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Can I can?

Well, my canning story continues. It appears that canning supplies are difficult, if not impossible, to find in Phoenix if I want to do something more ambitious than jam. I can get the jars all right, but the modified food starch that's USDA approved is not available except by mail order. I went to www.canabys.com and for $15 I got the 'canning starter kit' consisting of a 16 oz container of Ultra Gel and a canning cook book. When it arrived, I carved out a few hours to begin my test run.

Of course, as it always happens in my kitchen, I was missing a couple of ingredients for the apple pie filling. I didn't have enough white sugar to make up 3 cups so I used 2 cups white and 1 cup dark brown. I also didn't have enough bottled lemon juice so I squeezed a few lemons to make up the difference. The former substitution was an improvement, in my opinion. The latter, however, I didn't realize until later may have caused the USDA a bit of heartburn had they known. Seems that fresh lemon juice is a no-no in the canning process. Why, I don't know. But I read about it after I had already used it, so all my test jars were going to have to be kept at home for personal use.

Using my big-ass pot I set the water on to boil for sterilizing the jars. As the water heated, I peeled and sliced apples, 6 for each quart. So far, so good. I decided the apples should be blanched first, so I had another pot on for boiling the apples and a bowl of ice water for plunging.
Lining up all the rest of my ingredients, I was ready to make my mark on the home cooking world.

I submerged the quart jars in the boiling water to be germ free when time to fill. I also threw in the lids. My instructions said to cook the apple pie syrup for a few minutes until shiny and thick. I added all the ingredients to a medium sized pot - sugars, spices, liquid. Then the three cups of Ultra Gel on top, which comes in a powdery form not unlike the silica gel that comes in new boxes of shoes. I looked over at the stove, there was no room for the pot of syrup. No worries, I thought, I'd blanch the apples and then make the syrup.

I didn't want my apples to turn brown before getting in the jars so I periodically squirted what was left of the lemon juice onto them. When I was ready to blanch, there were too many apples for the pot of water! Quickly, I scooped the first batch out with a slotted spoon and immersed them in the cold water. I did this several times until the cold water bowl was overflowing. I read the directions again. It said keep the blanched apples warm until mixed with the syrup. CRAP! I dumped the ice out and continued blanching the rest of the raw fruit.

I fished the boiling hot jars out of the water with the special tongs. Each jar was filled to the brim with a quart of boiling water. Pouring the water back into the pot was a challenge and I splashed and/or dropped the jars back into the pot a few times before gaining a healthy respect for how far a drop of hot water can fly. That done I divided the blanched fruit evenly among the jars.

Turning back to the apple syrup I felt my heart skip a beat. The Ultra Gel thickened itself with what little moisture I had put into the pot and formed a grayish white ooze across the top of the saucepan! Crap, crap, crap! I got the potato masher and tried to smush it all together and break up what I thought would be powdery filled little pods. Nothing doing. I got the hand mixer out and stuck that in the pot turned on high. The gel broke apart, but just small enough to slide through the beaters like mucus. Meanwhile, the apples and the jars were cooling off. I put the whole mess on the stove and heated it to boil in the desperate hope the gel would react to the heat and smooth itself out. That particular science experiment was a failure. Not only did the gel remain a gel, the heat under the syrup caused a small eruption similar to a volcano. My stove was never going to be the same after this. I gave the pot a few more stabs with the potato masher but I knew it was futile. Moving ahead, I spooned the hot syrup into the fruit filled jars. Each lump of Ultra Gel slimed it's way into the jars like nasty amoeba. I pretended not to notice.

Having no funnel I used a lipped spoon to add the syrup, but wasn't too successful in keeping the goo from sliding down the sides of the jars. Once I filled them, leaving what I estimated to be the one inch headroom at the top of each I noticed that the syrup didn't go all the way down to the bottom, leaving air pockets and bare fruit. Back to the instructions, which said run a knife through each jar to release any air bubbles. Grabbing a butter knife I gently stirred the fruit and syrup together in the jars. After doing this with each jar I read the instructions for the next step. Somehow I missed the part where it said to use a plastic knife, not metal. Oh for craps sake! I could only imagine what kind of ailment we were going to get because I used stainless steel.

The lids were still perking in the pot and were much more difficult to remove from the bottom. (Tall pot + short arm + short tongs = fingers that were dangerously close to the water.) I finally fished them out and set them on the tops of the jars, after wiping all the syrup off, of course. Giving the rings a light turn, the jars went back into the pot. Now, recall that when I took the jars out of the water I carefully dumped the water BACK into the pot. Any physics major will tell you what is about to happen, but I majored in Art and barely passed algebra. As I put the fruit filled jars into the hot, boiling water, the water level rose. Higher and higher until even I could see there was going to be a problem. Using a measuring cup I started to bail the water out before I added the rest of the jars. The water was pretty much up to the rim of the pot, but I couldn't take out any more without compromising the two inches of water needed to cover the jars. Slamming the lid on and setting the timer, I hid in the living room while the pot hissed, sizzled and steamed for 25 minutes.

When the buzzer went off, I surveyed my kitchen. Water had flooded my stove and turned a sickly brown around the burner. Apple peels, cores and seeds were stuck to all the counters. Sugar syrup was stuck to everything else and had even glued a kitchen towel to the sink. I made room on the counter and carefully pulled the jars out of the water. They looked pretty good, actually. I surveyed them to see if I could identify what was an apple and what was the lump of gel and determined that you couldn't tell the difference. I hoped the 25 minutes in the water bath dissolved the gel lumps but had no real expectations on that. The jars had to sit undisturbed for 24 hours. During that time I heard all seven quarts make a funny pop and knew that the canning process was successful.

The next day, all the jars were covered with a weird white film. I scraped it a bit with my fingernail, it seemed pretty permanent. I had no idea what it was or how it got on there but obviously it was some sort of reaction from the pot. I wondered what kind of metal the pot was made out of and had flashbacks to warnings not to heat things up in tin pots or you'd get Alzheimer's when you were 80. I took a risk and ran one of the jars under water. The film rinsed right off.

Nowhere in all the recipes for preserved apple pie filling did I find how many quarts or pints it would take to make one pie. It seemed as if one full quart would do it, but when I used one jar in an 8 inch pie shell it wasn't enough. One and one half filled the pie nicely, but left me with a problem. Since these jars would be sold at a farmer's market I couldn't tell my customers that the jar they just bought wouldn't actually make a full pie. I'd have to make a dozen quarts and at least that many pints. I checked the pie filling for the dreaded slimy gel but miraculously, there was none. We baked and ate that pie and at least two others plus used a quart as the base for an apple crisp. All were delicious, none had any funky lumps in them.

So the answer to my question Can I can, is YES I CAN! This Sunday I will be having a marathon canning session with one or two girlfriends to help out. And I'm already getting 'orders' from colleagues who plan on attending the market in order to buy the apples!


Comments (2)

Oh jeez, I am almost sorry I asked!

Glad to hear the results were delicious, if a bit sticky. Hope to read about your marathon canning session soon!


Oh Debbie, sorry but the vision of you in the kitchen made me laugh. I have only been canning for a year and have picked the brains of a few experienced canners on ST. One thing that I have learned is to have EVERYTHING ready before I start anything - including all of the pots I will need. Don't give up. It is really fun!

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