putting Away, Saving for Later: Freezer Edition

Now that summer is REALLY here, you might start to feel a bit overwhelmed by all this fresh produce, and concerned about your ability to use it right away?

This post is all about freezing some of that harvest for later — whether that’s next week, next month, or mid-winter. Freezing is one of the easiest ways to save fresh produce, and requires the least amount of equipment.

I use my Food Saver vacuum/sealing machine quite often in late summer and fall, but you can effectively pack produce for the freezer without a machine. Simply buy the bags intended for sealing machines, use a tea towel and an iron to seal the bags (cotton setting), carefully pressing the extra air out first with your hand or a small pillow. Be sure to put the towel between the bag and your iron, or risk having the plastic stick to your iron!

 

What to Freeze?
Some things freeze well, others less so. In general, you have to plan for a loss of texture: vegetables will be less crisp (if at all), fruit will get a bit soft. But if you’re going to cook your items after freezing, you’ll hardly notice the difference. So consider freezing things that you’ll use later to make jam, pie, soup, or stir-fries.

How to Freeze?
Vegetables require blanching first, to slow breakdown. This chart provides a great overview of techniques and times. Make sure to get your fruit or veg dry before freezing, and arrange in a single layer on a cookie sheet or plate (once frozen, seal in bags or other containers). I’ve skimped on this single-layer step before, when I plan on making jam with berries within a few weeks — to no ill effect.

Fruits:

  • Berries freeze very well. Trim off stems, wash and sort through, picking out any that aren’t ripe or are rotted or otherwise not great. You can spread them on a tray in the freezer and bag later, or just bag. When ready to use, just put out on the counter for a few hours. If you’re making jam or pies, top the berries with the sugar you’ll be using in the recipe. It’ll soak in while the berries are thawing.
  • Peaches and Plums do well, but be sure to wash and trim off any bruised spots first, and cut in half and remove the pit.
  • Similarly with apples, clean and trim as necessary first. If you have one of those old-fashioned looking hand-crank peeler/corer/slicers, they’re excellent for getting apples ready for applesauce or pies later.

Vegetables:

  • If you like to make stock for soup, you can freeze the trimmings from your vegetables until you’re ready to make the stock. Just add to a plastic bag over time.
  • Onions, celery and peppers don’t freeze particularly well, but I’ve washed and chopped them up and frozen for use within a month or two. Drying is better for preserving their flavor, though.
  • Broccoli, green beans, and brussels sprouts can all be frozen after washing and trimming, and cutting to whatever size you’ll want to cook them in.

Fresh Herbs:

  • hardier/woodier herbs:  freeze in ice cubes (rosemary, thyme, tarragon)
  • more delicate herbs: freeze in olive oil as a paste (basil, cilantro, also garlic scapes!) Put in food processor with olive oil and garlic, salt & pepper — no cheese or nuts, though; add those after thawing, if desired. Put the paste into silicone ice cube trays and freeze, then remove and seal in freezer bag.

Prepping meals:

  • burritos – super-easy! Get all your ingredients together, make individual burritos, wrap with parchment and store in plastic bags.
  • breakfast burrito bowls – similar to above; scrambled eggs, cooked sausage, salsa, cheese, etc. all work well!
  • bread (sliced) – thaw on the counter or in the fridge for several hours before trying to use, unless toasting right away
  • quickbreads & muffins – thaw on the counter or in the fridge for several hours, or thaw and warm in the oven at low temp
  • soups (keep it EASY — saute or roast your favorite veggie, add aromatics, add broth, stick blend, freeze in freezer bags

Prepping Ingredients for Easier Meals Later:

  • Mirepoix (chopped carrots, celery, and onions) – you’ll lose the crunch, but it’s very handy for a stormy day when you don’t want to leave the house to stock up.
  • Eggs – did you know that you could freeze eggs, either whole or separately as whites and yolks?!  If you find yourself with extra whites after making a custard, or extra yolks after making macarons, follow the instructions from the American Egg Board for freezing. Just be sure to label the whites, if you’re freezing them individually. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled a small jar out of the freezer, thinking it was egg whites, and it turned out to be lemon juice!
  • Grains like wheat berries, farro and rice freeze quite well after cooking. They can be really useful to have on hand for cooking during a busy work week, if you cook and freeze in portions before hand.
  • Marinara – this is one of my favorite things about fall; make up a giant batch of marinara, freeze in 2 c. portions in freezer bags, and stock that freezer! You’ll never buy jarred marinara again!

