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Putting Up: Easy Pickles and Preserves

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Visions of exploding jars, glass shards littering the pantry like a war zone, and thoughts of relatives keeling over from botulism prevent most of us from attempting to make preserves. The whole process seems like some sort of mysterious alchemy, the magical secrets shared only with twinkly-eyed grandmothers in farm kitchens. Let me let you in on a secret: If you can boil water, you can make a pickle. 

There’s something wonderfully old-fashioned about preserves, which is one of the reasons it remains an integral part of any good Southern cook’s repertoire. I grew up in a family committed to canning and preserving. My grandparents always planted a large garden near the house and kept another plot in the rich, black soil near the river. We ate produce when it was fresh and in-season, and we also preserved the garden’s goodness for later.

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Small Batch and Refrigerator Preserves

My mother and grandmother taught me how to transform local peaches, hand-picked wild blackberries, scuppernongs and muscadines into jams and jellies. They also showed me how to can fresh-picked green beans and sun-ripened tomatoes in the summer, and to fill the canning kettle with quarts of spiced apple butter, bracingly salty boiled peanuts and tangy pear chow-chow in the fall.

Many people are intimidated by preserving — they’re scared of working with pressure cookers or worried they’re going to inadvertently poison someone. Some just have memories of their grandparent’s all-day canning marathons. It doesn’t have to be that hard. Small-batch recipes don’t require truckloads of produce and versions of preserves for the refrigerator or freezer don’t require a pressure cooker or a canning kettle.

Spicy Dilly Beans on www.virginiawillis.com

How to Throw a Preserving Party

If it all still seems overwhelming ping some friends! With help from a few friends, and using the guiding principle that “Many hands make light work”, you can turn what would otherwise be a day’s work into a preserving party. It’s not as overwhelming to make multiple batches of pickles, jams and jellies when you aren’t the only one peeling, chopping, filling and cleaning. The keys to pulling off such a party are all about planning:

  • Spread the projects around the kitchen — have preserves cooking on the stovetop as well as in the oven, and maybe plan a project that can mostly happen at the kitchen table. It’s all about real estate and the number of people headed to your house.
  • Develop a schedule with a time frame to keep things on track. For example, start with pickled beets first (the recipe is below), because they cook in the oven for an hour before being pickled and canned.
  • Don’t be overly ambitious your first time or two, until you get the feel for how the party will run. Choose two or three pickles and preserves to tackle for your first event.
  • Most importantly, have fun! Set out some nibbles and libations, and have a good time. At the end of the afternoon, everyone will leave with a selection of preserves to take home.

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Science is Real

Although it might not seem like it lately, science is real, not opinion. The process of canning is a tad more complicated than simply putting ingredients in a jar. There is some food science involved. The key to canning safety is to use a reliable recipe with good directions and a bit of common sense. Work clean, and be careful with hot jars and liquid.

When in doubt, my go-to website for all things preserving is Georgia’s own National Center for Home Preservation. It’s the absolute best source for current research-based recommendations around most methods of home food preservation. And, you can also check out this article I wrote for Food52 called Canning 101.

High acid foods such as fruits, pickles, sauerkraut, jams, jellies, marmalades and fruit butters with a pH level of 4.6 or lower can be preserved by boiling water canning (low acid foods, such as canned meats and fish, require a pressure cooker).

Ginger Pickled Beets on www.virginiawillis.com

Boiling Water Canning

Boiling water canning makes use of a large pot that’s tall enough to fully submerge canning jars by at least an inch of water. The pot is used for both sterilization of jars prior to filling — and for boiling the jars once they are filled.

You don’t necessarily need to purchase a boiling water bath canner if you don’t already have one. Any large, deep stockpot can double as a boiling water canner. Keep in mind: The pot must be large enough to fully surround and immerse the jars in water by 1 to 2 inches and allow for the water to boil rapidly with the lid on.

To pre-sterilize jars using a boiling water canner, place the cleaned jars right-side-up on a rack in your canner, and fill the jars and canner with enough water to cover the jars by at least 1 inch. Bring the water to a boil and then boil for 10 minutes (at altitudes less than 1,000 feet elevation). Do not boil the lids.

When you are ready to fill the jars, remove them one at a time with the canning tongs, carefully pouring the water from the jars back into the pot. Let the jars air-dry and sit undisturbed until you fill them.

Remember, even if you are only making refrigerator pickles, it’s important to sterilize the jars in boiling water.

