Before cherry season comes to a close, I want to share with you a recipe I recently developed for the Washington State Fruit Commission, thanks to whom a big box of fresh cherries landed on my porch a few weeks ago.
The cherries, dark and of an unnamed variety, were so large—a full inch tall—that I had to buy a new cherry pitter to fit them. Their firm texture and mild sweetness made them excellent for fresh eating, but their flavor was too muted for the jam, chutney, and other sorts of preserves I tried them in. A thirty-five-dollar bottle of Cointreau, however, dolled them up beautifully.
Serve the preserved cherries straight from the jar over ice cream, or use them to make the famous Victorian dessert called Cherries Jubilee. For that, you reheat the cherries and their syrup—at the table in a chafing dish, if you have one—while you spoon vanilla ice cream into small dishes. Then you pour warmed brandy or Kirschwasser over the cherries (1/4 cup to a pint of cherries) and, using a long match, set the liquor alight. Spoon the flaming sauce over the ice cream, and serve.
Cherries in Cointreau
2 pounds dark sweet cherries, pitted 1 cup sugar 2 long strips of orange peel, removed with a vegetable peeler ¼ cup orange juice About 1 cup Cointreau (or other orange-flavored liqueur)
Put the cherries, sugar, and orange peel into a large skillet, and pour the orange juice over. Heat the mixture over medium-low heat, shaking the pan or stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Continue to heat the mixture for several minutes, stirring occasionally, until the syrup has begun to simmer and the cherries are heated through and just beginning to soften. Remove the pan from the heat.
With a slotted spoon, transfer the cherries to two pint mason jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Either discard the orange peel or, if you prefer, add it to the jars. Pour the syrup over the cherries, dividing it equally between the two jars. Top the jars with Cointreau, maintaining the ½ inch headspace.
Add two-piece caps, and process the jars in a boiling-water or steam canner for 15 minutes. Let the jars cool in the canner for 5 minutes before removing them. Store the cooled jars in a cool, dark, dry place.
Many home preservers love steam canners (such as the Victorio), because they use less water and less energy and take less time to preheat than boiling-water canners. For at least two decades, however, the USDA and its Extension employees have warned that steam canners may be dangerous. This has kept a lot of people from buying steam canners and has made the people who swear by the devices at least a tad nervous.
A 2003 position paper published by Oregon State University detailed the concerns: Cold spots might occur between the jars or under the dome; steam might lift the lid of the canner, which would allow cold air to enter; jars might break or heat unevenly; the user might mistake cool vapor for steam and so might underprocess the jars; the user might be burned by steam.
The fears of breaking jars and uneven heating always seemed bogus to me. The supposed problem was that the jars weren’t separated by a rack. Racks that come in boiling-water canners are usually divided into sections, one per jar, but many people do their boiling-water processing with unsectioned cake racks or pressure-canner racks or even with towels instead of racks. Most home preservers know better than to jam their jars tightly together in a canner.
I’ve never used a steam canner myself, but I’m pretty sure that the vent holes in the side must keep the lid from lifting off like an umbrella in the wind.
Steam burns seem like a true risk with steam canners, but you get a faceful of steam if you’re careless in opening a boiling-water canner, too.
Now Dr. Barbara Ingham, of the University Wisconsin-Madison, has actually done some research on steam canners, and she has found they work pretty well. She has convinced the National Center for Home Food Preservation, the USDA division that oversees home canning, to approve the use of steam canners.
Dr. Ingham, however, identified one important limitation of steam canners: They hold too little water to allow for processing times of more than 45 minutes. This presents no problem for pickles and jams, but the USDA recommends processing tomatoes for long periods, from 35 to 85 minutes (or even longer at high altitudes), depending on how the tomatoes are prepared. You could use a steam canner for tomato sauce or juice, but a boiling-water canner or even a pressure canner might be a better choice. If the boiling is too vigorous in a steam canner, Dr. Ingham found, the pan can boil dry in twenty minutes.
According to Jeanne Brandt, Family and Community Health director for Oregon State University Extension, OSU still doesn’t like steam canners. But I think I might give one a try.
I bought a steam canner in the spring of 2016, soon after writing this article. Since then, because I rarely can low-acid foods, I’ve used the steam canner for nearly all my canning jobs. It saves water, fuel, and time. It’s easy to lift when full of water, and I can remove hot jars from it with a potholder instead of searching for my jar lifter.
Use a steam canner only with high-acid foods, those for which you would otherwise use a boiling-water canner.
Heat the water in the canner before adding the jars. (I bring the water to a boil and then turn off the heat before I fill the jars. Even in a steam canner, jars can break from thermal shock.)
Make sure that a 6- to 8-inch jet of steam streams from the vent holes throughout the processing period. (I use no more heat than necessary to produce this jet of steam. Turning the heat up higher would waste fuel and risk boiling the pan dry.)
If possible, check the temperature of the steam—it should measure 210 to 212 degrees F—by inserting a thermometer through a vent hole.
If you’re canning at an altitude of 1,000 feet or higher, you should process your jars longer, just as you would in a boiling-water bath.
Before the routine use of mason jars or even paraffin in the home kitchen, olive oil was often used, in America as well as Europe, to seal air out of jars of vinegar-pickled vegetables. When you’re canning pickles in the modern way today, oil might seem a superfluous addition—if it didn’t make the vegetables look and taste so good after they’re drawn, unctuously gleaming, from the jar.
