The arrival of summer brings with it an abundance of fresh berries. True, it’s a delight to eat as many as you can in the warmer months, but there’s also a way to bring those delightful tastes with you into the fall and winter: jam! In this quick but informative introduction to canning, Lyndsie Suttle teaches us how to make jam at home and shares her go-to jam recipe. Thankfully, it’s versatile enough that you can use it to make most any fruit or berry jam.
Back in the ‘old days,’ our foremothers preserved food as a means of survival. Because we can now buy anything we desire in a grocery store, canning has become something of a mystery.
Many assume it is a difficult process or even a dangerous one, yet despite the perceived obstacles, it continues to be a pastime many women want to attempt. I invite you to leave any hesitancy in the garden and join me in seeing how approachable canning can be.
While it’s true that recent scientific studies have shown that some foods are unsafe for canning, and others need to be processed at higher temperatures in order to be safe to eat—don’t let that scare you away!
There are several things you can preserve without worry. Pickles, jams, jellies, and tomato sauces can all be canned using equipment and tools you likely already have in your kitchen.
Jam is my favorite thing to can! There are so many varieties to choose from: peach, blackberry, strawberry, raspberry, etc.—and they all look so pretty when set.
If you have never had homemade jam, you’ll be surprised at how much better it tastes than the store-bought varieties. All you need to get started are your canning items, your choice of fruit, sugar, pectin, and maybe a little lemon juice.
CANNING TERMS TO KNOW
JARS—A jar is pretty self-explanatory, but it is important to understand the two parts that go on top. The lid is the flat part that seals to the top of your jar. Lids can only be used once. The ring is the part that screws around the jar to secure the lid. Rings can be used over and over again, so don’t throw them away! You can find sets of canning jars in a variety of sizes at most any retail store that sells kitchen items, as well as online.
PECTIN—This is the ingredient that causes the jam to set. It comes in two forms—powder or liquid. I prefer powder, but if you want sugar-free jam, you’ll probably need liquid pectin. Powdered pectin reacts with sugar, so expect to use a lot of the sweet stuff. It is possible to make low-sugar jam with powdered pectin, but pay close attention to the package instructions. If you do not use the correct amount of sugar, your jam will not set.
HEAD-SPACE—This term refers to the amount of space you should leave at the top of your jam to allow room for it to expand, while still leaving room for the lid to seal. If you purchase a simple canning kit, it will likely include a little stick to easily measure head-space. You can also use a ruler to locate the 1-inch, ½-inch, and ¼-inch positions (the ridges on the top portion of the jar normally indicate the various headspace positions). For jams and jellies, about ¼-inch of headspace is recommended. Pickles, tomatoes, and vegetables require a little more.
PROCESSING TIME—This term refers to the amount of time your jars spend in your canning pot. Different fruits and vegetable will have different processing times. There should be a guide with your pectin that lists appropriate processing times. If a guide is not available with your pectin, you can find one easily by searching online.
PRESSURE CANNER or HOT WATER BATH—These are the two methods for processing or preserving food in jars. Pressure canning involves a special pot with a pressure gauge. The hot water bath method uses boiling water to preserve high-acid foods. I simply use a large stockpot for canning jam with the hot water bath method.
ACIDITY—The amount of acid in food is very important for canning! Low-acid foods must be canned using a pressure canner, but foods with high acid content can be canned using a hot-water bath method. Most fruits are high-acid, so you can safely can them using a hot-water bath. If you are unsure whether a food is safe for canning, you can check the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s most recent guidelines.
SMALL-BATCH CANNING—If you find an older book about canning, you’ll probably find that the recipes make huge batches of jam! This made sense when you were canning fruits or vegetables from your own garden, but if you are like me and are canning what you bought at the farmer’s market or your local U-pick, you won’t need a dozen quarts. Modern canning practices make it easier to preserve just a few jars at a time. I typically can 3-4 pints or 6-8 half-pints.
The only items you’ll need to make your first small batch of jam are:
- Your favorite fruit
- Plenty of sugar
- A box or jar of pectin
- A pot to cook your fruit
- A large stockpot to process your jam
- Small saucepan and a bowl for sterilizing lids and rings
- Lids and rings
- A simple canning kit, which includes tongs, a magnet for lifting jar lids, and a funnel
- Optional: a special basket to prevent your jars from touching the sides of your canner
- Clean cloth to wipe down jars
MAKING YOUR JAM
Pectin should include exact instructions for your chosen fruit, but here are some general guidelines.
