Food In Jars Mastery Challenge 2017

While I didn’t necessarily intend to at the beginning of the year, I ended up participating in the 2017 Food in Jars Mastery Challenge, in which a different food preservation skill was highlighted each month. Going into the challenge, I was familiar with fermentation and some salt preserving, but I had never water bath canned before. Over the 2016 holidays, though, I had bought myself some minimal canning equipment, plus Tom had bought me a preservation book, Preserving Italy, so the challenge was a good opportunity to try these things out.

January: Marmalade

For this challenge, I made the Bitter Citrus Marmalade from Preserving Italy. The timing was good since, although we do not have local citrus in Philadelphia, my dad had just mailed me a bunch of oranges from his backyard in Arizona.

At the time I was pleased with the marmalade, but in retrospect, it…was not that great. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now say I let it cook too long. Once it hit 220º I should have stopped, but I stressed too much about the set point. I have since learned to just trust the thermometer rather than looking for visual cues. Other mistakes I made included not zesting the citrus thinly enough (I had big chunks of peel, which I did on purpose because I thought it would be cool, but it was not cool) and using pint jars rather than smaller jars. To be fair, the recipe called for pint jars, so that wasn’t a mistake per se, but I can’t honestly imagine who could possibly eat enough jam, jelly, or marmalade to justify an entire pint.

The recipe itself was tasty (vanilla bean, mmm), but it was horrifying to me how much sugar was in it (turns out marmalades and jellies have a 1:1 sugar ratio, as opposed to jam which is more like 2:1). I had an open jar in the fridge, and over time, it was just unusable since it was so thick and the sugar had started to crystallize. I ended up tossing the rest of my processed jars (I had given 1 jar to my mother, which I’m now terribly embarrassed about).

Verdict: Even knowing what I could improve in the future, I’m not very interested in making marmalade again, unless there’s a really compelling recipe I’d like to try, and/or if there’s a recipe in Naturally Sweet Food in Jars that contains an alternative to all that sugar. I’m also a bit less likely to enjoy store-bought marmalade now, knowing how much sugar it must contain.

bitter citrus marmalade

February: Salt Preserving

I had previously made saeurkraut, kimchi, and preserved citrus, so I felt comfortable with this skill going in. In February, I tried a few new-to-me recipes, including New World Rye Kraut and Pumpkin Spice Kimchi from Ferment Your Vegetables. The Rye Kraut is fantastic – it’s basically a simple sauerkraut with caraway seeds. We love it to eat it with sausage. I don’t eat a whole lot of kraut on a regular basis, so it’s still in my fridge, but it’s still just as tasty. The Pumpkin Spice Kimchi was made with butternut squash. Interestingly, I had fermented some butternut squash for a different project the month before, so I wasn’t worried that it would be weird or anything, but… I just don’t think it worked that well in a kimchi context. I ended up tossing it.

Later in the year, I came back to this skill and made salt-preserved green tomatoes with a recipe from Preserving Italy. These came out way too salty, so I don’t think I’d try this one again.

In December I made a fresh batch of kimchi using the Everyday Baechu Kimchi recipe from Ferment Your Vegetables, which turned out great.

The one thing I didn’t do for this challenge was make flavored salt. There are several recipes in Preserving Italy that I’d like to try, so maybe I’ll come back to this in 2018 in the boring winter months when I need a project.

Verdict: I think this is a very important skill, and I was glad to get more practice with it this year. In the future I would like to branch out to salt-preserving meats, such as bacon.

Pumpkin spice kimchi

March: Jelly OR Shrubs

I confess I was not very interested in this challenge in March, partly because it was too early in the year for fresh seasonal fruit to make either jelly or shrubs. I did see a few non-fruit jellies that looked interesting (including wine jelly, beer jelly, and herb jelly) but not compelling enough to make.

I came back to this in May when we finally had some fresh strawberries and made a strawberry black pepper shrub. It was fine, I tried to drink it a few times with sparkling water or in a cocktail, but I still find shrubs way too sweet for me. In June I tried again with a lemon coriander shrub, thinking that lemon would be less cloying than strawberry, but no such luck.

