Sunday, October 08, 2006

Not Your Grandmother's Jelly Jars

Ball and Mason may be two of the oldest lines of glass jars for canning, but these days, they're looking to extend their audience. Their newest offering, the Ball Elite Platinum jars are designed for a younger market -- one who wants a sleek looking jar without the old-fashioned fruit and gingham lids of yore. (You can still get the gingham lids but in newer styles, also as part of their Elite line.)

The company is also marketing these jars to crafters -- as well as jam and jelly makers. At a little bigger than the standard small 125 ml jelly jar and with a wide mouth, the low-profile Platinum Elites were just what I chose for my latest round of jelly making.

In the late seventies, jelly making was endless. I can remember my mother in the kitchen with endless red currants, and plums, and cherries, and all manner of other end summer fruit coming in from trees my aunts had (and my mother on our arid Oklahoma homestead dreamed she'd have). All batches were "big batch" and there were endless discussion amongst the sisters about ratios of pectin and sugar. Then there was the paraffin. Wax was melted in a coffee can and poured over the top of the jelly once it was in the jar as a seal. It was a huge production, a huge mess, and produced a huge number of jars of jelly.

Cut to today. This is not your mother's jelly making. With small batch recipes making 6-8 jars, great fruit available at farmer's markets, and up-to-date food safety, making and canning jelly is a relatively simple task. Here's what you need: A large, heavy stock pot, some kind of rack to put in the bottom, jars, unused lids with fresh sealant, rings, a few great recipes and an hour or two. You can find jars, lids, and pectin if you need it (now liquid in pre-measured pouches instead of the old stuff you had to measure out) in the baking aisle of most large grocery stores. Marsh usually carries cases of the 250 ml jars (good for chutneys and marmalades) and the 125 ml jars (perfect for jelly). Depending on the location, they'll also have the platinum-topped Elite wide mouth jars which hold about 150 ml.

My two batches Saturday night? Spiced Port Wine Jelly (perfect if you have a bottle of port that's slightly past its prime or been open for a while) and Apple Cider Rosemary Jelly. The port wine spice tastes like grape jelly with a wonderful warm kick plus clove and cinnamon. The Apple Cider Rosemary is apple cider infused with rosemary and a hint of citrus. Neither recipe took more than 20 minutes to make and both called for 1 pouch of pectin to ensure the chemistry works and the jelly sets up. So if the recipes are so easy, why aren't more people make their own jelly and jam?

It does take time. Additionally, many books give conflicting instructions and until you do enough batches to get a feel for which mistakes are fatal and which are merely adjustments, it's an intimidating process. No one wants to risk their fruit going bad or someone getting food poisoning. At the heart of it, though, are the basics. A good stock pot with enough water to cover a few inches over the jars, a rack (mine is made from rings tied together), and jars is all you need to get started. Just drop your jars in slowly and boil for 10 minutes to sterilize. I usually wash mine with soap and water first. Additionally, tongs or some sort of lifter to move jars in and out of the boiling water is useful as well as a funnel for neatly getting the jelly in the jar. (Ball makes a "jar lifter" and also a funnel to fit their jars.) While your jars boil, also boil the lids briefly in hot water to activate the sealant. (Make sure you always use new lids -- they won't properly seal twice.) The jars and lids can keep safely in hot water while you make your recipe.

After you've followed your jelly recipe and filled your jars (to within 1/4 inch or so of the top), you add the lids and put the rings on loosely. Then boil the full, sealed jars for 10 minutes in your stock pot to "process". In the old days, there was paraffin and other sealants but today, those techniques are considered unsafe. With modern vacuum lids, the process of boiling the jars eliminates excess air and creates a strong and safe seal. After 10 minutes, take your full and finished jars from the boiling water and let cool. You might even hear the lids pop as the jars and the lids are sucked in because of the vacuum. You can tighten the rings and clean up the jars (hard water leaves deposits), then label and keep your jars for up to a year. The food safety aspect is more forgiving than it used to be. Lids are designed to seal more easily, and many new designs have a clear button that you can see is either popped up or down for a good seal. In a world where e.coli comes from Spinach in a bag, actually canning your own home-cooked food seems somehow more controllable.

Jelly making can still be a bit of a mysterious art. Some batches set up better than others, and occasionally, some don't set up at all. But with 6 jars, it's easier to troubleshoot or recook than with 36 jars. How did mine turn out? The port wine spice came out well -- it's a recipe I've made before. The rosemary apple cider? It looks like it might not have set up the way I'd like. Still, it gives me a bit of a connection with the past, a way to do something creative and comfortably "old school" but with a new and easier twist for today. There are days it still can seem endless, but it's not your grandmother's jelly anymore. My next batch will be purple basil wine jelly. Probably not something my grandmother would have made.


IndyFoodie said...

My sister bought me the Ball canning book last fall and it is fantastic! The only thing is all the jars are pretty ugly…lids with fruit illustrations and strange fruit patterns on the glass. I thought I would just find some cool old Ball jars. I went antiquing and was horrified at the price of Antique Ball Jars! Let’s just say I saw one that was $45! It was awesome…huge, blue, near perfect condition…but $45. I think I will be on the look out for these cute little silver top ones!

christine (myplateoryours) said...

These jars look adorable, but they look even better filled up with gorgeous, jewel-toned jelly. Thanks!!! said...

i came back to your site today to see if you'd recommended a book on this topic. alas, no. would you mind sharing your recipe finder? I'm intrigued.