Tuesday, February 5, 2019
I am not an expert canner. I do a lot of water bath canning - at least, “a lot” statistically speaking. Most people don’t can at all anymore, so I’m on the upper part of the curve by default. In my circle, there are still a fair number of women who “put up” a significant portion of their family’s food every year. These women count their canning jars by the gross - I count mine by the dozen. My best estimate for my current supply is eight dozen - two thirds filled, one third empty.
Nonetheless. Canning is a regular part of my kitchen activity. I can at least once a month year round, thanks to the Gleaners’s Pantry, and in the high season I might can once a week. This week, the Gleaners’s Pantry offered up beautiful peppers, and so I decided to make pepper jelly.
Pepper jelly is an under appreciated condiment - it’s delicious and beautiful both. It makes an excellent Christmas present. At the end of the day, though, it’s jelly. And I’m not good at jelly. Judging by the number of websites devoted to helping people master jelly and/or fix jelly gone wrong, I’m not the only bad-at-jelly canner our there.
Jelly, it seems, is rather finicky. Jelly requires a level of kitchen precision more often associated with wedding cakes or soufflés. By which I mean, I guess, the willingness and ability to closely follow a recipe, including actually measure all the ingredients and being in possession of a thermometer.
I have a thermometer - I’m both a nurse and a cheesemaker - but I cannot, for love or money, closely follow a step-by -step recipe. Therefore it follows that my jelly often refuses to gel. Today’s pepper jelly seems to have done just that.
While I was searching the internet for reasons my jelly might have failed to gel and for ways to repair a failed jelly, I learned a whole bunch of things I did not know about jelly. Most of those things only served to reinforce my suspicion that I may be congenitally incapable of the precision and consistency required, but in the firm belief that the information may be useful to others, I offer some of the tips I learned here:
- when removing the jars from the water bath, try to keep them vertical. Set them down gently. Any jarring motion or departure from the vertical can interfere with gel formation.
- leave the jars alone for two full days. It can take that long for the gel to firm up. Really!
- try putting a jar in the fridge. Cooler temps can help.
If none of this works, you can open the jars and re-do the entire process. But holy mother of god, the instructions for determining what went wrong in the first place and how to correct it read like a third-year chemistry exam. Apparently, gel formation relies on a complex interplay of the variables Acidity, Pectin, and Temperature. Hence the whole following recipes thing.
Here’s a list of sites that provide detailed instructions, but to be honest, my favorite advice is “call it syrup and move on with your life.”