I have a love-hate relationship with canning. I love looking at canning. Isn’t it pretty, all lined up on those shelves? I love the feeling of accomplishment I get when I look at a pantry full of canned goods. There’s food in there, people! I especially love eating the canning. Mmm, ripe peaches on a cold day. But I don’t like the process of canning. It’s hot and sticky, and it takes a lot of organization. Inevitably, I end up making a last minute run for something that I’ve forgotten while trying to make sure that sticky goodness does not end up on the kitchen floor.
In an attempt to avoid said last minute runaround, I have had to improvise. Now, unlike improvisation in cooking in general, improvisation in canning does warrant some caution. That’s because you want to make sure that your food is still safe to eat when you open it up again, so that you don’t get delightful problems like botulism. Luckily, if you’re canning high acid foods like pickles or fruit preserves, the risk is much lower than if you’re canning meat or vegetables. To avoid the risk, I tend to preserve my vegetables in freezer or dehydrator instead. I keep my canning – and improvising – focused on fruit, jam, and pickles.
What you can improvise in canning:
Most canning recipes are created for sugar, not other sweeteners. You can substitute honey or other sweeteners for sugar, but the jam may spoil a little more easily. If you’re substituting honey for sugar, substitute no more than half of the recipe or make freezer jam with your alternatively-sweetened jam. It’s still delicious, and the freezer also helps preserve the jam.
Do you really need pickling vinegar for pickles? Will plain white vinegar do? As long as the vinegar is 5% acetic acid, you’re good to try different vinegars. If you use a fancy vinegar, be prepared for its taste to transfer to your pickles. You can also try fermenting your pickles: this is a healthy method that produces pickles that are high is natural bacteria, just like the bacteria in traditionally-fermented sauerkraut.
Some recipes such as those for apricot jam call for lemon juice to offset the intense sweetness. I’ve successfully substituted vinegar for lemon juice. At first, the taste is quite different, but after the jam boils and sets you won’t really notice the change.
Alum is a pickle preservative. If you’re using fresh, firm produce, you do not need to use it.
We recommend Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving if you are learning how to can.
Pectin helps make your jam thick, but do you really need it? It is an easy shortcut, but the answer is no. To avoid using pectin, boil your jam until it is naturally thick. This will take a while, and you will need to continue to stir so that the fruit doesn’t stick to the sides and bottom and burn in the pot. To make jam even thicker, add fruit that is naturally high in pectin, such as apples, quince, plums, gooseberries, and citrus.
Tip: 7 Canning Essentials
Spices Save Wonky Fruit
One year, I made plum jam. I neglected to realize that the plums were really very ripe, and they were so delightfully full of sugar that they caramelized in the jam pot. My solution? I added cloves and nutmeg to create a delicious caramelized plum jam for winter cooking.
This solution also works with flavorless fruit. If you find that your fruit just isn’t quite up to par, you can add a little bit of spice to the mix. I love my pears canned with a little bit of vanilla extract, and cinnamon tastes amazing in peaches. Instead of giving up on the fruit, spice it up!
Do you use substitutions when you’re preserving food?