Sunday, March 14, 2010

Do the can-can

I've had Meyer lemons coming out the ears the last couple of months. First, my tree, which is container planted and has been living at my mom's, was full to bursting with fruit. Then I acquired several pounds of the stuff when taking a walk around the neighborhood in which, up until a week ago, I used to work. What's a girl to do with so many lemons?

After making lemon bars twice, squeezing and freezing plenty of juice, and contemplating making limoncello, I decided it was high time I tried my hand at canning. I'd never done it before, though I'd definitely been wanting to. I even had a canning cookbook sitting on my shelf. But it was my new favorite book, The Urban Homestead, that finally convinced me with its no-nonsense instructions — and its insistence that you don't need a ton of fancy equipment to do it.

You can buy a canning pot, which is a really big pot with a lid that can hold several quart-size jars, depending on its size. You could also use a stock pot, if you've got one. I don't, and sells an inexpensive canning pot, which is what I went with. It comes with a jar rack, which is meant to prevent the glass jars from touching the bottom of the pot. It only fits quart jars, though, and seemed flimsy anyway. So I did what the Urban Homsteaders recommended and put a kitchen towel at the bottom of my pot.

I also purchased a jar lifter to move those boiling hot jars in and out of the pot, as well as a wide-mouth funnel, which made a huge difference when ladling steaming marmalade into the jars by preventing a big drippy mess.

Last but not least, I needed canning jars. (For those of you who don't know, you need to buy jars specified as canning jars. They come with special two-part lids, which create the hermetic seal that will keep them fresh in storage after processing.) I didn't want to buy them online for fear that one or two would crack in transit. One evening, my good pal L-Train and I searched high and low for jars, going everywhere from Home Depot to Ross to Michael's. No luck. I finally found them at Ace Hardware, though — and I didn't have to wait for them to be shipped!

If you're interested in canning, too, I would recommend getting a book like the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. It's really important to read up on how to properly process the jars in a hot water bath, if you want to avoid getting food poisoning — or poisoning someone else if you plan to give the goodies away as gifts.

For the Meyer lemon marmalade, I followed the recipe on Simply Recipes. It includes a step for turning into pectin the seeds, ends, membranes, and anything else that isn't going into the actual marmalade. It also does not include a water bath canning process at the end (she heats her jars in the oven and just lets them cool after filled, and I don't know if that'll preserve the goods for up to a year the way water canning does) — which, again, is why I recommend you do your homework before you begin your canning adventure.


Some challenges: I have a candy thermometer, so I was able to keep an eye on the temperature as the marmalade boiled. But I couldn't get a hang of the "wrinkle test," in which a little bit of marmalade is poured onto a frozen plate and then pushed with a finger to see if its set. My marmalade was liquid every time I tried it — and I tried it numerous times. It boiled away at 220°F, the temperature it's supposed to set, while it continued to fail the wrinkle test. It was finally when I noticed that the wooden spoon I was using to stir the marmalade, when allowed to cool on the counter, was developing a film of jelly, that I decided the marmalade was ready.

Also, that kitchen towel at the bottom of the pot only sort of worked. It kept the jars from touching the scorching hot bottom, but the corners flew up under pressure from the bubbling water, knocking some of the jars on their sides or tilting them to that they touched the side or bottom of the pot after all. Righting them with the jar lifter took some maneuvering. I was uncertain if the fact that a couple of them had been on their sides would affect their ability to process properly, but upon final removal, all the jars eventually gave off satisfying pops as the lids created vacuum seals on each jar. I decided, though, that next time, I would just use a washcloth.

The marmalade turned out to be a combination of sweet, sour, and bitter that goes really well with butter and toast. I also think it would go well with vanilla ice cream. I'm looking forward to experimenting more with canning, and I hope to make lots of jam and pickles this summer. I also think that the next time I come into a boat load of Meyer lemons, I'll see about making some of that limoncello.

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