In June I made my first and only jelly, the four pepper jelly from Saveur. This actually came out great, but due to the suspended pepper pieces, it is very reminiscent of a marmalade. Still very sweet, but in this case I could forgive the sweetness due to the heat of the peppers. This happens to be the only recipe I made all year that required commercial pectin. In the future, I’d prefer to stick to recipes that only use naturally occurring pectin (from apples, lemon seeds, etc.) rather than using any commercial additive. There is a hot pepper jelly in Saving the Season that I would try in the future; most of the jelly recipes in that book start with apple pectin as a base, which I find appealing.

Verdict: Much like marmalade, I’m glad I made jelly once, but now that I know how much sugar is required, I’m unlikely to do it again, unless there’s a really amazing sounding recipe. I confess that I have yet to invest in a proper jelly bag, so for the sake of learning, I really should do that. As for shrubs, I’m glad I tried, and now that I know the technique, I feel confident I could improvise any number of flavors; the problem is, I just don’t like drinking them (not because of the vinegar, but because of the sugar).

strawberry black pepper shrub

April: Quick Pickles

Having lost my enthusiasm in March, and likewise due to a very late spring in which we STILL weren’t seeing spring fruits or vegetables at the farmers’ market in April, I also didn’t do this challenge in the month it was assigned.

However, in June, I made a quick pickled egg using some leftover brine from fermented escabeche, and it came out great. In August, I made some Chinese pickled cucumbers as well as the cornichons recipe from Saving the Season, using gherkins from the farmers’ market. The gherkins didn’t taste enough like real cornichons (oh well), but the Chinese cucumbers came out nicely.

Verdict: I often don’t give this skill enough credit, but it is a good one to have. Sometimes a quick pickle is just what you need to get a good pickled flavor but still maintain the crispness of your vegetables and have everything taste really fresh. Toward the end of the year I tried to make an elaborate ferment and it turned out all it really needed was a quick pickle. I could definitely use more practice with making this judgment call.

Chinese pickled cucumbers

May: Cold Pack Preserving

At this point in the challenge I was in truly unfamiliar territory, as I had no idea what cold pack preserving even was. I didn’t actually get to this one until June, due to the aforementioned late spring. When I did, I made spicy pickled green beans, using fennel seeds instead of dill seeds (we deemed these “pizza beans” since they evoke a pepperoni flavor). We liked these so much, I made a second batch.

Once I knew what they were, I continued to do cold packs throughout the rest of the year. In July, I made pickled melons, as well as peaches in grappa syrup, both from Preserving Italy. In August, I made cocktail onions from Saving the Season, and in September, I made canned whole tomatoes and canned green tomatoes, also from Saving the Season. In October I made pickled green beans from Saving the Season. Of what I’ve opened so far, the melons and cocktail onions were just OK, but the peaches in grappa syrup were amazing!

Verdict: I’m very glad to have learned this skill and the difference between cold and hot pack preserving. As I gained experienced I learned some of the pitfalls and strategies to avoid them, like making sure you really pack everything tight to try to avoid floaters, and leaving jars in the canner an extra 5 minutes to try to minimize loss of liquid. I think this is a perfect technique for things like green beans so they stay nice and firm, and I’m looking forward to the result with the jars I haven’t opened yet. Next year I want to try this with asparagus and cherries.

spicy pickled green beans

June: Jam

I had made jams before, but prior to this challenge I had always put them straight into the fridge rather than processing them. I am not a big jam eater, so I consciously tried to keep my jam making to a minimum, even though there are so many delicious looking recipes out there. In June, I made David Lebovitz’s black currant jam, mostly because I just couldn’t resist buying some fresh currants in the brief window in which they were in season (also, because David Lebovitz’s recipes are so consistently wonderful). We enjoyed this later in the year paired with some scones at an English tea-themed party.

In July, I made blueberry gin jam from Saving the Season (because gin! I simply love the way so many recipes in this book use alcohol as an acidifying ingredient), and tomato jam from Sean Brock’s Heritage. I have yet to try the blueberry gin jam, though I gave some away for Christmas and heard good things. The tomato jam was absolutely fantastic – I didn’t process it, as I wasn’t sure it was safe for water bath canning, so we just enjoyed it in the fridge.

