[11 June 2014]
Marisa McClellan, bases her second canning cookbook, Preserving by the Pint, on the practical notion that most people do not require a winter’s worth of jams, pickles, or chutneys. Instead, she offers literally pint-sized canning recipes, perfect for smaller households or those who just don’t want five dozen jars of blueberry jam.
McClellan isn’t exactly burning new territory here. Eugenia Bone, master chef, mycologist, and expert canner, led the way in 2009 with her seminal: Well-Preserved whose subtitle says it all: Recipes and Techniques for Putting Up Small Batches of Seasonal Foods.
Bone’s book is the bible, a clearly written manual well-suited to those whose kitchens resemble broom closets. A canning novice could pick up her book and end up the happy producer of canned tomatoes and perfectly pressure-canned corn. I know. I was that person.
McClellan’s aim is less ambitious. Preserving by the Pint limits itself to those foods that can be plunked into pickling brine and refrigerated, or water bath canned. Her audience is also different than Bone’s: a younger demographic, fans of fellow DIYer’s Ashley English and Karen Solomon.
A few explanatory notes on canning. There are two kinds: water bath and pressure. Which to use with what foods depends on the pH, or acid level, of a given food. Here is Eugenia Bone, from Well-Preserved: “Any food with a pH of 4.5 or lower can be canned safely in a water bath…”
Water bath canning is just what it sounds like: food is packed into glass jars. The lids are two-piece affairs consisting of the lid itself, which has a rubberized flange, responsible for creating the all-important seal, and a ring, which screws down over the lid. The jar is lowered into a large pot of boiling water onto a rack. Clap a lid on the pot and boil: jars can spend 10-40 minutes in the canner, depending on their acid level.
Foods with a pH of 4.5 or higher can be water bath canned provided a preservative or pickling agent is added: sugar, salt, citric acid, or vinegar. These agents ensure food safety, killing bacteria. Never deviate from a canning recipe calling for these agents: you invite botulism toxin, which of course, is fatal.
To can foods with a pH of 4.5 or higher without preservative agents, you must pressure can, that is, creating high steam heat in an enclosed environment for a set time period. My pressure canner has five parts: a very heavy cast aluminum pot, a rack, a lid, a weight that fits on the lid, and a dial-gauge that reads pressure.
Pressure canning is a more complex animal, but it’s well worth your time. Nearly any food can be pressure canned: meats, fish, broth, low-acid vegetables like wax beans or asparagus. My pressure canner, a wonderful gift, meant I had homemade chicken broth on hand last February when my husband and I were both sick and too weak to cook. And though you may sneer at canned corn now, as spring veggies grace the marketplace, you won’t come January, when dinnertime arrives some chilly weeknight, catching you flatfooted.
A quality pressure canner will set you back about $150. Yeah, not cheap, but it’s an investment that rapidly repays itself.
McClellan is quick to extol the Kuhn Rikon fourth burner pot for water bath canning. While this looks like a useful item, my water bath canning set—a 21.5 gallon Graniteware pot fitted with a rack, a plastic funnel, and a jar lifter, set me back $24.99 at the local hardware store. It’s seen six years of hard use. Yes, a canner set is only useful for canning, whereas a 4th burner pot, which retails for $39.99, has multiple uses. What to purchase depends on your needs in the kitchen.
In McClellan’s first cookbook, Food In Jars, she writes: “When it comes to canning, my first love will always be jam.” Her love is evident in Preserving by the Pint, which abounds in jams and their associates, fruit butters, conserves, marmalades, and fruit syrups. These are all relatively acidic items, easily prepared and boiled up in a water bath canner. Most have busy flavor profiles—blueberry jam with crystallized ginger, blueberry jam with maple, strawberry jam with honey, strawberry Meyer lemon marmalade, fig jam with thyme, peach jam with salted brown sugar, peach jam with Sriracha.
These last few are hardly jams for spreading on breakfast toast, yet McClellan offers few uses for them. We are repeatedly told they’re nice as glazes for chicken or pork, or useful on an endless succession of cheese platters.