Once you’ve pried off the lid and stored the jar in the fridge, though, the oil can partially or totally solidify. That doesn’t make for such a pretty pickle. Here’s how Matt, one reader of The Joy of Pickling, encountered this problem:
I’m a beginner to this experience, and have made a few pickle recipes from your Joy book. I have a question relating to a recipe I did of the olive oil pickles (page 98). I did as instructed, and opened around 4 weeks after pantry storage. They tasted amazing! After about a week in the fridge, however, the opened jar formed small, white beads at the top. They vary in diameter, but all quite smaller than the mustard seeds.
The unopened ones do not exhibit this, and I am concerned that there is something wrong. Perhaps this is some congealing of ingredients, but I wanted to see if you’ve encountered similar results. I haven’t eaten them since they’ve been in the fridge (e.g., formed the beads), so am only hoping that the refrigeration is the factor here, and that they are safe to eat.
And here are two photos that Matt sent me:
Sometimes chilled olive oil forms a solid whitish mass; other times it solidifies only partially. The “beads” Matt saw are solidified oil droplets.
The solution to this problem is simple: Take the jar out of the refrigerator a little before serving time, and let the oil melt in the warmer air outside the fridge. In Matt’s case the oil had only slightly solidified, so the melting probably took only ten minutes or so.
There’s something else to remember about oiled pickles: Oil on the rim of the jar or on the lid’s sealing compound can prevent a good seal. So be sure to leave adequate headspace in the jar, wipe any oil off the rim with a paper towel or clean cloth dampened with vinegar before placing the lid on top, and avoid tipping the jars or boiling the water hard during processing.
I was pleased to find outside the front door yesterday a package from Gwen Schock Cowherd, my cherished advisor on all foods German-from-Russia. Gwen had sent a jar of her prize-winning unfermented watermelon pickles, made in the tradition of Midwestern prairie dwellers whose German ancestors once lived beside the Black Sea in Russia.
Gwen’s fresh-pickled watermelon tastes much likemine, but with a strong, fresh dilliness and a striking, appealing saltiness. I especially like the bit of crunch provided by the sliver of white rind showing on one edge of each watermelon piece. And notice how pretty Gwen’s pickle jar looks, with the dill heads and the sliced green pepper.
Gwen kindly sent me her recipe to share with you:
Gwen’s Watermelon Pickles
BRINE: 12 cups water 2½ cups sugar 2½ cups white vinegar ¾ cup salt 1 ounce Schilling pickling spice mix
Bring all ingredients to a boil. Simmer for a couple of hours, covered. Stir occasionally to distribute the flavor of the spices.
1 large seedless watermelon, any variety (better underripe than overripe) 2 small heads fresh dill per jar 1 slivered garlic cove per jar 1 small dried red pepper per jar (optional) 1 or 2 thin green pepper slices per jar
Peel the watermelon, leaving a thin amount of white rind. Cut the watermelon into 1-by-1/2-inch chunks. Try to leave some white rind on each chunk; this will help to keep it from disintegrating. Drain the chunks in colanders for several hours—overnight is best.
Pour off the watermelon juice. If you want to use the juice in your brine, that is OK.
Into each sterilized quart jar, put a dill head, and add watermelon to fill half the jar. Shake the jar so the pieces settle. Then add one small dried red pepper (if you like your pickles hot) and half the garlic slivers. Distribute the garlic among the watermelon chunks. Add more watermelon chunks, again shaking the jar so they settle. Add the strip(s) of green pepper and the rest of the garlic slivers, distributing them in the jar. Put another dill head at the top of the jar.
Pour the brine, boiling and strained, into the jars. (Save the extra brine for another batch. It will keep in the refrigerator indefinitely.) Add lids and rings, and put the jars in a hot water bath. Bring the water to a boil, and boil it for 5 minutes, no longer.
Remove the jars from the bath and let them cool undisturbed for several hours. Check to see that they are sealed. Store them in a cool place.
Makes 7 quarts
Gwen says her pickles improve with age. As you can see in the picture, the ones she sent me were made in 2012. Keep in mind, though, that she stores her sealed jars in an especially cool place: a refrigerator reserved just for pickles.
As the fermentation fad spreads, some people are saying that pickles aren’t true pickles unless the solids as well as the liquid components have been fermented. Gwen’s unfermented watermelon pickles, and my slightly sweeter ones, are very different from brine-pickled watermelon, and if you try all three recipes you may well prefer one over another. But I can’t predict which you’ll like best. All of them are real pickles, and all of them are really good.
I’ve always hated my graniteware canner. You know what I mean—one of those big, lightweight, speckled black pots with the cheap chromed rack inside. My rack rusted out in the first year of use. After I replaced it I noticed the pot itself was rusting, too, as the thin enamel coating flaked off the steel in spots. My jars always came of the pot covered with metallic scum. I couldn’t use the pot for sterilizing empty jars, or the scum would end up all over the interior of the jars. Worst of all, the canner wasn’t quite tall enough for quart jars. I couldn’t cover them with even a half-inch of water (the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends submerging jars by 1 to 2 inches) without the water boiling over and putting out the stove flame.
My graniteware canner is old, I admit—about thirty years old, I’d guess. But canners of this type haven’t improved. The 21- to 21.5-quart models—intended to hold seven quart jars—are still only 9.75 to 10 inches tall. If the specs give a greater height, the manufacturer is probably measuring from the base of the pot to the top of the lid handle.