In September, I tried a few more tomato jam recipes, since we loved the first one so much (spiced tomato jam from Preserving Italy and smoked paprika tomato jam from Saving the Season), as well as a peach champagne jam from Saving the Season, fig jam from Preserving Italy, and chile jam from The Indian Family Kitchen. I love hot spicy jams, and the chile jam was delish. I liked both of the tomato jams, but I preferred the more ketchup-like texture of the Sean Brock recipe.

Verdict: You can’t go wrong with mastering this skill. As I mentioned above, once I learned to just trust my thermometer, I never had a problem achieving set.

chile jam

July: Hot Pack Preserving

Along with Cold Pack Preserving, this was another big learning experience for me. As mentioned previously, at the beginning of the year I certainly wasn’t familiar with the terminology or what cold vs. hot pack even meant. At this point in the year, I had unknowingly already done a few hot packs: spiced pickled mushrooms, wine-spiked carrots, and fennel-carrot agrodolce from Preserving Italy.

In July, once I was more conscious of the skill, I added peach marsala almond compote, crushed tomatoes, bread & butter pickles, Asian plum sauce, peaches in tea & bourbon syrup, and peach chutney to my collection. Through the course of the month, much like with cold pack preserving, I learned a few tips & tricks, including making sure I was de-bubbling with a chopstick, as well as paying extra close attention to headspace. There were certainly times in which a recipe produced less volume than I expected, and I was left with the choice of extra head space or re-housing in smaller jars. As I got more experienced, I learned to anticipate this and do the latter, prepping a variety of different sized jars just in case.

After July, I continued to use this skill for the remainder of the year, especially in August and September in the height of summer produce. In August I made: pickled peppers, tomato sauce, pickled zucchini, tomatillo salsa, corn relish, passata, zucchini relish, roasted pepper relish, tomato salsa, Canadian ketchup, and fire-roasted tomatoes. In September I made BBQ sauce, roasted tomato sauce, spicy pepper relish, heirloom tomato sauce, chunky tomato salsa, candied jalapeno, and tomatillo ketchup.

In October I wrapped this up by making green tomato preserves, green tomato chutney, and hot pepper escabeche.

Verdict: This is quite possibly the most important skill of the year, not only because it includes almost all the tomato canning, but also technically all the jams as well. I’m very glad to have gotten lots of practice with it, and I feel quite comfortable with it now.

July preserving (photo by Tom Ipri)

August: Low Temperature Pasteurization OR Steam Canning

This was one of those months where an alternative challenge was provided in case equipment was a barrier, but in all honesty both techniques needed special equipment. I didn’t even consider steam canning. Low-temperature pasteurization is technically possible without an immersion circulator, but a pain in the ass. As most of the low-temp recipes shared on FIJ were for cucumber pickles (which I don’t actually like to eat), I had no interest, so I decided to skip it.

BUT then in September, I had planned to do some pickled peppers from Saving the Season, and I didn’t realize until I read the fine print of the recipe that it was actually a low-temp pasteurization recipe. I toiled over my stupid glass electric stovetop with my 4th burner canner, trying to keep the temperature between 180 and 185. I probably spent 2 hours before I even added a jar, just trying to regulate the temperature. Of course once I thought I figured it out and added a jar, it fluctuated further. I kept a container of cold water nearby in case the temperature got too high, but then tried also to keep it from going too low. I finally managed to keep a pint of pickled peppers between 180-185 for half an hour, and it sealed, so there is that.

Verdict: In the future, I would totally invest in an immersion circulator, since it would help with low temperature pasteurization but also multi task for sous vide meat and eggs. I do think having whole pickled peppers around in winter will be a good thing, especially since low-temp pasteurization helps preserve crispness, so I am interested in pursuing this further next year. I’m still not interested in steam canning.