PREPARE YOUR FRUIT
First, you’ll need to prepare your fruit by peeling and removing large seeds. If you are using fruits like blackberries or raspberries, leave the seeds in. Then, you’ll put the fruit in your pot to cook.
You can use something like a potato masher to crush your fruit while it’s cooking. I like to leave a few chunks in mine, but this is very much a matter of preference. The instructions will tell you how long to let your fruit cook, as well as when and how much sugar and pectin to add.
STERILIZE YOUR JARS AND LIDS
While the fruit is cooking, you can prepare the jars and hot water bath by sterilizing. Get your large stockpot ready with enough water to cover and fill all the jars you’re planning to use. I can usually get four to five pints in my stockpot at a time.
Make sure to leave space between the jars; they should not be touching each other. Bring the water to a boil with the jars inside to sterilize them. This is very important!
Your jars must be completely clean, or you risk bacteria growth inside your jars—not good! You can also use your dishwasher to sterilize the jars. Simply run a cycle with only your clean jars inside, and use the ‘sanitize’ function.
You will also need to prepare your lids. Boil some water in a small saucepan. Place the lids in a clean bowl and pour the boiling water on top of them.
Let them sit for at least five minutes. This will soften the glue that seals the jars. If you do not use all of the lids, it’s okay—you can save them for next time, as long as you haven’t yet used them on a jar. Using the tongs from your canning kit, remove your jars from the boiling water and drain the water from inside.
FILL THE JARS
Use the funnel to fill each jar with your cooked fruit. Remember to use the stick to measure the correct amount of head-space in the jars. (Again, these steps will be included on the instructions in the pectin box.)
You will probably have some drips—I always do! Remove any spills from the rim of the jar with a clean damp rag. Then, for each jar, use a magnet to lift one lid on top of the jar. Place a ring on the jar, twisting on only as tight as you can with your fingertips.
PUTTING THE JAM JARS IN THE HOT WATER BATH
Use your tongs to return your jars to the hot water bath canner. You will likely need to remove some of the water from your pot prior to putting the jars back inside since they will now be full.
Your water should still be boiling, so it is important that your jars are still warm to avoid breaking. Water should cover your jars by at least 2-3 inches.
Place the lid on top of the pot and set the timer for the recommended processing time. You can expect to wait between 10-15 minutes. After the processing time, turn off the heat and remove the lid.
Wait until the water has cooled slightly, then use the tongs to remove the jars. Place them on a towel on your counter to cool completely.
Now comes the best part—waiting for the jars to seal! You’ll hear a loud POP that lets you know it has sealed. This usually happens within a few minutes, but it may take longer, so don’t worry if you don’t hear it for a while.
LABELLING AND EATING
It’s important to make note of what you have in each jar, as well as the date you canned it. There are a lot of options for purchasing or creating your own pretty labels. You can place them on the side of the jar, but remember you may reuse the jar later. I often place a sticker on the lid of the jar or even write directly on the lid with a marker.
You can eat your jam as early as the day after canning. Store your jam in a cabinet or pantry. Jam should be eaten within 1-2 years from the time it is preserved. After opening, a jar of jam can be kept in the refrigerator for 6 months to 1 year.
Jam canned at home is a truly delicious treat. It is so simple to make but it is beautiful and special enough to give as a gift. But, like many homemade projects, it may not always turn out exactly as you plan.
Here are a few things to remember in order to have a great canning experience:
- It may take up to a day before your jam is completely set, so don’t be concerned if it looks a little wobbly at first. It will likely look better tomorrow! It may also get darker as it sets—this is normal and does not mean it is spoiled.
- If your jam still does not set all the way—don’t despair! Just call it a sauce and use it as a topping on ice cream, oatmeal, or yogurt. No one needs to know you made a mistake. Next time, simply pay closer attention to the amount of time you boil your fruit and double-check your pectin and sugar.
- Make sure you remove the rings (but not the lids) and give the jars a good wiping with a dry cloth before storing them in your pantry. I have forgotten to do this before, and my rings rusted.
Canning doesn’t have to be scary or even a mystery. It can be a fun (and very tasty) hobby! After you’ve tried jam, consider giving pickles a try. Eventually, you may even want to invest in a pressure canner in order to preserve all your favorite vegetables from the garden. Once you know the basics, you can preserve almost anything.
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