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 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.

Fermenting and Storing Kraut in Small Jars, without Pasteurization or Refrigeration

cabbage-heads-2-croppedI’ve more than once seen Extension home-ec agents roll their eyes when asked if it’s possible to store sauerkraut in the same jar in which it has fermented, with no heating or chilling. Where do such ideas come from? the agents ask.

From Extension’s mother agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, of course! Randal Oulton recently sent me a 1936 USDA press release, intended for radio broadcast, about how USDA researchers had made and stored sauerrüben—fermented shredded turnip—in just this way:

Shredded [and salted] turnips were packed in 2-quart glass jars, which held approximately 4 pounds of turnips each when packed firmly. Because of the pressure produced by the gas released during the initial fermentation, the lids of the jars had to be left loose. By this means the gas was allowed to escape, yet at the same time a sufficient concentration of carbon dioxide to prevent aerobic spoilage was maintained over the fermenting material. As the evolution of the gas lifted considerable quantities of the juice to the top of the jar, causing it to overflow, the jars were placed in enameled pans until the period of gas formation was over. Once each 24 hours the lids were removed, the shreds were pushed down into the jars by means of a wooden spoon or blunt wooden stick, the lost juice was returned to the jars, and the lids were replaced.

I wonder if the researchers strained out the fruit flies before returning the juice to the jars. Anyway, the report continues:

As soon as the gas ceased to be given off, which required about 4 days, the jars were sealed tight and stored at room temperature. The fermentation was generally completed in 12 to 14 days, and the product was then ready for use. The product put up in this manner has been kept for 3 years and is still in excellent condition, although heat has not been applied.

Presumably the jars were stored in a cool place such as a cellar and not in a really cold place like a refrigerator. We aren’t told what kind of lids the researchers used and whether the lids formed a vacuum seal. In any case, the method worked, and the writer suggests trying it with 1-quart as well as 2-quart jars. The article makes no mention of exploding jars, which the home-ec agents always warn about.

I would certainly prefer to try this method over another recommended in the same piece: After fermenting the shredded turnip in open stone jars, you cover the surface with mineral oil.

Have you tried making and storing sauerkraut or sauerrüben in small jars without heating or chilling? How well did your method work? I’d love to hear your stories.

USDA Approves Steam Canners

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 is probably a better choice. If the boiling is too vigorous in a steam canner, Dr. Ingham found, the pan can boil dry in twenty minutes.

Dr. Ingham suggests some guidelines to follow with steam canners:

  • Use USDA recipes; don’t rely on the instructions that come with the canner.
  • Fill the jars with hot liquid, and put them into the canner while they are still hot.
  • Make sure that a 6- to 8-inch jet of steam streams from the vent holes throughout the processing period.
  • If possible, check the temperature of the steam—it should measure 212 degrees F—by inserting a thermometer through a vent hole. (Actually, if you live above sea level the temperature will be somewhat lower.)
  • 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.
  • Let the jars cool at room temperature, as usual.

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.

 

Mustard Oil: For External Use Only?

If you listened to “America’s Test Kitchen” tonight, you heard Chris Kimball and Bridget Lancaster struggle with a listener’s question about mustard oil: Why is it labeled “for external use only,” and is the stuff safe to cook with? Bridget figured, rightly, that the oil was labeled that way to get around “some government regulation,” and that it was probably safe to use in small amounts. At this point I imagined readers of The Joy of Pickling waving their arms and shouting at their radios in their eagerness to supply a fuller answer.

For those of you who haven’t read The Joy of Picklingor at least not cover to cover, yet—here’s the lowdown on mustard oil: In 1989 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned its sale for culinary use because some laboratory studies performed in the 1950s associated the oil with nutritional deficiencies and cardiac lesions in rats. Subsequent studies have shown that the results for rats don’t apply to people, and that mustard oil in human diets is in fact associated with a lowered risk of heart disease. In addition, a 1999 U.S. Department of Agriculture report says that mustard oil, like horseradish, contains the pungent antimicrobial chemical allyl isothiocyanate, and that for this reason mustard oil and horseradish “pack a punch against Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus and other food pathogens you definitely don’t want in your sandwich.”

Throughout much of India, people have for centuries favored mustard oil for frying and for making oil-based pickles. The unrefined oil has a unique, strong flavor. Use something else—such as raw sesame oil—if you don’t like the taste, but don’t avoid mustard oil out of fear that it will hurt you. Remember that the oil is all in mustard seeds and prepared mustard, which you’ve probably been eating all your life.

You can buy mustard oil at any Indian grocery. Today it’s often combined with cheaper refined oil, so look for the pure stuff. If it’s too strong for you, you can cut it with other oil at home.

Because mustard oil is rich in antioxidants, it will keep for months in a tightly closed container at room temperature.

Clear Juice from Cherry Tomatoes

Clear tomato juice, after the small amount of solids has settled to the bottom of the jar

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.

The stainless steel steam juicer, dismantled

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 basket of tomatoes (with two small stalks of celery added for flavoring) as steam begins to rise
The spent tomatoes, after steaming

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.

Rice Vinegar for Home Canning

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.