LTP pickled peppers

September: Fruit Butter

This was one of the easier challenges of the year. I was actually pretty excited about it because I grew up with fruit butter (both homemade by my mom as well as purchased from local apple orchards), but I had never made it myself. I relied heavily on an older FIJ post, as well as a few recipes in Saving the Season. I am super glad that I had invested in a food mill at this point; it would have been fully possible to just rely on my stick immersion blender, but I think a food mill made for better results. From the basic technique post, I tried both the stovetop version as well as the oven roasted version. I feel like the stovetop version produced the best results, but was the most work. The oven roasted version was easier to leave alone, but not as precise. I would have liked to have tried the slow cooker version, but I don’t have the type of slow cooker that would make it possible to prop it open with a chopstick. Ultimately I made several batches each of apple, peach, and pear butter, and all turned out great.

Verdict: For sure, this was very useful and I’m so glad I finally tried it. As mentioned above, this was a lifetime in coming since I’ve had apple butter in my life since I was a little girl. To finally, 40 some years later, make my own, was pretty powerful. Also this translates well to a few subsidiary skills, including fruit pastes (December) and fruit leather. I LOVE that these don’t require any added sugar, so they’re guilt free to snack on and to give away.

September preserving, with apple butter on the right (photo by Tom Ipri)

October: Drying and Dehydration OR Pressure Canning

As with August, this was another month in which two options were provided for the challenge, in case equipment was a barrier. I didn’t for a second consider buying a pressure canner, though there are plenty of low-acid foods I would eventually like to pressure can. But after examining my options for drying and dehydration, I found that most of the dehydration projects I’d be interested in would require a proper dehydrator. Yes, I can dry small quantities of herbs by just leaving them out, but that didn’t really feel like a skill. And oven dehydrating generally needs to be done at a lower temperature than what my current oven is capable of. I know my mom made fruit leather in the oven when I was young, but I don’t know how low that oven went or if she left the door propped open; my mom definitely did have a dehydrator, though, and that’s where most of our dried fruit came from when I was growing up.

Earlier in the year I dehydrated some cherries for sour cherries in boozy syrup from Preserving Italy. This was tough not only due to the temperature of the oven but also in this case because I didn’t have the right kind of drying rack. In August, I tried drying some grapes to make raisins in the oven, but they got overcooked. In December, I gave this one last try for dehydrating celery, knowing that my oven only went down to 170 but that proper dehydrating needed to go below 150; unsurprisingly, these also got overcooked. My only pseudo-successes with this this year were just leaving herbs and citrus peels out on my counter to dry.

Verdict: I think dehydrating is an important skill, but after several failed attempts at oven drying, I do think a dehydrator is essential for doing this properly, except for things that can be left out at room temperature. For the record, although I did not try it, I also think pressure canning is very important since it is the only way to safely preserve low acid foods, especially meat. While my space constrictions do not allow for this presently, it is something I will think about in the future.

attempting to dry sour cherries

November: Fermentation

OK, so this is something I worked on actively last year, so I was definitely already comfortable with it come November, and in fact I had been fermenting all year by the time this challenge came around. I didn’t actually ferment very much in November, but did a lot between May and September. Nearly all of my (successful) ferments came from Ferment Your Vegetables, but I bought a few new fermentation books this year, including: DIY Fermentation and Fermented Vegetables.

Honestly the new books were more of a bust than not. The majority of things I tried from DIY Fermentation did not work out for one reason or another, whether it got moldy (soy sauce, miso) or just did not taste good (peach chutney, sprouted garbanzo bean hummus); however I was pleased with the fermented ketchup, cultured buttermilk, cultured butter, and fruit vinegar recipes. Despite some of the failures, I have to give that book credit for me branching out into a few non-wild cultures, such as buttermilk culture, as well as the koji culture I bought in my failed attempt to make soy sauce. I didn’t really care for the recipes that required whey as a starter, with the exception of the ketchup. The Fermented Vegetables book was more oriented toward large-batch crock fermenting, which is not my thing, but I do want to try the garlic paste and a few other small batch recipes from that book.

