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Urban Preservation I: Jam Session - Recap

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Alton visits Douglas County Community Cannery and there recalls a world before MTV, when folks made their own clothes, churned their own butter, and even had to put up with 1400 baud modems! The community cannery recalls those that flourished during World War II, when people routinely canned the produce from their gardens so there would be food on the table during tough times. For those that did not live through those times, canning may be a quaint curiosity – definitely American and certainly wholesome, but in the age of the supermarket, perhaps unnecessary. Or is it?

Alton’s not as hardcore as some canning enthusiasts, but he does have a lust for fruit preserves. Not the overpriced and over sweetened store fare, but the jewel-like jams and jellies, marmalades and fruit compotes with aromas and flavors to capture departed summers. Jam may be old fashioned, and even a little time consuming, but it is easy and cheap to do at home – and certainly Good Eats.

Alton claims nothing beats jam when it comes to flavor return on time and money invested. Most folks know it flavors toast, cake, biscuits and pancakes, but it also works in yogurt, sauces and glazes. It is, in short, culinary plastic. And those willing to make their own, Alton asserts, won’t believe they shelled out three dollars a bottle for what’s available at the mega mart.

Some folks, Alton continues, regard jam making as old fashioned. And preserving? Well that’s nature cheating voodoo. In a darkened studio Alton meets Dr. John Brookes from the Center for Disease Control; they contemplate the “wheel of diseases.” Dr. Brookes explains that one must seal the food, and then sterilize it. Or, as Alton puts it, “isolate and eradicate.” At a temperature of 170º, most enzymes degrade. Alton removes a wedge. Between there and the boiling point of water at 212º, yeasts, molds and bacteria die. Their spores degrade and their toxins denature. Alton removes more wedges. Even staphylococcus succumbs. Alton slides that wedge from the wheel, and that leaves one wedge, emphasized by its loneliness. That wedge is botulism, an anaerobic organism whose spores can survive even the high temperatures of boiling. Botulism cannot thrive in an acid environment. This means low acid foods like meat, vegetables, fish, dairy and ripe tomatoes must be processed by pressure canning, a technique that employs higher pressures and therefore higher cooking temperatures. This is why Alton will stick with fruits for his canning. For those who want the grim details, Dr. Brookes mentions that a botulism patient experiences three to six weeks of being fully conscious... and fully paralyzed.

At the Ragsdale Ace Hardware in Marietta, Georgia, Alton searches for some gear. All he really needs is a sauce pan and a big spoon, but perhaps some additional tools will simplify matters. Inside, he discovers... W, the Tool Tyrant! She agrees to help him, if only to evade the attentions of the “keymaster” - a creep standing by the key duplication rack.

W explains that tools exist for every stage but Alton really only needs a few essentials. She hands him 8oz jars, two piece lids, a jar lifter and a wide mouthed funnel. She reminds Alton that he may reuse the rings and jars, but the lids are single use only. They have a sealing compound and that compound works only once. It keeps the lid sealed until the vacuum forms.

Back in his kitchen, Alton starts by thoroughly washing his gear in his sink. The dishwasher would work for everything except the lids – that sealing compound melts in the high temperatures of the drying cycle. After washing the gear, Alton loads it into a large pot and covers it with water (at least one inch over the top of the gear) and then boils that for ten minutes. That sterilizes the equipment. While that happens, Alton heads to the Crabapple Kroger to collect some fruit – the crew will watch the gear as it boils.

At the food store, Alton talks about pectin, a polysaccharide that holds plant cells together. Heat breaks down cells and releases pectins. Acid and sugar tag team to reassemble the pectins into a gel. All fruits contain some pectin, but fruits vary in their ability to contribute the other essentials:
  • Apples, blackberries, cranberries, grapefruit contain enough pectin and acid to gel with nothing but sugar added.
  • Blueberries, cherries, sweet oranges have enough pectin but need acid and sugar.
  • Apricots and pineapples have the acid need pectin and sugar.
  • Mangos, peaches, bananas and raspberries need help with everything.

Alton wants to be sure, so he takes out some insurance, first advising purists to look away. That insurance is commercially prepared pectin, available most of the year but especially during the primary canning season at the end of the summer. He uses powdered pectin for jam and liquid for jelly. Adding pectin to fruit increases the sugar required, but such a mixture cooks faster and so may taste fresher.

Alton heads to the frozen food aisle where he collects his fruit – frozen blueberries. Frozen blueberries have a bit less pectin that the fresh sort, another reason for the insurance.

Back in the kitchen Alton removes his sterilized equipment from the heat and lids the pot. He’ll wait ten minutes or so before adding the lids. Adding them now could melt that crucial sealing compound.

