The Art and Science of Home Preserving- AKA fun with fruit lava

Definitely worth the effort

Definitely worth the effort

It’s apricot season here.  Last year I missed it because I didn’t realize the season is only a few short weeks.  So this year, the second I saw apricots showing up at the farmer’s markets and roadside stands, I pounced right away.  Why?  Because the relatives almost rioted when there was no apricot jam in with their Christmas presents last year.  Apparently after three years of our living in California – land of produce-a-plenty – it had come to be expected.  And berry jams just weren’t cutting it.  So this year it was get the apricots or have some disappointed and upset relatives on my hands (starting with my apricot-loving spouse).

So last weekend before the wrist surgery there was a bit of a frantic jam-making day with some probably-not-as-ripe-as-ideal apricots before I had to try to do jam-making while one-handed.  Working with one, non-dominant hand is a lot less than ideal when you’re dealing with what I fondly refer to as ‘fruit lava.’

I love home preserving.  It makes me feel like I have one more valuable skill in case of the apocalypse, the products tend to be way better than storebought, and it’s an inexpensive (albeit time-consuming) way to make some very nice gifts.  Especially if people send you back their empty jars.  Also, it involves a whole lot of science, whether you notice it or not.

I first started preserving about five years ago, when we lived in Monterey.  We had joined a CSA and I just couldn’t keep up with the bounty, even with us getting the “small” boxes each week.  Even with a lot of it being turned into homemade baby food (another post on the ease and cost-effectiveness of that later!), there was just so much produce.  I’d always adored the fresh jam my aunt made when I was growing up, so I decided to take a stab at it.

After all, people have been doing home preserving for millennia.  How hard could it be?  I learned that while it’s not that hard, it does take a lot of time.  And work.  And a bit of trial-and-error.

Naturally, I bought books on the subject.  My two favorites are The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving (AKA the bible of canning), and Canning for a New Generation, recommended to me by a friend.  The Ball book is put out by the Ball company and is very user-friendly.  After all, it’s in their interest to make it easy for people to use their products.  Ball is pretty much synonymous with jars.  Even though there are several other companies on the market, you mainly see Ball on the shelves at grocery stores.

Speaking of Ball, I also like to support their jar division because it probably helps keeps their aerospace division afloat in the lean times of the aerospace industry.  No kidding, Ball Aerospace is part of the same company.  And they make really nifty parts for spacecraft.  The specialize in things like moving parts, sensors, and small satellite buses (platforms that host payloads), and I got to tour one of their really cool facilities in Colorado once.  Neat company – and seriously, all the same company.  So buying Ball jars, in a tiny, roundabout way, helps support the space industry.

Back to the jam-making.  It involves science on many levels, and once I trust my kid around fruit lava I think it’s going to make for some awesome ‘kitchen lab’ lesson time.  Here are just a few of the areas in home preserving that directly relate to serious science:

1) Killing and keeping out germs – you sterilize the jars, cook the snot out of the fruit, put the jars through a nice water bath, and seal them really nicely.  There’s also the sugar and the acid to help preserve and keep those nasty germs at bay.  Because if you screw up the sterilization part, your lovely Christmas gift could turn into botulism, and no one wants that!

2) Pectin – Whether you use storebought packages of pectin, or throw in some slices of apple in a cheesecloth, or just cook your fruit down forever and use the pectin already in there and hope it gets thick enough for your liking, it’s not technically jam if you don’t thicken it up (it’s just preserves).  And good luck making jelly without a lot of pectin.  There’s a lot of chemistry involved in turning your fruit from solid to liquid to a gel.

3) Sealing – why do you need head space in the jar, and what causes that satisfying little pop when your jars seal?  This is a great chance to talk about gases heating and expanding.  You leave that head space so there is a little bit of air.  Then when you put the jars through the water bath, that air heats up and some gets pushed out.  Pull the jar out to cool, and… as it contracts, you get a little bit of vacuum to suck that lid down nice and tight – and it makes that lid button go ‘pop!’ and tell you it has sealed.

4) The states of fruit lava in the lab – why does fruit break down and ooze juice when you add sugar to it (technical term: macerating)?  Why does lemon juice keep the fruit from turning brown (oxidizing)?  How long does it take your fruit to break down before slowly turning from solid to rolling-boil fruit lava to glossy, lovely jam?

5) Dealing with frustration in the lab – sometimes your best efforts are not rewarded.  Something goes wrong with the recipe.  Your jam foams, or it sticks to the bottom, or your pickles turn out soggy instead of crispy.  A jar fails to seal.  This is a great lesson opportunity for budding scientists – failed experiments are ones to learn from and start over.  Also, if the jar doesn’t seal you can still stick it in the fridge and eat it within a few weeks (or put it in the freezer for a few months – just don’t try to give it to grandma for Christmas).

6) One of these days I want to get a pressure canner and branch out even more.  Beyond what you can do with fruits, tomato sauce, and pickles using just a water bath, canning most (low-acid) vegetables safely needs more heat.  Short of getting industrial equipment, a pressure canner is the best I could get at home.

Bottom line, canning is both an art and a science.  I’ve gotten better with practice.  I’m still working on keeping my strawberry from foaming/bubbling, and those perfectly crisp pickled squash chips are still eluding me, but I’m getting closer with every experiment – er, batch.  And my daughter will slowly move up from fruit-washing assistant through the ranks: fruit cutter, sugar measurer, assistant stirrer, pot washer, and someday, when she is ready… wielder of the jar grabber.

What science experiments do you like to do with your kids in the kitchen?  Have you ever tried home preserving?  Do you think it’s worth the effort?

If you’re looking for an easy way to get started, I recommend starting with freezer jam.  It’s low-effort, delicious, and pretty much impossible to screw up.

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