When my husband found mold growing on the top of my recently sealed jar of apricot jam, I had to implement a product recall. I can’t remember everyone I gifted with apricot preserves. You know who you are if you are reading this… toss it and send back empty jars. Common wisdom says the mold won’t kill you, just scrape it off and eat the rest. But in this age of food sensitivities, it is probably better not to test that theory.
In my quest to be a responsible local food custodian, I am constantly searching for ways to use and preserve this year’s bountiful harvest of fruit and veggies. Personally, I am buried in small but very tasty tomatoes. Many folks are afraid of water bath canning – even though they may have helped your father or grandmother with it. One of the current foodie trends is small-batch canning. You can buy a kit with everything you need and instructions for $49.99 from Amazon. It is much cheaper to raid the thrift stores for flawless jars and purchase new lids and rings at the supermarket. It is even possible to can in an insta-cooker.
While it is a simple step-by-step process, it is important to keep everything clean and sterile. Clean jars, new lids, clean rings. Keeping everything hot is easiest – though it makes canning warm work. Like baking, we must adjust for altitude and boil the jars for extra time. Also, as I found out, following every step of the directions helps, too.
I thought sugar was a preservative and I could forgo the water bath with apricot preserves. It’s in the name after all. After hanging out in front of Bessie White’s stand at Farmers Market on Saturday, I finally figured out what I did wrong. Bessie said it sounded like the jars didn’t seal, and a helpful shopper asked if I boiled the lids before putting them on the jars. I answered, “why, no, I used brand-new lids right out of the box.” She kindly pointed out that in addition to sterilizing the lids, the boiling process heats the lids so the soft (silicone?) part of the lid can easily mold to the jar top and seal. Eureka! I am a chemical engineer, not a biologist or mechanical engineer. It never occurred to me that heat would help with the sealing process.
For me, the key to responsible food sharing is labeling. Clearly (and legibly) labeling the food item makes it much easier for the recipient to use a food share. Some items to include on the label are:
- Name of food product (apricot preserves)
- Ingredients (apricots, sugar, pectin, lemon juice)
- How processed (hot pack)
- Date processed (nice to include a “use by date”)
- Name of kitchen (in case of product recall)
When receiving a gift of home-preserved goods – if not on label – ask the labeling questions. If sharer is reticent, feign interest. Try asking, “What’s in the secret recipe for rhubarb BBQ sauce?” It is also helpful to evaluate the potential cleanliness of kitchen. It is possible to base this on the state of the food sharer. My kitchen is very clean but I am a free-form and exuberant cook as reflected in my clean clothes but stray hairdo. When opening home-canned goods, you should hear a satisfying pop as you pry off the sealed lid. It is a release of a vacuum. If there is a fizz or blast outward or if the lid or storage container is bulging – toss it. Tomatoes are the toughest to preserve with the water bath. As a combination of sweet and acid, it can be difficult to determine the length of time needed to kill the nasties with a water bath. My advice on a gift of homemade salsa, is to use immediately or to keep jars in fridge (even before opening). However, if you have any question on salsa or tomato sauce – toss it. Applesauce, on the other hand, is hard to mess up and will probably keep for a lifetime Overall, homemade canned goods are best if eaten within the year though they can last much longer – do you feel lucky? I am sure our grandparents think we are all germ-o-phobes. But, there are some new nasty bugs that did not exist when they were canning regularly.
Freezer or dried foods are a little easier to evaluate because you can use your eyes and nose. When receiving a gift of meat such as frozen package of ground deer or a fresh trout, it is perfectly fine to ask questions. Hunters love to relate the story of the chase and you can learn some helpful information. When and where killed? How was it handled? Field-dressed? Who butchered it? Was the meat cold the whole time?
If an archery hunter tells you the story of how she got her elk on Labor Day weekend, you might remember that it was in the 90s outside and it was hard to keep the meat cold unless she took great care. Again, meat is easier to evaluate. It will look and smell unappetizing.
While it is best to eat venison steaks rare, I advise only doing this with meat and/or hunter you know well. Just cook the crap out of the ground meat. No worries, mate! After reviewing a bunch of YouTube videos on how to cook moose, I realized that there was a consistent theme among the men showing off their cooking prowess in front of the camera. Just add a can of beer and boil the crap out of it, no matter the cut or the type of meat. It certainly has safe results. Although the taste depends how much of the beer ends up in the pot.
Finally, you don’t have to get poisoned to appreciate the effort and love that went into a jar of apricot preserves. They make pretty kitchen décor until they start molding.
Carolyn Dunmire is an award-winning writer who gardens and cooks in Cahone, Colo.