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As home cooks, we rely on our instincts, our knowledge, and our curiosities -- but we also have to rely on our tools. Which is why we're asking the experts about the essential tools we need to make our favorite foods attainable in our own kitchens.
Today: What equipment is really necessary for making perfect pickles and jams? Expert canner and cooking teacher Cathy Barrow -- a.k.a. Mrs. Wheelbarrow -- gives us the lowdown on the must-have items for pickling and preserving summer's bounty.
When someone asks me what special equipment is necessary for canning, I can go all Laura Ingalls Wilder and talk about how food preservation is as old as the hills. I can get on my high horse and tell stories about the time I made mango chutney in my college dorm room by hijacking the cooking pot used for popcorn and boiling the hot, sugary condiment on a hot plate I kept (illegally) under my bed. While the sanity of this endeavor was suspect, you will note that there was no special equipment used.
In the years since, I’ve grown wiser. Now I tend to hew toward safe and cautious, and that means a few pieces of canning-specific equipment. Water bath canning is the safe way to get seasonal foods into the pantry. Most fruit jams, jellies, and whole fruits are safely processed in a water bath, as are many pickles.
Practice your technique with early summer fruits and vegetables in preparation for late summer’s tomato harvest because, surely, the most useful home canned foods are crushed tomatoes and tomato purée. (If you think I’m kidding, just take note for the next few days: See how many times you reach for a can of tomatoes, then think about how heavy those cans make your grocery bags.) Here are the key pieces that will get you ready to tuck this summer’s produce into jars before winter comes again.
1. A good book
Every first-time canner worries about safety, and there’s only one way to ensure that the food you preserve will be safe: Use only trusted recipes, do not alter their ratios, and follow the instructions to the letter. For decades, the classic Ball Book of Home Preserving has been the go-to for basic recipes.
2. Large, heavy, non-reactive pots for cooking
You need only two pots for water bath canning projects. Non-reactive cookware, referenced in many preserving recipes, confuddles and concerns all new canners. But no worries: It simply means that the pans must not be aluminum. Aluminum can leach into whatever you’re cooking -- particularly acidic pickles, chutneys, and tomatoes. Foods cooked in aluminum can oxidize -- that is, blacken -- and they'll sometimes carry a metallic tang.
Something large, heavy and non-reactive is key for cooking preserves, brines, chutney, and more. I use a 5- or 8-quart enameled cast iron Dutch oven, like a Le Creuset. Is there anything in the kitchen that you use in so many ways and in so many recipes? It’s so useful that I’m pretty sure you already have one, or something similar, in your kitchen. If not, any wide, heavy, non-reactive pot will be fine.
3. Canning kettle for processing and sealing the jars
I like a very large, very deep pot with a capacity of at least 12 quarts. This canning kettle is perfect: It’s stainless steel and therefore non-reactive, which means it's useful beyond the water bath. Think about it: chili for a crowd; chicken stock; many artichokes; two dozen ears of corn; or even processing a 25-pound box of tomatoes.
4. Canning rack
Every canning kettle needs a rack in the bottom. Jars jangling along the bottom are more prone to cracking (and cracked jars are unbelievably sad). If the kettle you are using doesn’t have its own rack, use a footed cake rack. In a pinch, fold a kitchen towel and place it in the bottom of the pot: It will rise like a specter, but it will still cushion the jars while boiling.
5. Canning jars in different shapes and sizes
Match the food to the jar: Pack pickle spears and dilly beans (made with this Happy Girl pickling spice) in tall Ball jars and scoop jams and relishes into sweet tulip-shaped Weck jars. Jars can be used over and over, so the investment pays off in no time. Train your friends and family to return your jars by promising a refill. Speak sternly to those who do not return jars and to those who stash your precious preserves on a shelf and fail to open them.
6. Jar lifter and funnel
Getting the hot preserves into jars is messy at best. A jar funnel will reduce spillovers and keep your work surface tidy. Jar lifters are essential, not only for setting your precious filled jars upright in the canning kettle, but also for fishing those jars out of the boiling water after processing. If you’re just getting started canning, you might consider a set that includes jars, a jar lifter, and a funnel.
7. Clean up tools
I’m not going to lie. Canning is messy. Be prepared with a stack of big, thirsty dish towels.
Canning is a great activity for friends: Share the work and divvy up the jars at the end of the day. If I’m canning with friends, I have dance party playlists to keep the day moving along happily. And I always make plenty of snacks and cold cocktails to end the day. But I’ll also admit that a day of canning alone in the kitchen means listening to an audiobook or catching up on podcasts, and that is utter bliss.
9. Labels and decorations
Once these essential tools are in your arsenal, you can supplement them with fun additions. Consider these items as accessories, the equivalent to a pearl necklace, a fabulous handbag, or oh-la-la shoes. The Mason Jar labeling kit makes your jars look BKLYN ready, and the Pickling Storage Crate is handy for stashing jars under the bed, in the closet, or displayed in the middle of the living room for that humble-brag opportunity.
Are you craving more advice on how to turn the bounty of summer's markets into jars of jams and pickles? Pre-order Cathy Barrow's book, Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving, for the techniques, tips, and recipes you need to help you stock your pantry through the seasons.
Photos by James Ransom