Northwest stone fruits — peaches, nectarines, cherries, apricots and plums — are perfect partners for the canning process. At local fruit stands stocked...

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Northwest stone fruits — peaches, nectarines, cherries, apricots and plums — are perfect partners for the canning process. At local fruit stands stocked with primo Eastern Washington produce, a taste of the daily special is practically a requirement. And that’s good news for consumers who would like to try their hand at preserving those summery flavors for the long, dreary seasons ahead.

“Are you canning?” a usually self-assured co-worker inquired in a voice laced with trepidation. “I’ve always wanted to try that.” But if you’re inexperienced at canning, spending a full day over hot fruit and steaming kettles can be daunting work. Before taking the plunge, get your feet wet by putting up small batches of a few favorites.

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Ingredients

Begin with fruit that is ripe but firm with no soft spots or bruises. Stone fruits will brown quickly when peeled and sliced, and that can also affect both flavor and texture. To reduce discoloration, prepare a large bowl of cold water with a commercial product designed to keep fruit from discoloring. (One example is Fruit-Fresh). As the fruit is peeled or cut, immediately drop into the liquid. (Fruit-Fresh can also be added to canning liquid; use 1 teaspoon to each cup liquid.) Another option is to crush and dissolve six 500-milligram vitamin C tablets in a gallon of cool water.

Sweeteners

Taste the fruit before canning — its ripeness will determine its sweetness. “Sugar helps canned fruits hold their shape, color and flavor. The sugar moves into the fruit tissue and keeps it firmer,” says Val Hillers, extension food specialist at Washington State University.

BARRY WONG / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A commercial product such as Fruit-Fresh can keep fruit from discoloring during canning.

Some recipes call for adding sugar to the jars with the fruit, and then adding hot liquid. But the sugar may become grainy, and the distribution is uneven. With a simple syrup, the liquid is silky, and you can control the amount of sweetness. “Extra-thin or thin syrup adds fewer calories than heavier syrups, costs less and results in less floating of fruits,” says Hillers. But it’s a trade-off, because the heavier the syrup, the firmer the canned fruit.

Prepare the lightest syrup by combining 6½ cups water and ¾ cup sugar in a saucepan and bringing to a boil for 1 minute. Stir well so that the sugar dissolves evenly. To make a light syrup, combine 5¾ cups water and 1½ cups sugar; for medium syrup combine 5¼ cups water and 2¼ cups sugar. Measure 5 cups water and 3¼ cups sugar for a heavy syrup. You’ll need ½ cup liquid for each pint jar, or ¾ to 1 cup liquid for each quart.

BARRY WONG / THE SEATTLE TIMES
There are two ways to pack fruit into jars: In the hot pack method fruit is simmered in liquid before being packed into jars.

Honey may be substituted for up to half the amount of granulated sugar. It’s also safe to can fruit without sugar, which can be replaced with white grape or any mild-flavored fruit juice, or with water. But don’t use sugar substitutes, which may become bitter in the longer processing times. A sweetener can be added when dishing up the fruit.

Bold dashes of whole spices can be tied into a square of cheesecloth and added to hot sugar syrup or fruit juice then removed before canning the fruit. (Ground spices may discolor fruit and make the liquid murky.)

To infuse the syrup with spices, allow the cheesecloth bag to sit in the liquid for 45 to 60 minutes, then discard the bag. Cinnamon sticks, whole cloves and allspice berries are traditional sweet spices that pair well with stone fruit, while green cardamom pods or star anise add more mysterious tones. If possible, buy small quantities of the spices in bulk. They’ll have a fresher flavor and prices are more reasonable. For instance, a jar containing a vanilla bean from a major spice manufacturer is $9.50, while the bulk price for one bean runs around $3.90.

Rosemary sprigs or basil leaves can infuse the syrup with elusive herbal scents, but should be strained and discarded before liquid is added to the jars to prevent possible contamination.