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Save it for Later

There’s something amazingly satisfying about puttin’ up. The feeling of seeing an array of colorful jars cooling on a window sill, lit by sunbeams and glowing like stained glass, is pure joy. I love the pungent aroma of vinegar simmering with warm spices. Slowly pushing a fingertip through a puddle of gemlike liquid on an ice-cold plate and seeing that your jelly is, indeed, gelling, brings a feeling of satisfaction like no other. I grin every single time I hear the “pop” of a lid dimpling down on a cooling jar, the audible sign of a successful seal.

I hope you enjoy my recipes for Spicy Dilly Beans, Ginger Pickled Beets, Scuppernong Jelly, and Quick Pickled Vegetables. I’ve included instructions for making shelf-stable with Boiling Water Canning and you can also make it easy by transforming them into refrigerator pickles. Lastly, all of these recipes are small batch for easier preparation. With this selection of end-of-summer recipes, I am sure you and your friends will delight in preserving, too.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Virginia Willis

Ginger Pickled Beets

In this recipe I roast the beets instead of boiling them to intensify, not dilute their flavor. The picking liquid is a simple combination of vinegar, water, salt, and sugar. When pickling, you’ll need to make sure to use 5% vinegar with a pH of about 2.6. More traditional flavoring for this pickling liquid for beets would include clove and cinnamon and easily could be substituted for the star anise and ginger, here.
Prep Time10 mins
Cook Time2 hrs
Course: Appetizer, preserves
Cuisine: American, Southern
Keyword: beets, pickles, preserve, quick pickle
Author: Virginia Willis

Ingredients

For the beets:

  • 4 pounds medium beets, about 15
  • 8 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 4 bay leaves, preferably fresh
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the pickling liquid:

  • 3 ½ cups white vinegar 5%
  • 3 cups water
  • 1 ½ cups sugar
  • 1 tablespoon pickling salt
  • 4 slices ginger
  • 2 pods star anise

Instructions

  • Heat the oven to 350°Scrub the beets and place in a shallow roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet. Add garlic, bay leaves, and oil. Season with salt and pepper; toss to coat. Cover tightly with foil and roast in the oven until tender to the point of a knife, about 1 ½ hours.
  • While the beets are cooking, prepare a boiling water bath and 2 quart jars or 4 pint jars. Place lids in a small saucepan over very low heat to simmer while you prepare the pickles. Do not boil the lids.
  • Combine the vinegar, water, sugar, salt, ginger, and star anise in medium saucepan over medium high heat. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to simmer. Let cool until flavorful and fragrant, about 5 minutes.
  • When the beets are tender, remove to a rack to cool without removing the foil to let the beets steam. (This makes the beets easier to peel.) Once cooled, wearing gloves and using a paring knife, remove the stem end from the beet. Peel the beets, discarding the skin. Slice the beets into quarters.
  • Drain the jars. Pack the beet quarters into the sterilized jars. Carefully pour the boiling mixture over the green beans in the jars, leaving 1/2 inch of headroom between the top of the liquid and the lid. Seal the lids.
  • Process the jars in a boiling-water canner for 30 minutes. Store the unopened jars at room temperature for up 
to 1 year. Once the jars are opened, store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
  • Variation: For refrigerator pickled Ginger Pickled Beets, skip the boiling-water canner and refrigerate for up to 1 month.

 

Scuppernong Jelly

Muscadines are wild American grapes native to the Southeast. Scuppernongs are a variety of muscadines. Both grapes have a tough, thick skin that ranges in color from deep purple to greenish bronze.
Course: Dessert, Snack
Cuisine: American, Southern
Keyword: jam, jelly, preserve
Servings: 8 cups
Author: Virginia Willis

Ingredients

  • 32 cups scuppernongs or muscadines, about 12 pounds
  • 6 cups sugar
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • Pinch of fine sea salt

