Canning Nectarines: Things the USDA Doesn’t Tell You

nectarines in jarsWhen a box of big, flawless, fragrant, just-ripe nectarines from the Washington State Fruit Commission landed on my porch, I had to decide quickly how to preserve them. Most years I’ve made my nectarines and peaches into pickles, chutneys, and fancified jams. Now nothing appealed to me more than the thought of simple canned nectarines in light syrup.

Thinking of the young 4H food preservers whose work I’d recently judged at the Benton County fair, I decided to walk in their shoes by following USDA instructions. I referred to a recipe that’s in Oregon State Extension literature, in the Complete Guide to Home Canning, and, with only slightly different wording, on the National Center for Home Food Preservation website.

Right away, I began to see how novice preservers can get confused. First I wondered if I should peel the fruit. The recipe says that “nectarines are not dipped in hot water or peeled like peaches” but gives no reason. Nectarine skins aren’t fuzzy, though they are sometimes a little bitter. But once the fruits are cut into pieces and heated in hot syrup, their skins begin to peel off. Floating skins are not pretty. Try to remove the skins completely at this point, and you burn your fingers. Wouldn’t it be easier to slip off the skins before cutting the fruits? (To defy the recipe in this way, you must turn to the canned-peach recipe for peeling instructions: “Dip fruit in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds until skins loosen. Dip quickly in cold water and slip off skins.”) So I didn’t peel my nectarines at the start. Instead, I pulled off the hanging skins while the pieces sat in hot syrup—ouch, ouch, ouch!—and left the skins that were still more or less in place semi-attached.

Before that, though, I had to decide whether to cut the fruits into halves or smaller pieces. Like peaches, nectarines come as freestone or clingstone. The recipe doesn’t mention that clingstone nectarines, like clingstone peaches, are very difficult to halve. My nectarines turned out to be clingstone, but they were so big that halves wouldn’t have fit in the jars, anyway. Still, it was difficult even to quarter the nectarines without squishing the fruit. I ended up leaving a lot of flesh on the pits.

Before putting nectarine pieces in syrup, the recipe advises, you should prevent them from browning by dropping them into an ascorbic-water bath. Citric acid is sold in many ethnic groceries, but ascorbic acid is harder to find. No matter—you can use 500-milligram vitamin C tablets, according to the recipe: “Crush and dissolve six tablets per gallon of water as a treatment solution.” I had only 1000-milligram tablets. Any 4-Her can figure out that three 1000-milligram tablets should work as well as six 500-milligram ones, but how to crush and dissolve hard tablets is less obvious. I used my electric spice grinder (a small coffee grinder that I dedicate to spices) and whisked the powder into the water.

The fruit seemed to swell a bit in the water. Was it absorbing water while giving up sugar and flavor? I hurried to finish cutting the nectarines and move them into the syrup. As I did so I considered: If I’d cut the fruit directly into the syrup, the fruit wouldn’t have absorbed water, and the syrup would have protected the fruit from browning.

The recipe gives options for both hot-packing (cooking the fruit before putting it in jars) and raw-packing (putting the fruit raw into jars) but also asserts, without explanation, that “raw packs make poor quality nectarines.” In other words, choose the hot-pack option or waste your time and ruin your fruit. The question nagged: Why is there a raw-pack option at all? But I chose hot-pack—and, innocently—burnt fingers.

The recipe provides options for canning the fruits in heavy, medium, light, or very light syrup—or in water, apple juice, or white grape juice. The instructions don’t say, however, that canning in water makes for mushy, “poor quality nectarines.” That I already knew. But how does apple juice or grape juice affect the taste of the nectarines? You will have to find out for yourself; the recipe does not tell you, and I haven’t tried this option.