I think my fermentation highlights this year were things I made up myself, as I’m comfortable enough with the technique to improvise. My favorite was an escabeche pickle with carrots, garlic, onion, oregano, and jalapeño. I also really liked my version of pimenta moida made with a paste of fermented esplette peppers.  I am also glad I did a few simple one-ingredient ferments for really basic things to have around for a salad, like fermented shallots, jalapeños, and radishes. I did one ferment from Saving the Season, which was a delicious batch of fermented green beans – for this one, I let it ferment longer than I usually do with vegetables, and I was pleased with the extra sour and tangy result. I also stocked up on the very reliable salsas from Ferment Your Vegetables, and finally made a successful batch of fermented hot sauce.

Verdict: I loved fermentation before and still love it now. The challenge has certainly helped me think more about when fermentation is the most appropriate preservation technique and when it isn’t.

fermenting butternut squash

December: Fruit Pastes

I participated in this challenge a little early and made two pastes in November. I got lucky with my first batch, an apple-pear paste from Preserving Italy that came out perfect the first time. I made this as an alternative to quince paste and it’s just a lovely recipe (as with many recipes in this book, it is heavy with vanilla bean). For my second batch, I followed a more generic recipe to attempt cranberry paste. I baked it a few hours, but it wasn’t nearly enough, as it was still halfway between jam and paste when I gave up. This needs more practice, but it was still very tasty.

Verdict: This was slightly less useful than some of the other challenges, but it was a good extension to the fruit butter challenge. I’ll certainly try it again next year.

apple pear paste

Other

This was not part of the challenge, but the other preservation technique I tried this year was Preserving in Oil. This technique is not USDA approved, so it’s not surprising that this was not part of the challenge, but it does figure prominently in Preserving Italy. Preserving in Oil was something I hadn’t realized I was already doing, for things like my harissa paste where you have to re-cover it in oil each time you use it. I tried a number of oil preserves from Preserving Italy, but I have to say that I didn’t really like the result when it came to using this technique for preserving vegetables. The oil-preserved asparagus, for example, was too mushy, and I just don’t like the texture when the oil’s all congealed in the fridge and you’re trying to fish something out of it. However, I think the technique works great with pastes, particularly with peppers. In summer I made a fermented pimenta moida and topped it with oil, and that’s effectively helped preserve it in the fridge. In terms of flavor, this was also my favorite preservation method for roasted red peppers, even though they don’t last as long.

sweet and sour roasted peppers with capers

Freezing was not part of the challenge, but I think it’s relevant, even if it’s not terribly complicated. Certainly there is some small skill involved, if only to know when/how to blanch things before freezing, etc., as well as knowing when freezing is a better or more appropriate preservation method than canning. Maybe this could have been added to the April challenge (somewhat related to quick pickles) or August (as an alternative to LTP or steam canning, at a time of year when there are plenty of tomatoes to freeze), or October (similarly easy compared to dehydration).

Preserving in Alcohol is probably another thing that could have been added to the challenge as an alternative one month, though it’s certainly not for everyone. The sour cherries in boozy syrup I made would qualify for this, as well as limoncello and a variety of other alcohol infusions. On a related note, I found it completely eye-opening in Saving the Season to find that alcohol could be used instead of or in addition to vinegar or citrus as a way to acidify canning recipes.

Wrap-Up

Though especially toward the end, the FIJ blog did not provide as much in the way of instruction, I am still grateful to the challenge for providing some structure for me to learn and refine some of these preserving skills. Clearly I got a lot out of the books Saving the Season and Preserving Italy; while I could have gone through a lot of recipes in those books without the challenge, I’m not sure I would have picked up on specific skills and terminology like “hot pack” and “cold pack.” I also got a great deal out of the FIJ Facebook group, despite its propensity toward big-time Canning Drama (who knew); while the arguments over canning safety and non-approved preservation techniques grew tiresome (albeit entertaining at times, in a break out the popcorn to watch the train wreck sort of way), at least it did point me toward the National Center for Home Food Preservation in case of any safety questions. Certainly I do want to eventually own all of the Food In Jars books, but based on my experience with the challenge I think my top priorities would be Naturally Sweet Food in Jars (for alternates to sugar) and Preserving by the Pint (since a pint is my max canning size and I never want to produce more than 1-2 jars of any one recipe). Other people in the FB group joked about buying stock in sugar by the end of the year, but if there’s one thing I’d stock up on for the apocalypse, it’s salt.