Although I haven’t thrown out my rusty old canner, it has sat undisturbed in the garage for many years. For boiling-water canning I mostly use my two stainless-steel stockpots, along with the stainless-steel racks that I bought to fit each of them. This setup works perfectly for processing pint and half-pint jars.
But even the taller stockpot is too short for quart jars. So for canning tomatoes, fruits, and juices I’ve substituted my old pressure canner, with the lid left loose. This isn’t the best solution, though, because the thick aluminum wall of the pot takes a long time to transfer heat.
That’s why I started looking longingly at the tamale steamers in the grocery store. These aluminum pots are heavy enough to be sturdy, but light enough to heat up quickly. They come in various sizes: 12, 20, 32, and 50 quarts. Each pot has an indentation around the side, two inches or so from the base, to support a perforated rack. I figured that one of the bigger pots ought to make a good canner.
And so I bought the second-largest size, 32 quarts, and tried it out with quart jars of quince juice. The interior diameter of this pot measures only 14.5 inches, compared to the 15.75-inch width of my graniteware canner, yet seven quart jars fit roomily in the tamale steamer. I could even fit in an eighth jar while retaining at least a quarter-inch of space between the jars.
Even with its raised rack, the tamale steamer is plenty tall—13.5 inches. I can cover my quart jars with 2 inches of water and not worry at all about a boilover. With this pot, I can properly submerge even 1-liter Weck juice bottles.
One problem with the steamer is that it’s made for steaming, not boiling. The rack rests so high that you need about 6.5 quarts of water just to reach its level. All of that water takes a long time to heat. This might not be a concern when you are canning all day long, but heating so much water for a single batch seems wasteful
The solution is easy, though: Next time I process quart jars I’ll take out the raised rack and set a smaller one, probably borrowed from my pressure canner, in the bottom of the tamale steamer. With such an adjustment, the 13-inch-tall 20-quart steamer would be adequate for processing quart jars. In fact, the 20-quart steamer might even be tall enough for quart jars even with the raised rack in place.
Aluminum tamale steamers aren’t expensive. I paid $25 for the 32-quart pot. In comparison, graniteware canners range in price from about $20 to about $40.
So, consider treating yourself soon to a superior boiling-water canner—and treating your friends and family to a big Christmas tamale party.
Whether you’re planning an Italian dinner or an American Thanksgiving, pickled peppers are essential on the appetizer platter. They are not only quick and easy to make one jar at a time; they’re also a good choice for a first canning project.
Your peppers can be green or ripe, hot or sweet or in between, and formed in any shape a pepper comes—round, conical, blocky, or long and skinny. Find one or more glass jars that will hold your peppers attractively. If you’re using long peppers you’ll want to pack them vertically, so compare the height of the jar to the length of your peppers; the jar should be a little taller than the peppers once their stems are trimmed. If you want to can your peppers, use pint, 3-cup, or quart mason jars.
If you’re canning your peppers, you’ll also need a jar lifter—available for a few dollars at most grocery stores—and a boiling-water canner, which can be any big pot with a rack or towel at the bottom. Fill the pot about halfway with water, and begin heating it just before you begin filling your jars. Or you could instead use a steam canner, in which case a potholder will serve well enough in place of the jar lifter, and the heating won’t take as long, because you’ll use much less water.
Now start with seasonings. I use two small cloves of garlic and half a Mediterranean bay leaf for each pint. If you live on the West Coast and harvest native bay laurel leaves (Umbellularia californica), which have a much strong fragrance than Mediterranean bay, use a smaller bit of leaf in each jar. You might also try other spices, such as two or three black peppercorns or allspice berries per jar.
Before putting peppers into jars, I trim the stems to about ¼ inch. Then I make a short vertical slit in each pepper; this keeps it from floating. I pack each jar tightly, leaving a little more than ½ inch headspace at the top. Placing each pepper upright may waste some space but allows the stems to serve as handles for withdrawing the peppers from the jar.
Once you’ve packed the jars, make the pickling liquid. In a stainless-steel-lined saucepan, heat ½ cup each water and 5-percent vinegar along with 1 teaspoon salt for each pint jar. I prefer wine vinegar or cider vinegar over distilled. If you’re going to keep your peppers in the refrigerator, you might instead use rice vinegar, which is usually diluted to between 4.0 and 4.3 percent acid.
I always use pure, fine salt, which comes labeled as “canning and pickling salt” or sometimes, in bulk, as “sea salt.” Sea salt that isn’t white, because it contains other minerals besides sodium chloride, is usually fine to use, too, but don’t use table salt, which has additives that could make your brine cloudy, or salt to which clay, charcoal, or other colorings or flavorings have been added. Kosher salt is a good substitute for pickling salt, but because it is coarser and therefore less dense you may want to use a little more of it.
If you like a little sweetness to balance the sharpness of a pickle, add a little honey or sugar to the liquid in the pan.
Bring the liquid to a boil, and then pour it over the peppers in the jars. Wait while the peppers take in liquid through their slits, and then add more liquid to the jars as needed, keeping the headspace of slightly more than ½ inch. Now add 1 tablespoon olive oil to each jar. The oil will coat each pepper deliciously as it’s withdrawn from the jar.
If you’re not canning your pickled peppers, just close the jar tightly, and you’re done. Let the jar cool, and then store it in the refrigerator.
If you are canning your peppers, make sure you haven’t dripped any oil on the jar rims; a film of oil could keep the lids from sealing. Clean any oil from the rims with a paper towel dipped in vinegar.