I chose to make the light syrup, using the specified 5¾ cups water and 1½ cups sugar for 9 pints. But this didn’t seem enough to cover 11 pounds of nectarines, the weight of whole fruits called for in the recipe, and 11 pounds of nectarines wouldn’t fit in the 5-liter pan I’d chosen. So I poured the syrup into my biggest pan and added half again as much water and sugar. I had forgotten something missing from the recipe that I know well from past experience: The nectarines should be heated in batches. I would end up with a lot of leftover syrup. And if I’d planned to heat the fruit in batches I wouldn’t have cut all the nectarines at once and so wouldn’t have worried about the long exposure to air that causes browning.

The recipe also fails to say that hot-packed fruit needs less syrup than raw-packed fruit. After brief cooking, fruit softens, so that it packs tighter in the jar. Less room is left for syrup. Although the recipe writer frowns on raw-packing, the quantities of water and sugar called for seem intended for raw-packed, not hot-packed, fruit. Even if I hadn’t increased the quantity of syrup, I would have had too much.

Once the nectarine pieces were heated, according to the recipe, I should layer them cut-side down. This is sensible; the pieces pack tighter if they are all curved in the same direction. But imagine how much harder it is to place them this way after they have been heated in syrup. Ouch, ouch, ouch! The recipe should call for gloves.

The recipe didn’t tell me to check the filled jars for trapped bubbles. Instead of poking a knife or chopstick or plastic “bubbler” into the jars and disturbing the arrangement of fruit slices, I simply turned the jars back and forth gently before adding any more needed syrup.

Before finishing up I raw-packed two jars and marked the lids with an R. After processing (I used a steam canner, for 20 minutes), the fruit in these jars was a little yellower, less orange, in color. The fruit also floated a bit more in these jars; that is, the jars held a little more syrup in relation to fruit. I think this is what the recipe meant by “poor quality,” but I’ll wait until winter to open the jars and find out what else may be poor about my raw-packed nectarines. I suspect I’ll find them more than palatable.

Hopeless rule-breaker that I am, I deviated from the recipe just a bit in the end: Before putting the nectarine pieces in jars I dashed out to the garden and gathered some herb sprigs—mint, basil, shiso, lavender, and anise hyssop. Slipping one into each jar, I hoped the flavorings would be subtle; I didn’t intend to make anything fancy. But the herbs had been waiting to be used, and they now look so pretty in the jars. The USDA writer, of course, fails to mention the possibility of adding flavorings of any sort.

And what to do with leftover syrup? I dropped in the nectarine pits, still bearing a lot of flesh, cooked them a bit, and then strained the syrup. It sits in a jar in the fridge now, waiting to be mixed into soda water or cocktails.

As a reward for all this work, I sucked the flesh off the cooling pits.

The lesson I take from this project is this: USDA recipes are handy for reference, especially for processing times, but in their aloof brevity these recipes can trip up even an experienced home preserver. They certainly can’t take the place of good writers and teachers in guiding us through the tricky business of home food preservation. The lovely preserves that dozens of children presented to the Benton County Fair are a tribute to their 4H leaders’ skill.

14 thoughts on “Canning Nectarines: Things the USDA Doesn’t Tell You”

    1. Thanks for validating my opinions about some of the ‘tested’ recipes. There are just some things that one must intuit when you know enough about the canning process to know that the instructions are vague and ambiguous.

