Town & Gown
Article and photos
Spring is our reward for surviving the wet, cold, grey weather that comes with winter. When green buds start forming on the tree branches, it’s like a glimmer of hope has arrived. However, when fresh produce starts showing up at the local farmer’s market, it’s time to celebrate the arrival of spring.
Currently, strawberry season is in full swing in Mississippi. Unfortunately, it won’t last for long. Canning is a great way to take advantage of the plentiful fruit that is in our backyard right now so you can enjoy it all year along. Preserving and canning food isn’t just for grandmas anymore. The art has seen a resurgence in recent years due to the increase in the price of food and concerns over the use of artificial ingredients and preservatives.
One advantage to canning your own fruit is the quality and freshness of the fruit. Fruit begins to lose nutrients as soon as it is harvested, so the sooner you eat it, the better. Fruit purchased from a local farmer’s market has typically been picked within the last 24 hours. Fruit purchased from a major grocery store chain may have been picked up to a week prior. Sometimes the fruit has been picked before its ripe, in anticipation of the long lead time needed to get it to its final destination, preventing it from fully developing all its nutrients.
Canning works by boiling food to kill any bacteria and sealing the can (or jar), creating a completely sterile environment. Because there is no bacteria present, the food does not spoil, allowing home canners to store unopened food for an extended period of time.
If you are new to preserving and canning fruits and vegetables, strawberries are a good place to start. Strawberries are naturally high in acid, meaning they can be processed using the water bath canning method and do not require the use of a pressure cooker, as is required when canning vegetables and meat. The only tools you need are a stockpot deep enough to cover your jars with at least two inches of water, glass mason jars with lids and rings, a jar rack, and a basic utensil kit. Most of these items you may already have on hand or can be purchased at your local grocery store.
Because the goal is to create a sterile environment for the food, it makes sense to thoroughly clean and sanitize your jars. Check jars to make sure they are not chipped or cracked. Wash jars, rings, and lids in warm soapy water, then sterilize the jars only in boiling water for 10 minutes. Once sterilized, remove the pot from the heat, but allow your jars to stay in the hot water to keep warm. Pouring hot jam into a cold glass jar can cause the jar to shatter.
Place jar lids in hot, but not boiling, water. Hot water softens the gummy material on the lid that seals the jar. However, boiling water will activate the lids and render them useless before you even get started. While jars and lids can be reused, lids can only be used once.
One term you may come across in canning is “headspace.” Headspace is the space from the top of the jar to the food or liquid in the jar. Too little headspace, and the food may boil over and prevent the lid from sealing. Too much headspace and the jar may not seal properly because the processing time is not long enough to drive the air out of the jar. Food at the top of the jar may also discolor. Most recipes will instruct you on how much headspace to leave. Many basic kits come with a ruler to help you measure headspace.
Once the jars have been processed and allowed to cool, check the lids to make sure they do not flex up and down. Occasionally, a jar will not seal. The contents are safe to eat, but the jar needs to be refrigerated and eaten immediately. According to the The National Center for Home Food Preservation, properly sealed jars have a shelf life of at least one year. Once opened, your strawberries should be kept refrigerated and consumed within one month.
Taking that first taste of real homemade jam made with fresh strawberries is like nothing you can buy in a store. Once you’ve made your first successful batch, you may find the process extremely rewarding and completely addictive.
Sample recipe below. To view the entire spread and recipes, visit the Town & Gown website.
Small Batch Homemade Strawberry Preserves
- 2-1/2 cups sliced strawberries (about 3 pints)
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 3 tablespoon pectin (I used Sure Jell)
- 3-1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 (12 ounce) glass preserving jars with lids and bands