Equipment

Purchase standard, pint and quart mason-type canning jars. (Mayonnaise or condiment jars may crack when heated in boiling water.) Jar caps can be bought separately and come in two pieces: self-sealing lids and metal ring bands. Jars and bands can be reused if they’re still in good shape. Check jars for cracks, and make sure bands aren’t dented. You’ll need to purchase new lids every time you can, because the lids are designed for a single use. For a water-bath canning process, you’ll need two deep pots and one shallow pot. One deep pot is for sterilizing the jars. The shallow one is for preheating the bands and lids by following the manufactures directions. The other deep pot is used as a water-bath canner with a cover and rack. A stockpot or other deep pot can be used for sterilizing, but the boiling water must cover lids by about 1 to 2 inches, with another 1½ inches of pot height for water expansion. If you don’t have a rack that fits the bottom of the pot, use a clean, folded kitchen towel to protect jars from breakage. Cover pots during the canning process for consistent heat conduction.

BARRY WONG / THE SEATTLE TIMES
For the raw fruit method, fruit is put into canning jars and covered with hot liquid.

A jar lifter’s wide grips are coated to eliminate slips, and a few long-handled wooden spoons will protect hands from hot splatters. Use a long-handled, slotted spoon to transfer fruit to jars, and a small ladle for covering with syrup or juice.

Sterilizing jars and caps

Bring a large pot of water to a boil — the water level should cover jars by about an inch. Jars, metal bands and lids should be sterilized in the boiling water for 10 minutes. Hold the sterilized equipment in the hot water and remove individually when it’s time to fill each jar.

Processing the fruit

There are two ways to pack fruit into jars. With the raw fruit method, fruit is put into canning jars and covered with hot liquid, which is best for smaller fruit that may overcook. The raw fruit will shrink when heated in the processing and may float to the top of the jars, so pack the fruit tightly. With a hot pack, the fruit is brought to a simmer in liquid before packing into jars.

BARRY WONG / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Bold dashes of whole spices, such as cinnamon sticks, whole cloves, green cardamom pods or star anise, can be tied into a square of cheesecloth and used to infuse hot sugar syrup or fruit juice.

It’s important to cover the fruit completely with liquid, but with either method leave ½-inch headspace when packing jars. (Headspace is measured from the top of the syrup to the bottom of the flat lid.) The fruit and juices will expand when heated, and if the jars are filled too full the seal may be broken as the food bubbles. Too much headspace may also keep jars from sealing if the processing time is too short to force air from the jars. Once jars are filled, run a clean plastic spatula around the inside edge to burst air bubbles, which may also cause fruit to discolor.

Wipe the rim and threads of jars with a clean, damp paper towel. Immediately place a hot lid on top and tighten band. As each jar is filled and capped, use the jar lifter to place it in the boiling water-bath. When the canner is full, bring back to a steady boil and process according to a USDA canning time.

Storage

When finished processing, lift the jars from the canner and set on a rack or several folded kitchen towels. Don’t tighten the bands. In fact, to make sure seals remain intact, it’s best not to move jars for at least 12 hours. Then check the seal of each jar by pressing the center of the lid — it should not flex. If it does, the fruit should be refrigerated and eaten within 10 days. However, “fruit canned with water may have a shorter storage period,” says Olga Fusté, at Washington State University’s Extension Service in Pierce County.

The key is to periodically check on the freshness of the fruit and liquid. “If mold begins to grow, the product should be thrown out,” Fusté said.

After checking seals, remove the bands and wipe jars with a clean paper towel. Date jars and store in a cool, dark place.

For maximum quality and flavor, use the fruit within a year. As long as the seal of the jars remains intact, they can be stored up to 3 years, but the quality will begin to decline, affecting color, flavor and nutrition.

Sources: Pacific Northwest Extension publication PNW199, Canning Fruits; “The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest” by Carol W. Costenbader; Val Hillers, extension food specialist at Washington State University; Olga Fusté, with the Washington State University’s Extension Service in Pierce County. Food preservation booklets are available online at www.pierce.wsu.edu, or by calling 253-798-7180.

Our three-part canning series continues in August with ideas and tips for canning tomatoes.

For previous Seattle Times Cooking School articles see www.seattletimes.com/cookingschool.