Peaches, crab apples, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, black currants, green tomatoes — Karin Neidfelt has canned them all.
Jewel-toned jars of jam, jelly and relish line her basement shelves year after bountiful year. A lifelong canner, Neidfelt is also a food safety expert and retired Colorado State University Extension agent for Chaffee County. She recently moved to the Denver area and now offers food-safety advice through the Denver Extension office.
With bumper crops of fruit hitting backyards and farmers markets all over Colorado, we had Neidfelt answer some common questions about water-bath canning, the method used for jams, jellies and fruit.
Q: What do you need to get started?
A: The first thing is you need appropriate canning equipment. Back in some people’s mother’s or grandmother’s days, they used things like peanut butter jars or something that wasn’t truly a canning jar. You need to have canning jars. You can find them at yard sales and that’s OK, but the older jars, you have to check for things like chips in the rim and little tiny fault lines or cracks.
You also need rims and lids. The rims can be reused, but they have to be in good condition — no rust — and there can be no defects like bends. You cannot reuse the lids. Some people try, but it doesn’t give you a good seal.
For jams and jellies and fruit, you need a water-bath canner. You can’t use your big soup pot. What these water-bath canners have is a rack that you put the jars on and it keeps them above the heat and the bottom of the pan. A lot of people try to put their jars flat in a soup pot, and that can cause the glass to crack.
Q: What kind of recipe should I use?
A: You need to have a recipe that has been tested and considered a food-safe recipe. Your grandmother’s recipes, while maybe nothing bad ever happened, the thing I have always told people is where our fruits and vegetables come from now, there are more contamination issues. There are a lot of food-borne pathogens that used to never, never be an issue for people, like Campylobacter and listeria. They used to only affect animals and those who worked with animals. Now they’re in our food and in our neighborhood grocery stores. You have to use a tested recipe that will allow you to produce a safe product.
Q:Which fruit should I pick? Are leftovers OK?
A: What you want is fruit where there’s no obvious blemishes; fruit that’s in good shape. You don’t want to use substandard or overly ripe. When you have a fruit and it has a little gouge or a puncture, what has been introduced into the flesh of that fruit by that blemish? That’s the question. You either want to make sure it’s cut out completely — not just the surface, but cut out — or if it’s in really bad shape, don’t use it.
You’re going to put a lot of hard work into producing this product. First of all, you want to be safe, so you don’t make your family sick, and then you want it to taste good. If you’re using things that are substandard, you’re not going to have a good product and you’re running the risk of introducing a pathogen.
Q: What about altitude? Does that matter?
A: Any recipe you find in a magazine or canning-recipe book, they are set up for sea-level canning. Why is that important? We’re not at sea level. The boiling temperature of water at sea level is 212. Here in Denver, it’s roughly 203 degrees. That doesn’t seem like a whole lot, but when you’re canning, having those few degrees’ difference can make the difference between killing any pathogen that happens to be lurking in your jar and not killing it. What you have to do is have a tested recipe and you have to add extra minutes on for your water-bath canning.
Q: What are some common mistakes made by first-time canners?
A: They don’t follow directions and try to do shortcuts. Canning takes time. When you’re canning, you have to concentrate on what you’re doing. If you have a processing time of 10 minutes, you have to sit there and wait for that timer to go off and then pull those (jars) out. If you forget and it boils for 25 minutes, you are compromising the quality. You may end up with something that doesn’t gel or something that ends up so thick you can’t get it out of the jar and you have to throw the whole thing away.
Q: What’s the bottom line for canning?
A: You must have good-quality produce. You must wash your produce appropriately. You must follow a tested recipe. You must adjust for altitude. You must store it appropriately (in a cool, dry place).
And, then, enjoy the fruits of your labor — literally. There’s a lot of satisfaction to canning if you do it right. But you’ve got to do it right.
Tested canning recipes and more detailed information, including high-altitude adjustments:
- Colorado State University Extension: www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09347.html; www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09303.html; farmtotable.colostate.edu/prepare-high-altitude.php
- National Center for Home Food Preservation: nchfp.uga.edu/index.html
- For books, Karin Neidfelt recommends “So Easy to Preserve,” a guide to home canning and preservation published by the national center. Another classic is the “Ball Blue Book” (Alltrista Consumer Products, 2004).