A mason jar cap has two parts: a flat lid, replaced with each use, and a metal ring that holds the lid in place. The flat lids don’t need to be boiled or even soaked in hot water. Just wash them lightly before you put them on the jars and screw on the rings.
Now use your jar lifter to transfer the closed jars to the hot (but not yet boiling) water in the canner, allowing a little space between the jars. The water should cover the jars by at least an inch. Add more hot water if needed, put a lid on the canner, and bring the water to a boil. Hold it at a gentle boil for 10 minutes, and then turn off the heat and remove the canner lid. Before withdrawing the jars with the jar lifter, wait 5 minutes; this will keep the jars from leaking. Then set the jars on a rack or pad to cool.
Whether you’re storing your pickled peppers in the pantry or in the refrigerator, you’ll want to give them at least three weeks to develop their full tart, spicy flavor. So pickle your peppers soon, while they’re fresh from the farm or garden, and they’re sure to be ready in time for Thanksgiving dinner.
What do you do with a glut of cherry tomatoes? Small, sweet, tart, juicy tomatoes—whether shaped like cherries, grapes, or plums—are the best varieties for snacking. You can halve them and add them to salads, pile them into kids’ lunch boxes, and sauté or roast them for a sauce or relish.
But . . . what then? If you have more than one cherry tomato plant in your garden, you probably have more tangy little fruits than your household can eat right away. You need to give them away or let them rot.
Or you can preserve them. Here’s what I do: I get out my steam juicer, run water into the bottom section, fill the top section with stemmed tomatoes, put on the lid, and turn on the gas.
In less than an hour, the mid-section of the juicer has filled with clear, golden tomato juice. It’s what chefs call tomato water—an inadequate name, in my opinion, for such rich-flavored, velvet-textured juice. It’s nothing like what’s usually called tomato juice. That misnamed stuff is in fact unreduced tomato purée.
There are other ways to make clear tomato juice, but using the steam juicer is by far the easiest. The juicer works like a stovetop espresso pot. The water in the bottom section boils, producing steam, which rises into the conical center of the midsection. Through holes in the flattened top of the cone, the steam rises into the perforated basket above. The fruit in the basket bursts in the steam and releases its juice, which drip through the holes into the midsection of the steam juicer. From there, I draw off the juice through a flexible tube.
I start drawing off juice about twenty minute into the steaming, straight into quart mason jars. The basket of fruit you see here rendered five quarts of juice.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has no recommendations for processing clear tomato juice, but because this juice is both thinner and more acidic than unreduced purée, you can feel perfectly safe using the processing time for what the USDA calls tomato juice: 15 minutes for pints or quarts in a pressure canner, 35 minutes for pints in a boiling-water bath, and 40 minutes for quarts in a boiling-water bath (times increase at altitudes of more than 1,000 feet).
You could press what’s left in the basket through a food mill or strainer to make tomato paste or leather. I usually prefer to toss the spent tomatoes to the chickens.
What do you do with the jars of clear tomato juice in your pantry? The juice can often stand in for meat stock in soups and stews. Even if you hate the texture of tomato purée, you may love to drink this juice cold—maybe even mixed with beer, as we tried one day, at a student’s suggestion, at the Culinary Center in Lincoln City. I especially recommend clear tomato juice for hot or cold consommé, as in my recipe that follows.
When you open a jar of tomato juice that you intend to use for consommé, pour carefully to leave behind the small amount of solids that will have settled at the bottom, or else strain the juice through muslin.
Tomato Consommé with Shrimp and Cucumber From Cold Soups, by Linda Ziedrich
Besides calling for a quart of clear tomato juice, this recipe provides a use for a few more fresh cherry tomatoes.
2 tablespoons olive oil 1 small onion, chopped 1 carrot, chopped 1 celery stalk 1 cup dry white wine 1 quart clear tomato juice Salt and pepper to taste 1 tablespoon arrowroot 1 tablespoon water ½ pound cooked small shrimp 1 salad cucumber, peeled, seeded, and diced 8 to 10 cherry tomatoes, halved
In a heavy pot, heat the olive oil. Add the onion, carrot, and celery, and sauté them about 5 minutes. Add the wine and tomato juice, and bring the mixture to a simmer. Simmer the mixture about 20 minutes, and then strain the liquid into a saucepan. Add salt and pepper.
In a small bowl or cup, stir together the arrowroot and water. Place the saucepan over medium-high heat, and stir in the arrowroot paste. Simmer the consommé, stirring, for 2 minutes, until it is glossy and thickened. Let the consommé cool. Skim off any scum that forms.
Put the shrimp and cucumbers into a wide serving bowl. Pour the consommé over them. Chill the soup thoroughly.
Serve the soup garnished with cherry tomatoes and celery leaves.
Tom Reynolds, director of food service and industrial marketing for Marukan, wants to sell the company’s rice vinegar to home canners. Apparently he has a ready market; more than three hundred home canners “liked” Marukan rice vinegar on the company’s Facebook page, Tom told me. “They prefer the flavor of our rice vinegar,” he said, “to that of white or apple cider vinegars for delicate vegetables, herbs, chutneys, salsas, pickles, etc.”
A lot of cooks find that rice vinegar has a milder flavor than either cider vinegar or distilled vinegar. This shouldn’t be surprising, because the rice vinegar sold in stores contains less of the main component of all vinegar, acetic acid. Formulated for making sushi, Marukan rice vinegar has an acetic acid level of 4.3 percent. Other Japanese-style rice vinegars have acid levels as low as 4.0 percent.* In the United States, distilled and cider vinegars are always sold at 5.0 percent acidity. Wine vinegar has acid levels as high as 7.0.
