If you’re proud of your home-preserved foods, why not show them off at your county or state fair? You probably won’t win big prizes—fair premiums are small these days, if they are available at all—but you’ll inspire your fellow preservers to aim higher, and you might even motivate some people to try preserving foods for the first time.
Of course, you’ll want your jars displayed with ribbons, preferably blue. To maximize your chances, check out these rules I’ve gleaned in judging preserves at county and state fairs:
Be sure you’ve used a conventional recipe. This takes much of the fun out of showing off your preserves, but most fairs specify that the recipe must come from the USDA, Extension, or Ball or Kerr. You might try citing a Ball or USDA recipe that’s almost the same as yours and noting what you’ve changed. This way the judge will know that you haven’t done anything to jeopardize the safety of the product.
But don’t be too conventional! Your chances of winning for one of a dozen nearly identical jars of blackberry jam are pretty low. You might do better with a less common fruit, such as quince or red or black currant, or with preserves, jelly, or chutney instead of jam. “Fermented foods, dried foods, and meat and seafood are always underfilled classes,” says Carol Newton, an Oregon State Fair judge (at the Oregon State Fair, fermented foods don’t have to be pasteurized, if they’re submitted on ice or in a cooler). At my own county fair, I’d like to see more pickles, especially whole-cucumber pickles and properly packed dilly beans.
Make sure you’ve used fresh produce, picked at the right time, and fresh spices. Even without tasting your entry, the judge may be able to spot inferior produce. Green beans bulging with their seeds were obviously picked too late. A cucumber held too long may look a bit shriveled, and cutting into it may expose a hollow center. Corn that looks brownish may be a supersweet variety—a type unsuitable for pressure canning because the sugars can caramelize.
Show off your knife skills. Canned bean and carrot pieces should be identical in size. Beets should be sliced as evenly as possible (while slicing, you might save ends and other small pieces for a salad).
In case you’re not so handy with a knife, using a mandoline probably won’t hurt your chances for a ribbon. Crinkle-cut carrots may well catch the judge’s eye.
Avoid floaters. Floating fruit is often inevitable, but choosing slightly underripe pears or peaches, for example, certainly helps, as does careful, tight packing. Choose your best-filled jar for submission to the fair.
Check for appropriate headspace. A good judge knows that the proper headspace of ¼ or ½ inch may change after processing. But a jar with too much headspace appears only partially filled. Never enter a jar that has lost liquid in processing; sauerkraut, for example, should be completely covered with brine. (In boiling-water as well as pressure canning, you can usually keep liquid from leaking from jars by avoiding rapid changes in pressure. After processing canned fruits, tomatoes, or pickles, let the jars sit in their hot water bath for a few minutes after you turn off the burner.)
Use standard packaging. Submit a jar with a conventional size and shape, so the judges can tell that the processing time was appropriate. The jar should be sealed with a two-piece lid, because many judges are nervous about one-piece lids, and even more so about glass lids. Note that less common jar shapes may be accepted and even favored if they bear the Ball label; I watched one judge choose a “pretty” Ball jar for first place without tasting any of the entries. Tatler lids are also usually accepted.
Avoid rust. Many judges hate the sight of rust; some will remove a metal jar band just to check for any rust on the inside. So use a brand-new band, or at least one that looks brand-new.
Make sure the jar is clean. You washed the jar well before filling it, of course, but did you remove any residue from an old label? Take off the band and check for stickiness around the rim, because many judges will do exactly this.
Label the jar completely and neatly. Check the fair guidelines carefully to be sure you’re including all the information asked for and writing it in the right place. Usually you need to provide at least the name of the product, how it was processed (by a boiling-water bath or pressure canner), and for how long. You may have to add where you got the recipe and, for jam or jelly with added pectin, which brand and type of pectin you used. (Regardless of whether the fair requires it, I suggest noting if you made your jam or jelly without added pectin. Judges who always use commercial pectin themselves don’t seem to understand that strawberry or peach jam naturally turns out soft.) A decorative paper label, on the top or side of the jar, may win you points over entries labeled with black marker on the lid. You might even tie a handsome label around the jar rim, if the fair rules allow this.
No doubt you’ll feel let down if you don’t win a ribbon, especially if the judge didn’t even taste your entry. Be aware that most fairs forbid judges to taste low-acid canned goods, because of the risk of botulism, and some forbid any tasting at all. Also, since tasting is time-consuming, and ultimately can be sickening, the judges may prefer to rank entries by looks alone. “Unless I deem then unsafe,” says Carol Newton, “I taste jams and soft spreads, most specialty foods, and pickles.” But not all judges do.
If you don’t win, hopefully you’ll at least get an encouraging comment from the judge. Carol Newton always provides comments, she says, to allay disappointment and encourage entrants to come back. Other judges simply don’t have time to write comments. If there is something wrong with your entry, though, the judge will probably let you know, so you can do better next time.
If you garner neither ribbon nor comment, your entry may have been perfect and yet not outstanding. If the fair uses the “American system” of judging, which allows for only single first-, second-, and third-place ribbons in each class, the judge’s decision may have been arbitrary. Don’t let this upset you. Look around; see what your fellow preservers are failing to bring to the fair. Next year, bring that. And make sure it’s beautiful as well as delicious.