What else have you frozen (and thawed) successfully? We’d love to hear from you!

 

Summer Fizzy Drinks: Non-Alcoholic Version

There’s almost nothing I like better on a hot summer day than a refreshing fizzy beverage. With only a little bit of work, you can make a variety of syrups to add to club soda for refreshing drinks all summer long!

 

Syrups

Ever tried making your own soda/pop/flavored fizzy water at home? Instead of buying syrups at the store, you can make them from just about any fruit you choose! Then, just add to club soda or water or iced tea, or the beverage of your choice. The post linked above uses a ratio of roughly 1 part fruit, 1 part water, 1 part sugar. There are variations of this, depending on the tartness or sweetness desired, but keep in mind that traditional simple syrup is 1 part sugar to 1 part water. You can simply squeeze & strain fruit and add to a simple syrup, or boil fruit down (strain if you want to remove seeds). With berries like blackberries, you’ll notice a change in flavor as the juice cooks down, but it’s worth trying it both ways to see what you like best.

The sky is the limit here, in terms of fruit:

Use what you love! It’s an excellent thing to do with fruit that you’re afraid will spoil before you have a chance to eat it all. Berries, peaches, plums, take your pick.

You don’t even have to use fruit! You can make your own flavored syrups for adding to coffee and other drinks, too. I’ve been making an almond rich simple for my iced coffee this summer, and it’s delicious. Saveur has ideas for everything from rose to thai spice. And as they note, you can use these syrups in club soda, in coffee or cocktails, or on ice cream, pancakes, and other dishes.

Shrubs

Shrubs are a drink that’s making a comeback! They’re a vinegar-based drink, making them the perfect thirst-quenching refreshment for hot midwestern summer days (not that we get any of those here). Historically, it’s been a non-alcoholic drink, thriving during the temperance movement in the U.S., but leave it to the college students to add liquor. Today, shrubs are making a comeback both as bar novelty and alternative to alcoholic drinks. But you can make your own, so easily! And by incorporating some of the bounty of the summer’s berry bushes into your shrub syrups, you can preserve local fruit and enjoy them, too!

Basic Proportions:

2 c. Fruit
2 c. Vinegar (anything with a 5% acidity content or more)
2 c. Sugar

Feel free to play around with the types of fruit, vinegar and sugars you choose; I’ve loved peach and honey with apple cider vinegar and a touch of vanilla;  strawberries with balsamic and white vinegar; blackberries with turbinado and red wine vinegar.

The best part, perhaps, is that you can use “seconds” from the market or field. Local farms will often sell #2 or seconds for preserving, where the fruit doesn’t have to look perfect. You don’t have to fuss over the trimming of your fruit when making shrub syrups; just clean and trim anything that doesn’t taste good. The only downside is that you have to wait about a month for them to hit peak deliciousness. The fruit stays in the vinegar during this time, infusing it with flavor.

The Ball Blue Book is full of vinegars — blueberry-basil, cranberry-orange, lemon-mint, loganberry, blackberry, and sweet cherry. They’re all canning recipes, so they’re shelf-stable!

 

Kombucha

If patience is a virtue you cherish, and you’re still with me on the sour drinks, then perhaps you’d like to move on to kombucha? As a fermented drink, kombucha takes some time to, well, ferment! Like when making sourdough bread, you’ll keep a starter (called a SCOBY, in kombucha-making) going from batch to batch.

For your first batch, you can get start from a friend who has been making kombucha long enough that their SCOBY has babies (they tend to separate into two over time), or you can actually purchase a dehydrated starter. Common Ground in downtown Bloomington carries dehydrated starter, shown at left, as well as starter for kefir (for another day!).

 

The kombucha-making process is relatively simple — very simple, if you’re used to making sourdough bread.

Each time you make kombucha, you’ll be keeping a small amount of your previous batch, along with the SCOBY, and you’ll feed it so that it continues growing.