The milder flavor of rice vinegar may result not only from its lower acidity but also from its balanced complexity. This complexity may stem from its biologically complicated manufacture: Aspergillus oryzae, a kind of mold, is added to steamed rice and water to convert the starch in the rice to sugar. As in wine and beer making, sugar-loving yeast in the genus Saccharomyces converts the sugar to alcohol. The product is sake, but this sake isn’t for drinking. Over a period of thirty days, in the traditional method to which Marukan adheres, Acetobacter bacteria turn the sake to vinegar. Through this carefully controlled process, rice vinegar ends up containing not only acetic acid but also amino acids, citric acid, and other minor components.
Tom Reynolds knew that USDA pickling recipes, and other pickling recipes written to USDA standards, called for 5.0-percent vinegar. He wondered if Marukan should produce 5.0-percent rice vinegar specifically for home canners. To explore this possibility, he sent sample gallons of 5.0-percent rice vinegar to me and a few other people who write about pickling.
My package arrived in February, when I had little garden produce to work with. I decided to make canned pickled carrots, one jar each with distilled vinegar, 5.0-percent white wine vinegar (Four Monks brand), and 5.0-percent Marukan rice vinegar.
In my experiments for The Joy of Pickling I had used carrots only in refrigerator and freezer pickles. I’d been so repelled by the USDA recipe for canned pickle carrots, which calls for one part water to two parts sugar and five and a half parts distilled vinegar, that I hadn’t even tried it. But if rice vinegar really tastes so mild, I now figured, perhaps it could make a tolerable pickle with such a slight dilution as the USDA allowed. And I could cut the shocking amount of sugar in the USDA recipe; as Extension agents explain, the purpose of the sugar in such recipes isn’t to ensure safety but to balance the sharpness of the vinegar.
I made a few other alternations to the USDA recipe. The half-inch carrot chunks called for looked silly to me–too small for finger food and too big for relish–so I sliced the carrots ¼ inch thick. The mustard and celery seed in the recipe might overwhelm the flavor of the vinegar, so I decided to use just a little ginger and hot pepper instead. Boiling the pickling liquid for three minutes before adding the carrots seemed pointless, so I didn’t do it.
This, then, was my recipe:
Canned Carrots Pickled in 5.0-percent Rice Vinegar (by the pint)
1¼ cup 5.0-percent vinegar ¼ cup water ¼ cup sugar ½ teaspoon pickling salt 1 pinch pepper flakes 1 quarter-size slice fresh ginger 11 ounces peeled and trimmed carrots, sliced crosswise ¼ inch thick
In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, and salt. Bring the liquid to a boil, and immediately add the carrots. Simmer them for 5 minutes, uncovered. While the carrots simmer, put the pepper flakes and ginger into a clean pint mason jar.
Add the carrots to the jar, leaving ½ inch headspace. Pour the hot liquid over, maintaining the ½ inch headspace. Screw on a two-piece cap, and process the jar for 15 minutes in a boiling-water bath.
A couple of weeks later, during a family party, I put some of the carrots into bowls for a blind tasting. Here’s what my tasters concluded: The distilled vinegar seemed to heighten both the sweetness of the sugar and the heat of the pepper and ginger. The wine vinegar contributed a little fruitiness and covered up some of the carrot flavor. The rice vinegar tasted most mild. With a slightly earthy note, it let the flavor of the carrots shine through. The pickles in all three jars were tasty, but the carrots in rice vinegar were just a bit more to everyone’s liking.
I reported to Tom that a motley assortment of my relatives had joined his rice-vinegar fan club. Now, when would that 5.0-percent rice vinegar be available in stores? Probably not any time soon, Tom said; assuming that stores would want to carry it, the vinegar couldn’t be economically priced at less than ten dollars per gallon. If it were sold by mail order, the price might be as high as twenty dollars per gallon.
As Tom had considered, though, nearly all the USDA pickle recipes call for diluting 5.0-percent vinegar with water. So, why couldn’t you convert the quantities to use 4.3-percent vinegar? This was a matter of simple arithmetic, I said. For those with rusty sixth-grade math skills, Marukan could provide recipes for canned pickles using 4.3-percent rice vinegar.
Realizing that I’m rusty with my sixth-grade grade math skills, I turned to the guy I call Doctor Science. He came up with these rules for converting a recipe using 5.0-percent vinegar to one using 4.3-percent vinegar:
● Multiply the volume of 5-percent vinegar in the original recipe by 1.16 (because 5.0 divided by 4.3 equals 1.1627906). The result is the volume of 4.3-percent vinegar in your revised recipe.
● Subtract the volume of 5-percent vinegar in the original recipe from the volume of 4.3-percent vinegar in your revised recipe. Reduce the volume of water in the revised recipe by this amount.
Here’s the pickled-carrot recipe revised for a bigger batch using 4.3-percent vinegar. Because I had liquid left over in the single-jar recipe, I increased the liquid volume four times but the weight of the carrots five times, for a yield of five pints.
Canned Carrots Pickled in 4.3-percent Rice Vinegar (to make 5 pints)
If you like a lot of ginger and chile, increase their amounts. Or use different spices, if you prefer. And consider cutting the carrots into sticks or diagonal pieces rather than rounds.