Tastes are deeply personal, and others may feel differently. I for one can’t see ever pairing peaches with salted sugar, much less with Sriracha. You might as well invite Joan Baez to open for Metallica.
As for blueberry jam with maple, or raspberry with jalapeño, even here in food-obsessed Northern California, berry season is painfully short. Drought also means berry and stone fruit prices are breathtakingly high. And though I love canning, my time is limited. I don’t want to waste precious time, money, or fruit canning what strikes me as novelty recipes. I’d rather preserve those elusive, expensive July flavors straight, allowing them to shine through alone.
On the savory end, water bath canning in small amounts is naturally self-limiting: pickles, chutneys, and a few salsas are on order. And while these foods can be delicious, unless you are a rabid fan of pickled foods, you will only eat so many. Their strong flavors force them into the condiment category, perhaps the least necessary where food preparation is concerned.
Happily, condiments are a culinary playground. They’re fun. So go play in the kitchen: try pickled garlic scapes or wax beans. But avoid making pickled peas, which keep only a week in the fridge and thus beg the question why you are pickling this blink-and-miss-it veggie’s season to start with. Gorge while they’re fresh, which lasts about a week anyway.
Lemon cucumbers? Eat them fresh, then lacto-ferment them. They’ll keep for months, becoming probiotically healthy for you in the process. A pickle that keeps only a week does nothing for you.
A word on canning with vinegars. After canning some inedibly harsh asparagus and artichokes, I read Eugenia Bone and Paul Bertolli a little more closely. While your vinegar must have five percent acetic acidity to can safely, the distilled white vinegar I was using could strip paint. I realized white wine vinegar, even at seven percent acidity, was far easier to take. Champagne vinegar is even nicer. McClellan calls for cider vinegar, an American classic that won’t blow your head off.
Preserving by the Pint also offers a few plainer pantry items for the grumpies among us. Sour Cherries with Bourbon is a classic, while Salt-Preserved Herbs is pure genius: take eight ounces of fresh herbs, chop roughly, toss with six ounces of sea salt, and jar it. This helpful seasoning lasts for months.
The recipe for Pizza Sauce is useful even if you purchase a commercial shell. The Lemon, Parsley, and Garlic Salt is another way to work fresh herbs into your cooking without resorting to commercial mixes. Totally off the preserved food track is Maria’s vinaigrette recipe, intended for sandwiches. If you’ve ever consumed an Italian deli sandwich and wondered how to replicate that wonderfully tangy dressing sopping your roll, now you’ll know.
Just a quick shout-out to Mariellen Melker, the book’s prop mistress: nice Pyrex Snowflake pattern sugarbowl you tucked the pickled eggplant into.
Ultimately, whether or not Preserving by the Pint works for you depends on the sort of cook you are. If canning is a couple of Saturday afternoons intended to perk up your relish tray, you’ll find Preserving by the Pint full of enticing, easy to use recipes. If you are a hardcore canner whose jars factor into meal plans during the leaner months, Preserving by the Pint offers some diversions, recipes to play with when you have the canner full of hot water and lots of produce to mess with.
But ten years from now, few of us are likely to remember what the fuss was over Sriracha. And the salt-with-our-sugar craze will hopefully fade, taking up residence in cultural memory beside dock shoes and LeSportSac. In that vein, I’d direct you to McClellan’s fine first book, Food in Jars, also devoted to small batch canning, but more focused on pantry basics.
McClellan knows her material well. Proust she’s not—the locution “really fun” should be banned from the English language—but on the whole she’s a clear writer who could safely can Styrofoam. In creating smaller canning batches, McClellan had to factor in acids, vinegars, salts, and sugars at safe yet tasty levels. Balancing both taste and safety had to be an onerous task at times. I tip my hat to her.
I’d love to see McClellan work her jars into more recipes sets, and to move beyond the limitations of the water bath. The woman is clearly a talented cook with a ready audience.
Dare I ask for the pressure canner?