In homesteading, you are forced to relearn many vanishing arts and sciences. From heritage pigs to heirloom vegetables, and from home remedies to natural pesticides, things that were common knowledge to our grandparents have become arcane and vanishing skill sets in this day and age. The science of canning to preserve foods is on the list of such skill sets. Most folks these days consider canning to be something performed by reenactors in tents at pioneer days.
For homesteaders, canning is still a vital skill. It is how we preserve and store the fruits and vegetables we strive all summer long to produce. It is how we enjoy hot peach cobbler on a cold February evening, how we enjoy salsa from our garden long after the plants have died off for the winter. Canning is how we hedge against lean times, and how we turn our summer labor into year-round sustainment. But canning, like most things, ain’t what it used to be.
In the old days, when jelly and jam canning time came around, you had a couple of options. The first option was to put together your fruit with a large amount of sugar, and boil it down until it reached the desired consistency. This is OK, but you lose a lot of the vitamins, antioxidants, and other goodies that your fruit contains. If you are preserving your fruits just to have a tasty treat with your toast, then okay. If you are looking to preserve as much nutritional value as possible, it is less than optimum.
The second option before commercially produced pectin was readily available was to make your own pectin to thicken your jams and jellies. Most fruits contain some amount of pectin naturally. In general, the less ripe the fruit the more pectin it contains. Apples are a particularly good source of pectin and are often the starting point in making pectin. Tart green apples such as the Granny Smith variety yield good pectin. Actually, small green apples of any type work, with crab apples reputedly being the best.
To make pectin, you start with three pounds of sliced, washed apples with peels and cores. Place the apples in a large pot with 4 cups of water and two tablespoons of lemon juice. Boil the mixture until it reduces by about half (30-45 minutes) and then strain it through cheesecloth. Continue to boil the liquid for another 20 minutes. Pour it into sterilized jars. You can then refrigerate it, freeze it, or process it in a water bath canner.
Now the scientific inquiry begins. Unlike commercial pectins (where following the recipe exactly is the key to success), every batch of homemade pectin will have different characteristics. Pectin will vary due to differences in the apples you use and as a result of your technique and quality control. Suffice it to say that getting your jams, jellies, and preserves to set the way you want them to will require some trial and error. If you are trying to make a reduced sugar product, it will require even more tweaking. If you want to use honey or other non-sugar sweeteners, you are reinventing the wheel.
In our kitchen, my wife always strives to use as little sugar as she can get away with, and to use as many natural and organic ingredients as possible. While this has yielded some absolutely fabulous creations, it has also made for a lot of science projects. Proper setting relies on a delicate balance of sugar, pectin, and acid (your lemon juice or other citrus). When you start playing with the balance, results will vary and a lot of adjustments can be necessary to get the results you are looking for. The inconsistency of homemade pectin only adds to this equation. To be a great canner, you have to love playing in the kitchen. It is half art, half science, half voodoo, and three-quarters chance, but well worth the effort.
Sometimes, you can’t arrive at an end result which is set as firmly as you would like it to be. The official remedy for an under-set jam is to add a cup of sugar and a quarter cup of lemon juice. This isn’t always a viable option when we are looking for a low sugar product. Last year we tried to make wild grape jelly. It never did set properly, and we didn’t want to ruin its natural flavor and character with tons of sugar. Ultimately, we ended up with half a case of wild grape syrup, which as it turns out, is awesome on a big stack of hot pancakes! My wife also did some runs with wild plums. Wild plums are quite tart, and she found that to get a firm set required a lot more sugar than she was willing to use. The end result was a thin jam, but we have found that it makes an excellent glaze/sauce for red wattle pork steaks that are slow cooked over a hickory fire. Not all failures turn out to be failures. Sometimes you just don’t know what you’re making until it’s made.
Lately, we have switched over to using store bought pectin. Commercial pectin yields consistent results, and if you are modifying recipes to use less sugar, or other sweeteners, it takes one variable out of the quest for balance and a firm set. I am still glad that my wife took the time and put in the effort to learn to make her own pectin, as you never know what the future may hold. We have even planted a couple crab apple trees in the orchard, both for their pollinating and pectin-making qualities.
As I have mentioned, with commercially produced pectin, following the recipe exactly is the key to success. I have also mentioned that my wife likes to play with recipes. Hence, even with consistent pectin, a lot of experimentation still goes into the process. She finds the results, reduced sugar and a more natural product, are worth the effort. My taste buds won’t let me argue the point. If you are content with the recipe as it stands, you can get great results with a lot less trial and error.
If reduced sugar is your goal, there is low- and no-sugar pectin available. These products allow you to make a lower sugar product with consistent results and less experimentation. If you don’t have the time to work through the trial and error in the canner, using these products and following the directions might be the ticket.
For our lifestyle, canning the natural way makes sense. Cutting down processed sugar and using natural or organic ingredients is important to us. Having the ability to make our own pectin, should the need arise, gives us a sense of security. Come what may, the canning will continue. If you share these values, natural canning will probably be for you, but you are going to have to toss out the recipe book, roll up your sleeves, and do a lot of playing in the kitchen.