5 ¾ cups 4.3-percent vinegar 1/4 cup water 1 cup sugar 2 teaspoons pickling salt 5 pinches pepper flakes 5 quarter-size slices fresh ginger 3 1/2 pounds peeled and trimmed carrots, sliced crosswise ¼ inch thick
In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, and salt. Bring the liquid to a boil, and immediately add the carrots. Simmer them for 5 minutes, uncovered. While the carrots simmer, put the pepper flakes and ginger into five clean pint mason jars.
Add the carrots to the jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Pour the hot liquid over, maintaining the ½ inch headspace. Screw on two-piece caps, and process the jars for 15 minutes in a boiling-water bath.
A final note: When you’re buying rice vinegar for pickling, make sure that it’s unseasoned. Rice vinegar is often sold with sugar and salt added, in the proportions that the manufacturer considers appropriate for sushi rice. In some supermarkets the only rice vinegar available is the seasoned kind. Even if you’re buying rice vinegar for sushi, you may prefer to season it to suit your own taste.
*Beware: Some “Japanese rice vinegar” is actually made in China. This labeling isn’t entirely dishonest; Chinese rice vinegar is traditionally red or black, not clear. Marukan has been making its rice vinegar in Japan since 1649. For the American market, the company has made vinegar in California, from U.S. grown rice, since 1975.
A company called Progressive is about to release to the market a set of five new tools for home canners, and I’ve had an early opportunity to try them out. Here’s what I’ve found.
The stainless-steel wire jar rack, 10½ inches in diameter, has petal-like loops that flare upward from the center, to 1/2 inch above the base. The rack holds seven pint or half-pint standard mason jars, narrow- or wide-mouth, more securely than has any other wire rack I’ve used. Here you see the rack in my 16-quart stockpot with jars of various sizes. Flip the rack over, and it will hold four standard quart jars.
The peculiar shape of this red and white plastic ladle allows you to scoop nearly all of a batch of hot jam quickly into jars instead of having to pour and scrape it from the pot when you’ve given up on your round-bottomed ladle. One scoop fills a half-pint jar. Although the plastic looks as if it would melt in a dishwasher, Progressive says it will stand heat of 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The ladle suffered no harm, in fact, when I used it to stir a pot of hot chili on the stove. The ladle has both a hook for hanging from the side of a pot and a loop for hanging from a rack.
This plastic funnel is made up of two parts, an inner red part that fits into the mouth of a mason jar and an outer white part marked in fractions of an inch for measuring headspace. This works well for liquids, but to see clearly whether vegetable or fruit pieces are floating up into the headspace you’ll still have to look into the top of the jar.
Because the white part of the funnel extends lower than the red part, you can set the funnel on a dirty counter without contaminating the part that will enter your jars. The handle on the side makes the funnel extra bulky, but it helps keep fingers out of the interior, and you can hang the funnel by the handle, if you like, instead of stuffing it in a drawer. (The pickle pictured here, by the way, is cauliflower colored by red cabbage. I don’t actually process this pickle or heat any of the ingredients.)
The jar lifter is the only one of these tools that doesn’t strike me as special. Its spring-loaded hinges keep the lifter open until you grasp the top, and this feature is supposed to make the lifter easy to use one-handed. But I’ve never had any trouble using my thirty-some-year-old jar lifter with one hand. I like my old jar lifter better, in fact, because it takes up less room in a drawer.
The magnetized lid lifter has a swollen rim that makes it easy to release a lid with one hand. Just turn the handle downward, and the magnet comes free, leaving the lid in place. The lid lifter has a loop at the top so you can hang it—a good idea, because no lid lifter is worth bothering with if you can’t find it quickly. (Keep in mind that this writer has fingers of asbestos.)
Although I don’t care for the plasticky look of these tools (excepting the stainless rack), I admire their clever designs, which originate in Progressive’s offices in Kent, Washington. But Progressive tools, sadly, are manufactured in China. If only the company would live up to its name by moving the factory to the USA! I’d pay more for American-made canning tools; wouldn’t you?
About a year and a half ago, home canners began to learn that the flat metal lids they use to seal their jars, like the metal cans that so much store-bought food comes in, were lined with a plastic coating containing bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical of questionable safety. Since then we’ve learned to limit our exposure to this endocrine disrupter by switching from polycarbonate to stainless-steel water bottles for grownups and from hard to soft plastic milk bottles for babies, and eleven U.S. states and even China have joined Europe and Canada in banning BPA from baby bottles. Those of us beyond babyhood, however, tend to take in BPA mainly through canned food. The linings of most cans haven’t changed. Nor have the linings of jar lids, for commercial use or for home canning.
Scientists and governments disagree about the magnitude of this problem, and even whether it’s a problem at all. Canada identifies BPA as a toxin; the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) believes BPA safe to use in can and lid linings; and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hopes that industry will find alternatives to BPA without governmental intervention.1 Because studies of the dangers of BPA have produced conflicting results, in November 2010 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) held a joint meeting of international experts to review the data on the health risks of BPA. In 2011 the background papers presented at that meeting were edited and posted to the WHO website along with a summary report. The conclusions were that BPA probably doesn’t cause cancer, induce genetic mutations, or, generally, accumulate in the body, but that it may possibly have harmful effects on metabolism, children’s (especially girls’) behavior, and sexual development and reproduction. More studies are needed, the scientists said.