In terms of equipment, I found that I really didn’t need much other than my 4th burner pot, wide mouth funnel, and a jar lifter. Halfway through the year I did buy a food mill, which I’m grateful for, as it really helped with tomatoes as well as with apples. My instant-read thermometer was a huge asset, as was my digital scale. I only started to appreciate my silicone spatula toward the end of the year, as well as my canning ladle; these were nice to have, but not necessary (though, as a bonus, they certainly come in handy in the kitchen for non-canning cooking needs). I rarely used the magnetic lid lifter thing, and I also never used the silicone trivet, so those were unnecessary purchases. I was a regular visitor to my local hardware store, where I picked up more jars and lids several times a week during the summer, which was more manageable and less wasteful than ordering flats of jars online. I think I mentioned above, in the future I’ll try to stick to smaller (1/4 and 1/2 pint) jars, as pints and larger are just a super unrealistic amount. Another purchase I found really useful for freezing and drying was restaurant-style plastic deli containers in various sizes. For fermenting, I continued to make regular use of my pickle pebbles and plastic lids, but other than that I don’t think any additional equipment is necessary.

In terms of favorite recipes for the year, the tomatillo salsa with green chiles and tequila from Saving the Season and the wine-soaked carrots from Preserving Italy stand out. Anything with tomatoes, peppers, or peaches was a big hit. The spicy green beans were a pleasant surprise, as were the green tomato preserves. Fruit butters reclaimed their space in my heart as my favorite fruit preserves, though my canned peaches are something else. Unsurprisingly, we are eating up all the savory preserves, but have a hard time using the sweeter things. I gave away a bunch of jam during the holidays and still have too much.

salsa verde, possibly my favorite recipe of the year

The Future

Now that I’ve completed the challenge, what’s in store for next year?

Well, I only started using the Saving the Season book in summer, so there are definitely some spring recipes from that book that I want to check out (especially for cherries, and I’m still not quite ready to give up on asparagus). Knowing that in winter, the things I crave the most are tomatoes and peppers, I definitely want to make more of those next year. There are some other fruits I would like to work more with, including apricots, plums, and berries. Certainly if I end up buying more preserving books, there will always be new recipes to try – in addition to the Food in Jars books, I have my eyes on a few others. Also, now that I gained a little experience fermenting with non-wild cultures, maybe I’ll finally get some rennet and get more into cheese making.

I would like to invest in a pH meter to get a better sense of when a certain recipe is safe for water bath canning if it does not otherwise specify – such as with Sean Brock’s tomato jam recipe. A pH meter would help with fermentation, too, and it’s not too expensive (right now I do have pH strips but they’re not very precise). There are definitely some recipes where I would have benefitted from a food processor rather than relying on my stick immersion blender. Although I was not enthused by jelly or marmalade during this year’s challenge, I really should invest in a jelly bag and give this skill more of a chance. To level up, I would like to someday get an immersion circulator to help with low temperature pasteurization as well as sous vide cooking. Certainly someday I would like to try pressure canning, for meat & beans especially, but not anytime soon. Likewise a dehydrator would be great, but I don’t have the space for it. While the 4th burner pot is very limiting in terms of quantity and volume, I’m not sure I see any need for a larger water bath canning setup anytime soon. After a year of accumulating jars, I definitely need a better storage solution in terms of shelving and/or jar containers.

One thing that only hit me during the very last challenge, which seems stupidly obvious now, is that these things really do take a lot of practice. There were certainly cases where I thought I had “mastered” a challenge when really, it was just beginner’s luck, and the next time I tried it, it didn’t go so well. Here’s where I think a focus on technique, as opposed to specific recipes, was really the brilliant part of the challenge. So in that spirit, I will certainly want to keep practicing, though true “mastery” will take more time.

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Pork shoulder braised with @freconfarms hard cider, applejack, and dates

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