Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How to can a big batch of peaches efficiently

Today was not a day I was scheduled to work, and Aimee had earlier been to the Belfast Cooperative to bring home two of Peter Baldwin's pre-ordered bushel boxes of peaches which were now ripe enough for me to can, so I got on with it.

Most people new to canning would be nervous about doing quite so many at once, and worried about how much time it would take, but if you want to be self reliant it really is better to put up good solid quantities of staple and storage foods. It's surprising how much people can eat. Think in bushels, not pounds and quarts.

Although I started out rusty and slow, I quickly remembered all the tricks to getting it done efficiently. I should think that by far the most efficient technique would be some kind of assembly line in a larger community kitchen, with several people working at once. There are about eight distinct steps, so eight people would be best, and they could probably do as many as thirty bushels in a day if they had everything on hand.

First, put a large saucepan or kettle on to boil the hot water needed to peel peaches. A three gallon soup pan with about two gallons of water in it would be perfect. Then, while that heats up, gather up your peaches, which have to be ripe but still firm, and your other stuff: clean canning jars, lids and bands, sugar, and citric acid. 

Two cups of sugar in six cups of water with a teaspoon and a half of citric acid makes a good light syrup. I'm told you can use grape juice instead of sugar but I never do. You have to use the citric acid (or lemon juice) to stop the peaches from turning brown.


By now your pan of plain water should be boiling. Drop as many peaches in there as will fit, leave them in until the skin discolors just slightly and goes just a bit wrinkly, about thirty seconds if the water is properly hot. Even discolored or bruised fruit like the one above can go in. You'll cut the bruised part off later.

Pull the peaches out and drop them in a large bowl next to a cutting board. Now comes the trick or "knack." Take one and cut it in half, rolling the knife around the stone. With the skin still on, take one half in each hand and twist gently, slipping your thumbs between the two halves to pry them apart if need be. If you haven't under- or overheated them, the fruit should fall into two clean, even halves with the stone in one of the two. Pick the stone out by working your thumb or fingers underneath it. In about one in four or five pieces of fruit the stone will be broken in two. It may even be discolored or moldy. As long as you can clean it all out, don't worry about it. Be sure to scoop out or cut away any mold or fragments of stone.

You can now turn your attention to the skin. It should slough off easily in one or two large pieces. If it doesn't, pop all the fruit back in the hot water for a few seconds more until it does. Experiment using trial and error to find out the exact right amount of time it takes to slough the skin off each peach nicely. With the peaches we usually get, I notice that red skinned peaches peel more easily than yellow, but I suppose it depends on the variety of peach you have.

The whole process of skinning and stoning takes only a few seconds if you do it this way, stoning first, then skinning. The two halves will be much easier to grab with the skin on than off. There's also something about the twisting motion that is required to separate the two halves that also works most of the skin loose more easily than if you tackle a whole peach. Make sure you get all the skin off.

As you get each peach half clean and skinned, drop it in a clean canning jar. If your peaches are large, you will need wide mouth jars for peach halves, while peach quarters and slices can go in regular jars. I always use quart jars. Smaller ones just don't work that well. Peaches are too bulky.

Just stone, skin and pack a few jars at a time, unless you have help. Don't get ahead of the job. You don't want to leave too many open jars with uncovered peaches lying around for too long. Today I did batches of four jars at a time, just enough to use up a batch of syrup.

Add your sugar syrup/citric acid mixture to bring the total of peaches and syrup up to within one half-inch of the top of each jar. Wipe the top clean with a bit of kitchen towel so there is nothing to prevent the vacuum seal from forming and fit a clean lid and ring band.

Some books on home canning tell you to sterilize lids and ring bands, but I can't see how this makes the slightest bit of difference when the next thing that happens is that they are going to be in 212 degree F water for half an hour. Likewise, I don't sterilize jars. I just make sure they are washed thoroughly in hot water and rinsed.

Our water bath canner takes nine quart jars at a time. The water needs to be deep enough to cover the top of each jar, and it needs to be at a rolling boil before you put the jars in. You'll need to experiment with your stove to find the right gas or electric setting to maintain the boil without wasting energy. With our stove, which runs on propane, it takes the two middle-sized burners going full blast to heat the canner up to boiling, but once it is boiling, you can turn them both down a little. Once the jars are all in, wait for the water to start boiling again, which will take a while, then time the boil for thirty minutes.

These tips assume you are within a thousand feet of altitude above sea level. If you're higher up than this, consult the official USDA guide, which is available online these days. In fact, you should read the general sections of this guide, which is the authoritative manual, before you do anything.

Once the thirty minutes are up, pull the first nine jars out with tongs, or using the rack that came with the water bath canner, set them aside to cool, and replace them with nine more. Wait for this new batch to begin to boil, then time them for thirty minutes after that. After the time is up, let all the cans cool completely, then check the lids for a seal. The little domed top of each lid should be sucked down into the canning jar by a vacuum inside. It should feel taught if you tap it with a finger, not elastic or springy. As you set them aside too cool, space them widely apart so the air can circulate. Don't set them right next to one another, or they'll take much longer to cool down.

If the cans are sealed you can the remove the ring band, which is not required for storage once everything is sealed, and wash any sticky canning water off carefully, making sure not to disturb the lid, then put them in a dark cupboard or on a dark shelf. Any that are not sealed will keep for quite a while in the fridge.

If you go traveling with cans, say to deliver some to relatives or friends, you might like to put ring bands back on to protect the seal. But on the shelf at home they're not needed.

If you happen to have a lonely old ram, or a pig, they like to eat bruised peaches and peach fragments, while pigs and chickens love peach skins. Notice the peach juice dripping from Shawn's mouth, the silly old ram.

Here's the kitchen in full production. When we rebuilt this old farmhouse, we deliberately made a large kitchen so we could do this kind of thing more easily.

Here's about two thirds of what we made today. Summer sunshine in a jar to brighten up your winter!

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