Some of the most accomplished cooks around — the ones willing to scout the best ingredients and splurge on the really good pots — have never put up food in jars.
It’s not all that difficult to identify stumbling blocks. No family role models. Memories of seasonal family servitude. Misperception or laziness. Fear.
The fact that canning and preserving in America has been trending for a decade is both a blessing and a curse. For every enthusiast with a blog and a jar lifter, there’s an essayist bent on exposing the posers among a genuinely interested, growing population.
Yet the activity continues to empower home cooks. Talk about rewarding: You can sail past the produce department’s rock-hard tomatoes, extend the shelf life of your farmers market favorites and reduce your household’s food costs and waste; and when was the last time you turned down a gift of DIY dilly green beans? Jarden Home Brands, which manufactures Ball products in Indiana, has enlisted an army of can-do types at state fairs and through its online newsletter. Classes fill quickly and cyberspace facilitates bonds from coast to coast.
Is the person who makes freezer jams in July less committed than the cook who wields a pressure canner and pickles through the seasons? It’s not a contest. After spending lots of time with the recent crop of canning and preserving cookbooks, though, I can say that jammers and picklers can both come out ahead.
There is a higher level of engagement in these guides. They provide technical information packaged with meaningful bells and whistles: bright images of every step or relatable stories or unexpected flavor combinations or recipes that incorporate what’s gone into the jar — and, in some cases, all that and a bag of tips.
The biggest of the bunch seems like a bargain. Canadian cookbook author Pat Crocker’s “Preserving: The Canning and Freezing Guide for All Seasons” (William Morrow, 2011; $30; 220-plus recipes) functions the way a Sears catalogue used to, as a “wishbook.” Its large type is easy on the eyes. Crocker shot all the photographs, which capture the beauty of raw ingredients and plated dishes as well as points of preparation. Her advice on best varieties for canning looks to be well researched, and the how-to-use-it recipes show depth and creativity.
If I’m allowed one quibble, it’s with the page referrals to general processing directions at the front of the book (in fact, a common characteristic among most of the books). Understandably, the volume would be at least a third longer than its 525 pages if each canning recipe was written in full. But there’s incentive and value in being able to read through what’s entailed, start to finish. I suspect people who know the genre have perfected their bookmarking techniques.
Some of the most interesting flavor profiles can be found in “Jam On: The Craft of Canning Fruit,” by Laena McCarthy (Viking Studio, 2012; $35; 68 recipes). A white nectarine jam with kaffir lime leaves and ginger. Pink peppercorns and dried hibiscus flowers in a brine for watermelon rind. The author’s customizing and pairing suggestions are equally inspired, and small-batch recipes are less intimidating. In 2009, McCarthy elevated a passionate pursuit into a Brooklyn-based, artisanal business called Anarchy in a Jar. She has earned deservedly good press, in part for using local producers and for working with less or no sugar. Even if you are not moved to create, you can buy her products online and in a lot of New York stores.
Handsome and cozy in a soft cover, “Homemade Preserves & Jams: Over 90 Recipes for Luscious Jams, Tangy Marmalades, Crunchy Chutneys, and More,” by Mary Tregellas (St. Martin’s Press, 2012; $24.99; 90-plus recipes), offers a European sensibility, owing to the author’s upbringing. Recipes are grouped by categories such as Tangy, Aromatic and Intoxicating. In addition to the subtitle’s roster, you’ll find teas, cordials and flavored vodkas. Make the Speedy Pear and Chocolate Tart with her Pear and Chocolate Jam and your life could change.
A Chicago restaurant chef’s weight is behind “The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking With Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-doux,” by Paul Virant with Kate Leahy (Ten Speed Press, 2012; $29.99; 134 recipes). The “aigre-doux” (“sour-sweet”; fondly described in the book as “preserves for cheese snobs and wine geeks”) alone hints at a certain level of sophistication. Who else might conjure a Thanksgiving stuffing with pickled leeks, or a milk jam? However, Virant’s Peach Saffron Jam is simple — and not to be missed. More than half of the book is given over to complementary menus and recipes, and they sound tasty.
For a more homey and decidedly savory approach, there’s “The Pickled Pantry: From Apples to Zucchini, 150 Recipes for Pickles, Relishes, Chutneys & More,” by Andrea Chesman (Storey Publishing, 2012; $19.95; 150 recipes). Its charming illustrations and fonts evoke old times. This book is a good choice for beginners and geared for small batches. The one-page chart of produce yields is worth photocopying and affixing via magnet to a kitchen appliance. Notes on storage and substitutions are helpful. In addition to the well-curated standards, there’s Pickled Cauliflower With Pomegranate Molasses and fermented cabbage of several cultures.
Last but not least, another: “Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round,” by Marisa McClellan (Running Press, 2011; $23; 110 recipes). Beginners could start here, and the conversation could continue through the Pennsylvania author’s blog. (While you’re there, check out the list of canning books she likes.) McClellan’s voice is friendly and reassuring; the batches are manageable. True to its name, this recipe collection covers territory beyond the ping of a sealed lid, such as salts, syrups, granolas, stocks and butters.
See a full list of Canning Recipes here.
Do you have canning questions? “Food in Jars” author Marisa McClellan will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.