This guest post from my wife is yet another installment in her ongoing quest to grow and preserve food for our household.

Making jam makes me happy. Okay, that’s only partly true. I’m also happy making jelly, preserves, and syrups — and I’m pretty darn pleased with conserves, marmalades, and most things pickled. No matter that I could never eat everything I make — even with J.D.’s help — the mere process is somehow satisfying to me. So, I madly preserve whatever I can lay my hands on each summer, then spend hours inventorying and organizing the jars, finally doling them out like precious jewels on special occasions to friends and family.

Competitive canning
Home-made jams and jellies, ready for the county fair.Last year, I steeled my courage and submitted a few jars for judging at the county fair. I was pleased as punch when my gingered dilly beans won a blue ribbon, and vowed to enter more preserves this year. As I made my batches this summer, I put jars aside for the fair. In the end, I had to leave out some of my favorites, since you’re only allowed one entry per category.

I turned the jars in last Sunday morning, and then bit my fingernails until our trip down to the fair yesterday. I was a bit apprehensive, since this has been my summer to do most of my canning without boxes of commercial pectin. Instead, I’ve been putting my chemistry degree to use, combining high-pectin fruits with low-pectin fruits and using pectin I extracted from unripe June-drop apples from neighborhood trees. Despite my chemistry skills, I’m a novice at using home-made pectin, so it was sometimes a challenge to get a nice firm gel instead of a runny syrup.

The county fair’s judging process for preserved foods is a bit of a mystery. But what I do know is that it’s based 50% on appearance and 50% on “product quality”. If they don’t rate the appearance highly enough, they won’t even open the jar for the remainder of the judging, so the jams and jellies have to look good!

This year, my entries included some standards (like Concord Grape Jelly) and some that were pretty unusual. Here’s how they did:

  • Smooth (seedless) Raspberry Jam — no ribbon
  • Raspberry-Red Currant Jam — no ribbon
  • Wild Oregon-Grape (Mahonia) Preserve — no ribbon (and unopened because the judges didn’t like its appearance) but it’s delicious!
  • Old-Fashioned Strawberry Preserves — 2nd prize for Strawberry Jam/Preserves
  • Golden Plum Syrup infused with Vanilla and Rosemary — 2nd prize for Berry or Other Syrup
  • Concord Grape Jelly — 1st prize for Grape Jelly
  • Lemon-Summer Squash Marmalade with Lemon Balm — 1st prize for Orange or Other Marmalade
  • Triple Berry Jelly — 1st prize for Jellies: Two or more fruits

I’m especially proud that my Triple Berry Jelly won Class Champion for jellies. In other words, it was judged the best jelly entered in the fair! Woohoo! As much as I relish (no pun intended) the results of my canning projects for their own merits, it’s a thrill to get a little outside validation as well; my chest swells with pride.

Kris' prize-winning triple-berry jelly
Kris’ prize-winning triple-berry jelly

I believe one reason my jellies did well is that I collect the fruit juice with a steam juicer so that it’s very clear. I’d share the recipe for the Triple Berry, but it calls for a steam juicer, red currants, and homemade apple pectin, so I doubt it’d get many takers. Instead, here’s a wonderful soft spread I’ve made before. Maybe apricots are still in season where you live….

Apricot Essence Preserves
(Makes 2-3 pints)

  • 3 pounds apricots, pitted and chopped (about 24)
  • 1/2 cup canned apricot nectar
  • 1/2 teaspoon unsalted butter
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fresh or bottled lemon juice

Puree the pitted fruit in a food processor. In a non-aluminum 8-quart pot, combine fruit, nectar, and butter. Bring to a boil over medium heat.

Reduce heat and stir until apricots are softened, about 10 minutes, stirring
frequently. Stir in the sugar and lemon juice. Bring to a simmer and stir until the sugar is dissolved.

Reduce to a slow simmer and cook until it is thick enough to mound on a
spoon, about 30-40 minutes.
Stir frequently. (Remember, it will firm
more as it cools—you can put some on a chilled plate to gauge how thick it is.

Ladle into clean pint or half-pint jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Wipe the
rims clean with a damp paper towel and add lids and screwbands. Process in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes. When cool, check the seals. If sealed, remove the bands and store in a cool, dark place. If it didn’t seal, you can either re-process it or store it in the fridge for up to a month.

Getting started with home canning
In an agricultural region like Clackamas County (where we live), many people still grow and preserve their own food. Nationally, the trend seems to be on fire as well. I recently read that Jarden Home Brands (maker of both Ball and Kerr canning jars) saw a 30% increase in sales over the last year (according to the Philadelphia Daily News). That’s good news!

High-acid foods like jams, jellies, pickles, and some salsas are an easy way to start preserving your own food without stressing about botulism; recipes and instructions abound on the internet. My favorite canning blog (yes, they exist) is Food in Jars by former Portlander Marisa McClellan. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and she’s a pro at creating small batches in an evening hour or two. If you’ve tucked fruit into the freezer this summer for later use, check around for a canning recipe for a mid-winter day’s work.

I especially like that glass canning jars are reusable year after year and don’t need giftwrap when given away. They are welcome homemade gifts that won’t turn into clutter (unless you’re my Dad, who has an entire cupboard packed with food I’ve made for him over the last five years — long story). And I was excited to find a source for BPA-free reusable canning lids through the magic of the internet. I split an order with two friends and used them for the first time (easy!) on a batch of dill pickles the other night. One more step toward self-sufficiency; now if I could just grow and refine my own sugarcane…

The jams and jellies section at the county fair
The jams and jellies section at the county fair

A word of caution: You’ll still find recipes that tell you to seal canning jars by turning the jars upside down or by simply packing them with very hot food and closing them immediately. USDA recommendations call for a boiling water bath — usually between 5 and 25 minutes — for safe canning. Without the boiling water bath, your jars may seal, but they won’t be sterile and could develop mold. It’s worth the effort to do the boiling water bath step.

In fact, preserving local food using whole ingredients is now being called an “eco-craft” in our post-Martha Stewart, revival-of-the-home-arts, make-the-most-of-your-money kind of world. No matter what it’s called, I like it. And that purple Class Champion ribbon will look great in my kitchen!

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