And more studies are under way. In the meantime, many home canners wonder why Ball, Kerr, and their Canadian counterpart, Bernardin, don’t play it safe by changing the coatings of their jar lids immediately. One reason is that these three formerly independent companies are all brands now belonging to Jarden Corporation, which also happens to own FoodSaver, Crock-Pot, Mr. Coffee, Oster, Rival, Seal-a-Meal, and Sunbeam, to name a few of the businesses this conglomerate has devoured. Jarden clearly has its corporate hands full, and no true competitors to worry about. Besides, the BPA-containing epoxy resin coatings, made by corporations such as PPG and Valspar, have for decades done an excellent job of keeping metal from leaching into canned food. Like their fellows in food processing, the folks at Jarden may feel that BPA-containing coatings are still their best choice (see UPDATE, below).
I honestly haven’t fretted about BPA in my jar lids. Food stored in an upright mason jar, after all, needs never touch the lid. Even during processing, jellies and thick jams tend to maintain most of their headspace.
But other home-canned products, such as whole or halved tomatoes, do boil up and touch the lid while the jar is processed in a boiling-water bath or pressure canner. Is it possible to minimize the migration of BPA into home-canned food during processing? No one has performed experiments to find out, but studies on tinned foods offer some hints. According to one of the FAO/WHO reports, more BPA migrates from can linings into food when the food is processed at pressure-canner temperatures than when it’s processed at a lower temperature for a suitably longer period. Processing jars of tomatoes in a boiling-water bath, therefore, may result in less BPA contamination than pressure-canning them. Low-temperature pasteurization, recommended by the USDA for keeping cucumber pickles firm, results in even less BPA contamination in tinned foods than does processing the foods in boiling water. In the case of home canning, using the low-temperature method might result in no contamination, since the liquid in the jar would never boil. Salt tends to increase the migration of BPA into tinned food, according to the report, so unacifidified vegetables such as beets and beans, which you must pressure-can to prevent botulism, might take up less BPA if you left out salt. Oil has the same effect as salt, the report says, so you might prefer to can cooked tuna with water rather than oil.
Acids also increase migration of BPA. Most of this migration happens during processing, but some can occur during storage if the food is in contact with the BPA-containing coating. The coating can’t touch the food as long as the jar stays upright, but some home canners who send their products to friends and relatives worry that even jellies and well-gelled jams may end up tainted by BPA if the parcel is flipped during shipment.
This fear is legitimate. In 2010, Popular Mechanics sent boxes loaded with movement and impact sensors around the country via the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), the United Parcel Service, and Federal Express. The packages got turned upside-down repeatedly during every trip with each company. (Although the USPS dropped the packages the least, it flipped them the most—on average, twelve and a half times per trip!) The package labeled “FRAGILE” and “THIS SIDE UP,” in fact, got flipped the most.
Alternatives to Ball and Kerr
Some home canners have tried to avoid these concerns by hunting down BPA-free mason-jar lids, and several have asked for my help in searching out and testing them. One reader of this blog recommended Leifheit lids, from Germany. These lids are both BPA-free and “bulletproof,” she told me. Before I ordered some, though, I wanted to confirm that they were BPA-free. This should have been easy; Leifheit has a U.S. division with an excellent website. But my emails and phone calls to the company were never returned, and others inquiring about BPA have reported the same experience. One blogger got through to a representative who admitted that the Leifheit lid linings have “negligible traces of BPA.” Perhaps as many traces as Jarden’s lids have, albeit at a much higher price? Nobody seems to know.
One European mason-jar manufacturer makes truly BPA-free metal lids, according to Cathleen O’Keefe of the Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). Bormiolo Rocco, an Italian producer of fine glass, sells these mason jars and one-piece caps under the name Quattro Stagioni. Cathleen, who places bulk orders on behalf of NOFA members and anyone else who wants the caps, sold me some in both regular and wide-mouth sizes ($.80 and $1.05, respectively, for a packet of two, plus a little for shipping; Ball lids, when sold with screw bands, cost almost as much). The Quattro Stagioni caps are easy to use: You just rinse them in hot water, fill the jars as usual, and screw on the caps. If I’m translating the Italian instructions correctly, you’re supposed to leave the jars in the kettle of hot water until they have cooled, but I take them out as soon as the boiling period is up, in accordance with USDA recommendations. You can tell the jar is sealed in the same way you can with a Ball or Kerr lid: The vacuum pulls the center of the lid down firm. Nicest of all, you can open the lid by unscrewing it rather than prying it off (though the lids can be hard to unscrew, even when you’re using them with dry foods). Quattro Stagioni caps are not intended for pressure canning.
An American-made, BPA-free alternative to Ball and Kerr lids is a product called Tattler. The Tattler lid is made of solid plastic, a substance called acetal copolymer. This plastic contains no BPA, and it’s approved by the USDA and FDA for contact with food, including meat, provided the food doesn’t contain 15 percent or more alcohol. The plastic lids are guaranteed to last a lifetime, and the company says that in their thirty-five years or so in production no one has ever asked for a replacement. The lids are especially recommended for use with acid food, since acid doesn’t degrade them as it does metal. The lids can be used in pressure canners as well as boiling-water canners.
To make a Tattler lid stick you need a rubber ring, which you place on the jar rim under the plastic lid, and a standard metal band to screw over the plastic lid. The rubber ring is reusable several times, until it becomes stretched, cracked, or cut. The company recommends reversing the rings with each use to prolong their usefulness. You can buy the rubber rings with the lids or separately; the metal screw bands you must get elsewhere.