  1. I read this with interest, having just read all the judges comments on food that I entered in the Benton/Franklin Fair in Washington. One was disqualified because I did not use the standard USDA recipe. I purchased a food-service Ph meter to test my recipe for safety and, at 3.4 Ph, I canned away with abandon and noted the Ph on my label. The judge left a note: please do not eat this, if you do not use the USDA recipe, you cannot know that it is safe.” When I went to collect my food, a master preserver cornered me to ask how I tested the Ph. I told her I wasn’t satisfied with the USDA recipes and didn’t trust them, hence the Ph meter. Case in point: one recipe called for “2 medium onions.” If one is concerned about the Ph, that’s less than ambiguous, it could be down right dangerous. In the Willamette Valley where I canned for 50 years, a medium onion was a yellow onion about 2-1/2″ in diameter. Now, however, a medium onion from my garden is a Walla Walla sweet and a medium one is about 4″ in diameter. And the recipe that called for 1/4 cup fresh basil. Is that 1/4 cup whole leaves or 1/4 cup chopped. 1/4 cup loosely piled or 1/4 cup packed till the juice runs? One was also disqualified because it wasn’t in a “standard” mason jar (it seems they only accept three brands) even though I’ve been canning in that jar since the year we couldn’t buy jars and I bought a case of oyster jars that I’ve used for jams ever since (over 40 years). USDA . . . technology has come a long way, isn’t it about time you quit treating your own recipes as some kind of secret society to kill all creativity? If my canned food is exactly like everyone else’s, what’s the point? If you tell me I have to have a pressure canner ($$$), a water-bath canner ($$), a food mill ($), and various other gizmos and gadgets ($$$), isn’t it about time you told people that they just need a Ph tester, and they can test their own recipes for safety? Sheesh! Surely they use a Ph meter to test their own recipes because if they don’t, their recipes are NOT to be trusted!

    1. I’ve been judging at fairs myself the past couple of years, mainly to understand how the judging process works.

      The 4-H kids are supposed to use USDA or Ball recipes, but when they don’t we’re allowed to accept their entries if we can find a USDA or Ball recipe comparable to the recipe used. USDA and Ball recipes are not necessarily the best. Because supermarket onions and peppers have gotten much bigger in recent years, some USDA recipes need to be updated to call for ingredients by weight.

      I’ve found confusion among the judges regarding canning jars. When I trained as an MFP, even mayonnaise jars were considered safe for boiling-water-bath canning. Now some MFPs believe that only Ball and Kerr jars are acceptable–even though some Ball jars being sold today are very oddly shaped. Lids can pose a problem, too; for example, some judges want to disqualify entries with one-piece lids, because, the judges believe, one-piece lids don’t seal (anyone who has tried to remove a Quattro Stagione lid knows that these lids seal VERY strongly).

      Regarding pH meters, MFPs typically aren’t trained in their use. Personally, I would prefer to use a pH meter than to routinely add acid to my tomatoes.

      That said, USDA testing involves more that using a pH meter. The scientists actually test for the survival of microbes before approving a recipe and a processing time.

  2. It’s now July 2019 & I’m getting ready to can some nectarines. How did the raw pack turn out? I too don’t want to hot pack scalding hot fruit.

    1. I finally got around to comparing the raw- and hot-packed nectarines. The raw ones had a texture more like that of a fresh nectarine; the hot-packed ones had a smooth, almost silky texture, which my family actually preferred. But in the future I will raw-pack, because it’s easier, because the difference between the two products is subtle, and because I personally like the texture of the raw-packed nectarines.

  3. I forgot to pay attention! I still have both raw-packed and hot-packed nectarines in the cupboard, and I can’t see any difference between them. I will open a jar of each for comparison, but I can’t do it right now–I’ve been canning and eating apricots for the past few days and so have no appetite for more stone fruits. I’ll let you know when I do.

  4. oh! I’ll have to try to raw pack nectarines. When I have raw pack peaches in the past, they oxydized later in the jar. It took a few months to notice. Same also happen with the-macerating-raw-overnigght-with-sugar-method when making peach jam. I now only hot pack peaches and cook the peaches slightly before adding sugar, and then they macerate.

    1. Sylvie, I think I’ve sometimes had peaches oxidize at the top of the jar. It helps to make sure that the peaches are covered with syrup and that the headspace isn’t too great, and to add a good amount of lemon juice. As for peach jam, I don’t see the advantage of macerating the fruit overnight. Is this to keep the pieces whole–that is, to make preserves rather than jam?

  5. Great info sharing on nectarines and showing in fair. I usually end up with extra syrup, too. And wonderful wine!

    Anyone out there canning in one pot?

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