Thursday, September 6, 2012

Canning for the Uninitiated: A Step by Step Guide

Lauren McEwen

I'm not a huge fan of traditional cucumber relishes, but I loved this onion relish when I first sampled it at a canning lecture given by Lois Fischer (who has over 40 year of canning experience!). I got the recipe from Lois and decided that, since I loved it so much, it was time to learn the Boiling Water Bath Canning method so I could make some of my own.

I convinced my sister, who was also a canning newbie, and my mother, who hadn't done any canning since the 1970's, to spend a Saturday helping me out. We all had a good time and, since we doubled the recipe, there was lots of relish to go around. I wanted to share this delicious recipe with you as well as my documented experience.

Relish right out of the canner.

A Quick Note:

Canning recipes read like those from any other cookbook, up until the actual canning process begins. In fact, you can make this recipe and skip the canning entirely, but then you'd have to eat it all pretty quickly. That's the beauty of canning, it allows you to make a bunch of one thing, right when the produce is in season, and then enjoy it jar-by-jar throughout the year.

Recipe: Onion Relish  Makes about 4 Pint Jars
8 c finely chopped sweet onions
1 tbsp. pickling salt or kosher salt
1 3/4 c white wine vinegar
1 c sugar
1 tbsp.  minced fresh tarragon or 3/4 tsp crushed dried tarragon
2 garlic cloves, crushed or minced

  • In a large bowl, layer the onions and salt. Gently stir until well combined. Let stand for 4 hours.
  • Drain the onions thoroughly. Press out the excess liquid.
  •  In a 6- to 8-quart stainless steel pan, combine the vinegar, sugar, tarragon and garlic. Over medium-low heat, gradually heat the mixture, stirring constantly, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring the syrup to a boil. Add the drained onions to the syrup, reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove the pan from the heat.
  • Ladle the hot relish into hot jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Using a bubble freer or plastic knife, remove any air bubbles. If necessary, add more relish to maintain the headspace. Wipe the jar rims and threads with a clean, damp cloth. Cover with hot lids and apply screw rings. Process pint jars in a 212F (100C) water bath for 15 minutes.

In a large bowl, layer the onions and salt. Gently stir until well combined. Let stand for 4 hours.

First Things First: preparing the onions

We used a food processor to chop all of the onions. Even so, my eyes were watering like crazy until I put some bread in my mouth. Although perhaps just an old wives tale, I find it helps. After you combine the chopped onions and salt, you have 4 hours to kill. This long waiting period was an unexpected step for me, and why caning can take up your whole day. 

The oldfashioned way to heat up your empty canning jars is to boil them in a large pot of water. Today, you can use the convenience of your dishwasher. Keep in mind, hot relish needs to be poured into hot jars, so you do need to finesse your timing a bit. My dishwasher takes about an hour to run a full cycle, so we started it up after the onions had been sitting for 3 hours.

Time to Get Active

While we waited on the onions, we measured and prepped the other ingredients. We decided to mince the garlic and used dried tarragon, because that's what I had on hand. When the onions where done, we poured them into a colander placed in my kitchen sink to drain. We then started heating the ingredients for the syrup mixture over medium-low heat.

In a 6- to 8-quart stainless steel pan, combine the vinegar, sugar, tarragon and garlic.

After we let the syrup slowly heat up, we added the drained onions. Helpful hint: all of the pots, pans, and utensils used to make the relish need to be stainless steel or plastic.

Add the drained onions to the syrup, reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.

Ten minutes later and it's time to take the jars out of the dishwasher using canning tongs or oven mitts. To keep your jars from cracking, you need to add the hot relish to hot jars. I found that using a canning funnel made transferring the relish into the pint jars much less messy.

It is important to leave 1/2 inch of headspace when filling the jars. Headspace is the distance between the top of the jar and the top of the food. If too little headspace is left, food may boil up and out of the jar, preventing a seal. If too much headspace is left, the processing time may be inadequate to force out all of the oxygen in the jar, preventing a seal from forming.

Ladle the hot relish into hot jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace.
One jar at a time, use a bubble freer or plastic knife to release any air bubbles. This is an important step for your jars to seal properly. Next, wipe the jar rims and threads with a clean, damp cloth or paper towel. 

Lids are one time use only, but the metal lid rings can be reused unless they are rusty. (Undamaged jars may be used indefinitely.) Lids must prepared according to the manufacturer's directions. Most kinds need to be brought to a simmer and then left in hot water until use. Using the magnet tool, tongs, or your clean fingers, grab a warm lid and center it on a jar.

Gently screw a lid ring onto the jar just until its fingertip-tight. Gases need to escape the jar during the canning process, so use a light touch with just your fingertips to turn the ring, and when the jar begins to spin on the tea towel, you know it's tight enough.

Cover with hot lids and apply screw rings.

Yes We Can

 Fill your canner (giant enamel pot) with water and place the canning rack inside. I filled my canner so that there were three inches of space left from the rim. Remember that when you add the jars, the displaced water will rise up. Use canning tongs to lift the (hot) filled jars and lower them into the canner, making sure that they are covered by 2 inches of water when the rack is lowered. This recipe as is, only makes four pint jars. That means your canner will not be entirely full. Load empty jars to keep your relish from tipping over during processing.

Starting to load the canner.

Cover the canner and bring the water to a rolling boil. Lower the heat a bit, so the water doesn't boil over but there is still a lot of rolling action. Start your 15 minute timer only after the full rolling boil is reached.

It can take the canner a long time to start boiling, so you can actually start heating the water before you're done cooking the relish. If your canner comes to a boil before you are ready, just turn it down and then return it to a boil when you're ready to fill and begin processing your jars.

When your timer goes off, turn off the burner and remove the lid from the canner.

Let the jars cool in the canner for 5 minutes. The onion relish will still be simmering, and removing them prematurely can cause them to spurt.

After 5 minutes, use the canning tongs to lift the jars straight up out of the canner and set them on a dish-towel-covered counter. There will be a small pool of water on top of each jar. Resist the urge to tip the jars. They have yet to seal and you might spill some of the contents if you tip them. Then you will never get a proper seal!

The process was as hot and steamy as it looks.
As you lift the jars, you may hear the lids popping. This is good! That means they are vacum sealed shut. The jars need to sit out on your counter overnight to cool. The next day you can wipe the jars off with a damp cloth and label them with the contents and date. 

After your jars have cooled, remove the jar rings and press gently on the lid. If it doesn't budge, you have a good seal. If it pops or gives under your finger pressure, refrigerate it and use within a week. If they sealed properly and remain unopened, these jars will last up to 1 year in a cool, dark place. 

I particularly like putting this onion relish on Field Roast Sausages, but its great on sandwiches and burgers too. Yum!

For more information on Boiling Water Bath Canning, check out Virginia Cooperative Extension's website.

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