Next, he turns his attention to making the jam. It starts with a non-reactive pan or pot – jam contains acid and reactive cookware might discolor. Into the pot go the frozen blueberries, and onto them Alton sprinkles a packet of powdered pectin. Here in the United States, all pectin comes in standard sized packets. To the fruit he adds a little high quality cinnamon (he gets it mail order so he knows it’s fresh), some finely ground star anise and a few scrapings of nutmeg (Alton scraps from a nutmeg nut – the ground nutmeg found on store shelves grows stale too quickly to be reliable for flavor). To add acid, Alton dumps in some lemon juice and some cider vinegar. He brings that to a boil slowly (to avoid burning the fruit) and when the juice forms, begins mashing the fruit. In about five minutes the fruit has mashed and the pectin is ready. It’s time for the sugar.

Sugar adds three properties: it makes jam spreadable, it permits pectin to gel, and it sequesters some water, denying it to potential bacterial invaders. Alton adds the sugar and brings the heat to medium high and the mixture to a boil. He adds a little water to account for that lost as steam, and after a minute of hard boiling, his jam is finished!

Jam made this way keeps two or three weeks in the refrigerator. If you want to keep in longer, you must preserve it. Alton plans to preserve his, so he starts by removing his gear from the hot pot to a towel covered cutting board – placing the glass jars right on a stone or metal counter subjects them to thermal shock and possible cracking. Setting the jars upright, he grabs the funnel by the outside (touching the inside ruins the sterility). He sets the funnel into a jar and adds jam to the bottom lip of the funnel. That leaves some head room – the air in the head room gets pushed out during processing and this creates a vacuum when the jar cools. Any leftovers that don’t fill a jar may be used fresh.

Once the jars are full, Alton wipes the outside to remove any jam stuck on the edges. He also inspects for chips or cracks, advising cooks not to process jars with defects. Using a magnet, Alton grabs a lid from the hot water (touching the outside, of course) and sets it gently down into the top of the jar. Then he screws on a ring, just finger tight.

The lidded jars go into the processor (which could be a simple deep pot). Alton covers them with water, ensuring there is room for water to circulate around the jars, and processes them for five full minutes from a rolling boil. As they heat, air forced from the head space may create bubbles – these are not the vapor filled bubbles of a full boil.

Alton heads up to speak with the “physicist on the roof” – physicist Daniel Stillman. Stillman explains that boiling occurs at a point determined by both temperature and pressure. As one gains altitude, the atmospheric pressure drops, and liquids boil at lower temperatures. Each five hundred foot increase in altitude means a one degree Fahrenheit drop in the boiling point. That means water boils at 204º in Denver and at 156º at the top of Mount Everest! A mountain climber walks by then, claiming that on Everest boiling point is so low one could simply reach into the water and remove the eggs!

Alton’s point is that temperature is what matters for sterilization, so where boiling temperatures are lower, processing times must increase:
  • Within 1000 feet of sea level – five minutes
  • 1000 to 3000 feet above sea level – ten minutes
  • 3000 to 6000 feet above sea level – fifteen minutes
  • 6000 to 8000 feet above sea level – twenty minutes

When his jars have finished boiling, Alton removes them to a cutting board or towel (remember thermal shock). He listens for popping jars – they’re a sign that the vacuum has formed inside the head space. When the jars cool completely, Alton presses the center of each lid to see if the seal formed. If the lid “pops” in and out he knows the seal didn’t form and the jam wasn’t preserved. Jars like that go into the refrigerator; their contents will last several weeks, just as if unpreserved. Alton advises not to reprocess a jar that did not seal properly. Before he stores his jars, Alton removes the rings. Why? Well, the rings can rust, but more importantly, they can conceal a failed seal. (The rings may be used when moving the jars around, or if giving them away.)

Downstairs, Alton explains more about storage. High acid foods may remain preserved for years, but low acid foods only last about a year. Alton goes through a list of indicators: molds and yeasts emit gases when they eat; these will pop the lid off. If the lid has popped off the top of the jar, discard (leaving the ring in place hides this sort of failure). If you see fuzzy mold, discard. If the food has heaved and filled the head room, discard. Next, open the jar. If the food smells funny or off, discard. If there are suddenly bubbles everywhere, discard. If the food doesn’t look right, discard.

Alton hopes he has piqued interest in a little homemade “jam session.” A final recommendation: follow the rule of jazz. That means avoid improvisation until you master the skills, and stick with reliable recipes. Don’t double them up and don’t substitute ingredients. Alton also points out that foodsafety.org, a government run site, offers more tips.