Brew some tea, let it cool to room temperature, add sugar, vinegar, and the scoby. Wait 1-4 weeks, and bottle or otherwise transfer into a container for drinking — retaining a small amount of the finished kombucha and the SCOBY for the next batch.

So what are you waiting for?! Go get your fizzy drinks made before the next heat wave!

p.s. As always, be sure to follow a recipe if you plan to preserve these for shelf-stability. Or, freeze them (be sure to leave enough head space for expansion), and avoid the boiling water baths.

p.p.s. For the fizzy part, I highly recommend the SodaStream. It’s not cheap, but it’s more than paid for itself in savings on soda pop alone. Plus, I find that I drink more water when I have a fizzy option.I have the $99 base model, but I’m starting to see them on sale as people trade up for larger quantities, so keep your eyes open!

Aronia Berries!

I paid a visit to our local Food Forest yesterday, and was so blown away by how much everything has grown over the last month!! Left-behind asparagus has grown 5′ high and more, developing feathery ferns, which will help to transfer energy to the roots for next year’s spears. Giant golden, black, and red raspberries are just on the edge of ripeness, and I spied a few tiny green apples and peaches, but what’s really exciting my “I love a challenge” side at the moment is the Aronia!

Aronia, or chokeberry, is a strange little thick-skinned black berry that you may even find you have growing in yours or a neighbor’s yard. They’re native to the U.S., and grow well with little maintenance. The berries are not very tasty to eat right off the vine, but they have an unusually dry red wine flavor, that develops with the addition of some sweetness and something acid. They’re also packed with nutrients like antioxidants and Vitamin C. If you use well-tested recipes and draw on some good tips for bringing out the best of the berry, you can create some very tasty final products: syrups, jams and jellies, and baked goods.

I plan to make some jam this weekend, and will post to Facebook. Share yours!

Easy Preserving: Freezer Jams!

photo by Michelle Tylman-Sleevar @ Braffet Berry Farm

So… you’re sitting on a few quarts of strawberries that you excitedly picked, or blueberries that someone returning from a long weekend in Michigan gifted to you. Now what? You could freeze them (berries freeze well!) But if you’ve ever wanted to try making jam, this is a great time to start — and you don’t even have to deal with the canning part, if you don’t want to!

I grew up having my grandmother’s strawberry freezer jam on toast every time we went to her house. I never knew there was any other kind, really; I mean, doesn’t everyone keep a freezer in the basement full of homemade strawberry jam? No? Just my Gram?

Well, the best thing about freezer jam is that it’s just jam without the canning process. No boiling water bath, no measuring headspace to the millimeter, no following a recipe to the dot, no special jars with special lids and special rings that you have to sterilize and keep hot while you ladle hot lava into them, trying not to get burned. No checking the lids to make sure they’ve all “popped” in. Freezer jam is considerably faster than canning, and requires far less time over a hot stove (if any).

Suggested Equipment:

If I were going to suggest just one purchase before making jam (even freezer jam) it would be a canning funnel. They’re inexpensive (under $5), and they’ll save you a lot of mess. Most canning funnels are made to fit small and wide-mouth canning jars, but check against the jars you plan to use, just in case.

You’ll find that recipes for jam, vary considerably in their proportions of fruit to sugar. Even among recipes for strawberry freezer jam, you’ll find anything from 1:1 to 3:1 (berries:sugar, by volume). The Ball Blue Book has a Triple Berry Freezer Jam calls for 4 c. crushed berries and 1.5 c. sugar (2.67 : 1). The Betty Crocker recipe for Strawberry Freezer Jam calls for 4 c. strawberries and 4 c. sugar (1:1)!! Alton Brown’s recipe uses weights for both ingredients, and calls for 2# of strawberries and 11.5 oz sugar (about 3::1 by weight). There is no one “right” recipe here.

Before making your jam, sort through your berries and toss any that are bruised, green, or look like they’re breaking down. Clean the remaining fruit well.  Then pick your recipe! I’ve made Alton Brown’s before, and it’s delicious. And the Ball Blue Book has never steered me wrong. But here are a few more:

Now, go enjoy your jam-making! (and jam-eating!)