I might eat an (overpriced) apple a day, but my true fruit love affair has always been with strawberries: dipped in chocolate, scattered with sugar, sliced on pastries, spread on toast, or just eaten plain, mother nature totally scored with this one.
Therefore, I was insanely excited to learn how to make strawberry preserves (knocking out badge requirement #14 – Learn how to can acid foods, such as fruits, tomatoes, pickled beets, in a boiling water bath. With help, can one or more of the foods in season) with L.A. County Fair blue ribbon food preservationist (and fellow professional music nerd) Mara Schwartz, who recently gave a talk about her craft at Nerd Nite. She began preserving foods ten years ago after discovering grape vines in her backyard, and multiple fruits and vegetables later, hasn’t looked back.
Mara welcomed Brooke and I into her beautiful home, poured up some prosecco, and busted out some of her award-winning foods – tomato preserves, apple butter, and chutney – and we kicked off the proceedings by admiring her handiwork.
Then Mara began the knowledge-dropping – giving us her full-on Nerd Nite presentation. Food preservation used to be a necessity – it allowed people to eat produce after its season ended, to store foods without refrigeration, and to get much-needed vitamins when away from fresh food sources (i.e. if you were in the navy, dining on biscuits and sea air).
We talked a bit about canning safety – after all, improperly canned goods can offer you a one-way trip to botulism hell if you’re not careful with the sterilization process – and reviewed some of the insanely lengthy regulations would-be blue ribboners need to follow in order to keep the L.A. County Fair judges happy (and alive).
To me, canning seems like the sexiest of the food preservation methods – but it’s not the only one by far. There are over twenty ways one can preserve food (which, in a nutshell, just means to create & store food in a way that prevents it from getting yukked up with stuff like our odorless & colorless buddy, botulism). Why, yes, this would be a perfect time to knock out badge requirement #12 – Know six ways of preserving food and the advantages and disadvantages of each:
REFRIGERATION: Pro – easy, ubiquitous / Con – the bad stuff can still grow after a while, the modern method requires electricity
PICKLING: Pro – simple process / Con – high sodium content of pickled food
SMOKING: Pro – imparts complex flavors to food / Con – time-intensive, can cause carbon monoxide poisoning if done in an enclosed area
DRYING: Pro – reduces volume, allowing you to store more food / Con – alters texture and taste of food, time-intensive
JUGGING: Pro – rich flavors, great for stew / Con – difficult, labor-intensive
VACUUM-PACKING: Pro – seals in flavor, keeps out air, reduces packaging / Con – requires machinery, can still allow anaerobic bacteria to flourish
Now back to the lecture at hand. Once stuffed full of prosecco, jam, and knowledge, we went to the kitchen to assemble our tools, which were surprisingly simple: water bath canner (giant pot), rack (holds cans upright in the water bath), magnet (to pull lids & rings out of the water), various grabbing tools (to pull cans out of the water), funnel, mason jars, kitchen scale, measuring cup, cast iron pot, and wooden spoon.
While the mason jars were being sterilized in the water bath for at least ten minutes, we rinsed the berries, lopped off their tops, sliced ’em in half, then measured out two quarts on the adorable kitchen scale.
Using the Ball Blue Book (snicker, snicker) recipe, we also diced up a bit of lemon (rind and all), measured out our sugar, and set aside a package of pectin, which is the magic ingredient for jammy delights. As the mason jars enjoyed their steamy bath (not just to get rid of bacteria, but also to ensure they won’t break when you funnel in the hot fruit mixture), we began to stir up the strawberries, lemon, and pectin until it bubbled up in a froth frenzy. Once it started going nutso, we added an insane amount of sugar, stirring, stirring, stirring. STIRRING, STIRRING, STIRRING.
After a magical countdown, it was time for the moment of truth. Using a ladle and some delightful green funnels, we poured the preserve mixture into the jars as if it was solid gold, leaving headspace at the top for the steaming fruit to expand. This was a very exciting time for us:
Once filled, we popped those babies back into the water bath for ten more minutes of exciting boiling action (just say no to botulism, kids!)…
…and voila – magical strawberry preserve delights!!!
I came away from this whole experience realizing that the kitchen isn’t as scary a place as I sometimes think it is. I’ve been curious about canning for a long time, but was really worried about getting food poisoning from improper preserving technique, but this was actually way easier than I imagined.
Now…who’s going to teach us how to make pickles??