Instructions

  • Wash the fruit and remove the stems. Place the fruit in a large bowl, and using your hands, a fork, or a potato masher, squeeze the grapes. Place the fruit in a large, stainless steel or enamel pot, and using your hands, mash until no large pieces of fruit remain. Add just enough water to keep the mixture from sticking and bring to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to low, and simmer until very juicy, about 20 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a jelly bag and allow to hang over a bowl for at least 6 hours or overnight. (I usually hang it on a cabinet doorknob over the kitchen counter and place a pot or large measuring cup underneath.) Measure the juice; you should have about 8 cups.
  • When you are ready to make the jelly, place a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet. (This will help with cleanup for any possible spills.) Place several small plates in the freezer to use later to test the consistency of the jelly.
  • Sterilize eight 1/2-pint canning jars and lids in boiling water. Remove the jars from the water and place upside down to drain on the prepared rack. Place lids in a small saucepan over very low heat to simmer while you prepare the jelly. Do not boil the lids.
  • In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the scuppernong juice (you should have about 16 cups, or 4 quarts), sugar, lemon juice, and salt. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. The mixture will bubble up, rising high up the sides of the saucepan. Using a slotted spoon, skim off any light-colored foam as it collects on the edges. Cook the jam until it reaches the jelling point, 220°F on an instant-read thermometer, about 30 minutes. (Dribble a few drops on the frozen plate; if the jelly is about to set, it will crinkle on the plate when you push it with your finger.)
  • Remove the jam from the heat. For each jar, insert a canning funnel and carefully ladle in the jelly, allowing at least 1/4 inch of headroom. Clean the rims of the jars with a clean, damp towel, and tightly secure the lids.
  • Using tongs, place the jars on the rack in the canner. The water should cover the jars by at least 1 inch. Cover the canner. Return the water to a boil and boil gently for 5 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the jars to a towel to cool. If the seal works and fits properly, the metal lid will be slightly concave within 24 hours of processing.
  • Store the unopened jars of jam at room temperature for up to 1 year. Once the jam is opened, store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
  • Variation: For refrigerator or freezer jam, transfer the mixture to sterilized freezer-safe plastic containers or freezer-safe jars with lids, leaving 1 inch of headroom. Freeze for up to 1 year or refrigerate for up to 1 month.

Quick Pickled Vegetables

Prep Time10 mins
marinate2 d
Course: Appetizer, Salad
Cuisine: American, Southern
Keyword: pickles, preserves
Servings: 8 people
Author: Virginia Willis

Ingredients

  • 1 cucumber
  • 1 red onion, halved and thinly sliced
  • 8 cups assorted cut vegetables - such as carrots, cauliflower florets, green beans, wax beans, and small okra
  • 6 cups distilled white vinegar
  • 2 cup sugar
  • ¾ cup kosher salt
  • 1 large garlic clove, cut into slivers
  • 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1 teaspoon white peppercorns
  • 4 small red peppers

Instructions

  • Prepare an ice-water bath by filling a large bowl with ice and water. Remove alternating stripes of peel from the cucumbers. Set aside.
  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Fill a large bowl with ice and water and set aside. Place the 8 cups of vegetables in the boiling water and let cook until vibrant in color but still firm, 1-2 minutes. Drain the vegetables well in a colander, and then set the colander with the vegetables in the ice-water bath (to set the color and stop the cooking), making sure the vegetables are submerged. Drain well. Set aside.
  • Place ½ the red onion, garlic, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, and peppercorns in the bottom of a large sealable bowl or jar. Transfer the blanched vegetables to the jar, layering to alternate the color and texture. Layer in remaining ½ onion, cucumber, and peppers.
  • Combine vinegar, sugar, and salt in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook until the mixture comes to just under a boil. Pour mixture directly over vegetables and spices. Depending on the size container and the size of the vegetables you may not use all of the vinegar. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature. Cover or seal and store refrigerated, stirring occasionally, for at least 48 hours. Serve well-chilled.

If you try this recipe, please let me know! Leave a comment, rate it, and don’t forget to tag a photo #virginiawillis on Instagram.

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Please note that this post may contain affiliate links. (That means I make a commission if you use my affiliate link to buy the product.)

Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained Chef Virginia Willis has made chocolate chip cookies with Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson, foraged for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and beguiled celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Bill Clinton, and Julie Chrisley with her cooking -- but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Virginia is a chef instructor for the digital streaming platform Food Network Kitchen and author of Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South, Lighten Up, Y’all, Bon Appétit, Y’all, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all, Okra, and Grits. Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome received a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence. She is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree; has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants; and traveled the world producing food stories – from making cheese in California to escargot farming in France. She has appeared on Food Network's Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. She’s been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Eater, and Food52 and has contributed to Eating Well, Garden & Gun, and Bon Appétit, and more. The Chicago Tribune praised her as one of "Seven Food Writers You Need to Know." Her legion of fans loves her down-to-earth attitude and approachable spirit. Learn more about Virginia and follow her traveling exploits at www.virginiawillis.com.

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