The recommended procedure for using Tattler lids and rubbers is a little different from that recommended for Ball and Kerr two-piece caps. After scalding the Tattler lid and ring and placing them on the jar top, you screw on the metal band all the way and then turn it back ¼ inch; this allows the jar to vent during processing. After processing, you tighten the metal band as soon as you take the jar out of the canner (use two heavy towels or potholders to avoid burning yourself). When the jar has cooled, remove the metal band. You know the jar is sealed if the lid stays on. To remove the lid, gently insert a table knife between the rubber and the jar.
An Extension food-safety specialist at the University of Georgia, Elizabeth Andress recommends allowing 1 inch headspace when canning with Tattler lids, but I can’t imagine why. I suspect this would lead to oxidation—that is, darkening of the food at the top of the jar. When I’ve used Tattler lids, I’ve stuck with the standard headspace measures of ¼ inch for jams and jellies and ½ inch for pickles.
Tattler lids and rings are probably too expensive ($20.95 for three dozen narrow-mouth lids and rings and $23.95 for a wide-mouth set, from the company website) if you are selling or giving away your preserved foods and aren’t sure the recipients will return everything—jar, lid, ring, and band–undamaged. But the lids and rings are very nice for home use, especially with ungelled acid foods such as pickles, relishes, and tomatoes. And Tattler products may be affordable if you can buy them from a local store instead of having to pay for shipping.
Maybe you’re nervous about putting any plastic in contact with your food. Another option is glass—glass jars with glass tops. I’ve long kept some of the German-made Weck jars, which are now widely available at U.S. cookware stores as well as via the Web. These jars come with rubber rings much like the Tattler rings, and stainless-steel metal clamps that hold down the glass lids during processing. The rings shouldn’t be reused, according to the manufacturer, but you may find that like Tattler rings they last well through multiple uses. You know a ring is good when you take the clamps off the cooled jar and the glass lid stays on. For storing opened jars in the refrigerator, Weck sells plastic caps to fit.
When the rubber rings for your Weck jars have worn out, of course, you must find new ones, and until recently this was difficult to do in theUnited States; my Weck jars sat unused for years for this reason. Now, however, the rings are available inexpensively at Weck’s U.S. website.
Some Weck jars come in whimsical shapes; I have “deco” liter jars that are nearly round. USDA processing times are based on jars shaped more or less like Ball and Kerr jars. If this concerns you, either stick with the more standard shapes or increase your processing times a bit.
The only disadvantage I find with Weck jars, besides the prices (for example, six half-liter cylindrical jars cost $18.25, plus shipping, on the Weck website), is the minor difficulty of getting the metal clamps on. I often chip the lids when doing this, though the slight chipping doesn’t damage their integrity.
Should the health risks of BPA induce you to try one or more of these alternative canning products? Perhaps so, if you’re worried, especially if you’re feeding your home-canned goods to young children or shipping them around the country. But first you might try more effective ways of reducing your BPA exposure. Besides shunning polycarbonate bottles, avoid eating foods from metal cans, particularly meats, soups, and vegetables, unless the cans are labeled as BPA-free. Don’t heat food in plastic containers, and wash your hands after handling thermal paper (slick cash-register receipts, for example).
As long as you’re using conventional jar lids, you may be able to reduce your exposure to BPA by leaving the salt out of pressure-canned foods, processing tomatoes in a boiling-water bath, and using low-temperature pasteurization for pickles. Most important, store your jars upright.
UPDATE, May 24, 2013: According to Jarden Home Brands, Ball and Kerr lids produced since last fall have no BPA. Starting this summer, boxes of the lids will be labeled “BPA-free.” Until then, you can find out whether lids in your cupboard or on the store shelf have BPA or not by checking this article at Diary of a Tomato.
UPDATE, January 2, 2022: Leifheit no longer has a U.S. website. The company’s products are distributed in the United States by Household Essentials.
Quattro Stagione lids are now available to U.S. preservers through the Container Store. They cost $3.99 for a package of two.
Tattler lids now cost $32.50 for three dozen sets of narrow-mouth lids and rings and $35.50 for three dozen wide-mouth sets. The company offers these instructions for tightening its lids:
To get the feel for the correct tightness prior to processing, place the jar on a counter top or other smooth surface, then place your index finger on the lid (do not apply too much pressure while tightening the metal band). Screw the metal band on until the jar begins to spin on the counter top (or other smooth surface). This is the perfect tightness for processing!
Once the process is completed and the jars are removed from your canner, Let the bubbling die down (approximately 4-5 minutes), as this is pressure still releasing from the jars. Place a towel over the still hot jars (for safety) and finish tightening the metal bands. Now, let your jars cool naturally and when cool to room temperature, remove the metal band and lift the jar slightly by the lid. It should be well sealed. Your food is ready for storing (store without metal screw bands).
Elizabeth Andress seems to have removed her advice about Tattler lids from the Internet, but as of 2020 the USDA still wasn’t recommending their use. The agency has not, however, recommended against their use, either.
Six half-liter cylindrical Weck jars now cost $21.50.
Manufacturers of receipt machines are replacing BPA with BPS, which seems to be equally harmful. Is BPS used in canning-jar linings? Whoever knows isn’t telling.
1. The EFSA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agree that 50 micrograms per kilo of body weight is a tolerable daily intake of BPA. Urine tests have indicated that the average American takes in one-thousandth of this amount. According to a 2009 article in Consumer Reports, however, some scientists believe that the 50-microgram limit is much too high.