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5. Problem: Fruits Lose Their Texture or Color
Photo by Stephanie Staton
Discoloration in jams and jellies can be the result of many factors, including the fruit's natural sugar levels and ripeness.
The culprit: Discoloration may just be the result of natural changes that take place in certain fruits during processing. Using water or fruit juice for packing fruit (instead of sugar syrups) may not keep the fruit’s color, but the flavor will still be good. Overripe fruit won’t hold up to processing and storage as well as fruit processed at its peak.
The fix: After the fact, there’s not much you can do, but there are a few steps you can take to preserve color and texture before canning.
“Sugar syrups will best preserve the shape, color and flavor of canned fruit,” says Loe. “However, many of us don’t want to use sugar syrup. If you use fruit juice or water, you might get a slightly less-appealing color, but the flavor will be good and the food should still be safe.”
If you’re canning a fruit that browns (apples or peaches, for example), Loe suggests adding ascorbic acid to the fruit by following the directions on the container. It will prevent discoloration and preserve a brighter appearance.
“Testing has shown that ascorbic acid works better than just lemon juice,” she says. “Ascorbic acid is just powdered Vitamin C—but it’s not the same thing as citric acid.”
6. Problem: Pickles Aren’t Crisp
The culprit: Starting with less-than-fresh cucumbers or using a salad cuke for pickles instead of pickling cucumber varieties can result in less-than-crisp pickles.
The fix: There’s nothing you can do to put the crisp into the pickle once it’s made, but there are some pre-pickling steps you can take. First, plant or buy pickling varieties—not salad cucumbers. And the cucumbers you use must be fresh.
“The fresher the better,” advises Loe. “The best pickles are made with cucumbers that are less than 24 hours off the vine. Every day over 24 hours will cause you to lose crispness.” Choose cucumbers that are firm and dark green, and slice off the blossom end of the cucumber before processing. (The blossom scar has enzymes that cause softening.)
7. Problem: Floating Fruit
The culprit: There are a lot of causes for this very common problem. Packing jars too loosely, using overripe fruit (the pectin content is lower and pectin helps hold the fruit in suspension), using too much sugar in the syrup (the fruit density can be lighter than the syrup if a heavy syrup is used), over-processing, and raw-packing fruit instead of hot-packing can all cause fruit to float to the top of the jar.
The fix: “The fruit is fine,” says Loe. “It’s perfectly safe to eat and will store well on the shelf.” But there are steps you can take that will prevent floating fruit.
Use firm, ripe (but not overripe) fruit, pack the fruit into the jars firmly without smashing, use a light or medium syrup rather than a heavy syrup, use the proper processing time in the recipe, and use the hot-pack method rather than the raw-pack method.
“Raw-pack is when you fill the jar with unheated fruit and add a hot liquid before processing,” Loe explains. “Hot-pack is where you heat the fruit in a liquid and then fill the jars and process. As the fruit is heated, the excess air inside the fruit escapes and this prevents floating later. You can heat the fruit in water or fruit juice, and it won’t over-sweeten the fruit. Both [raw and hot] methods are safe, but hot-packed fruits tend to hold their color and texture better on the shelf.”
8. Problem: Jars Leak During Processing or Cooling
Photo by Stephanie Staton
An overfilled jar can cause contents to leak during processing.
The culprit: If you notice color in your water bath (pink water for cherries, for example) or the sides of your jars are sticky after cooling, chances are the jars were over filled. If there is too little headspace, some of the juice will bubble out during the processing. This can also happen if the food was raw-packed instead of hot-packed into the jar.
The fix: As long as there’s still enough liquid in the jar to cover most of the food, it should be fine. Carefully wash off the stickiness, and set the jars on the shelf. Keep in mind that any food sitting above the liquid will discolor—though it should still be safe to eat. “Be sure to check the seal just before opening,” cautions Loe. “Sometimes the food seeping out can cause the seal to fail while sitting on the shelf. Food particles under the lid slowly release the vacuum seal. If you pull a jar off the shelf and it is unsealed, don’t eat the contents—you have no idea how long it’s been unsealed.”
If half or more of the syrup is gone after sealing, store the food in the refrigerator and use it within a few days.
To prevent it from happening again, always use proper headspace when filling a jar, and use a hot-pack method instead of a raw-pack.
9. Problem: Air Bubbles Occur After Processing
The culprit: “Air bubbles are just pockets of air that didn’t get released during packing or processing. Air clings to the food during processing, and sometimes even our best efforts won’t dislodge them all,” says Loe. “As long as the bubbles aren’t moving on their own, which would indicate bacterial fermentation, they’re perfectly safe—though you may get some discoloration where they sit on the fruit.” If you suspect bacterial fermentation, discard the food.
The fix: After you fill your jars (and before processing), run a rubber spatula or a chopstick around the inside edges of the jar to release all the air bubbles. (Don’t use a metal knife, as it may scratch the jar.) Then check the headspace again. If releasing the bubbles lowers the liquid level, add more liquid for proper headspace, then continue with your processing.
As Loe’s advice suggests, many canning disasters can be avoided by carefully following the basic rules and steps, as well as using proven, reliable recipes. If you’re not sure about a recipe, or you’ve run into a canning disaster, don’t hesitate to contact your extension office [LINK: /farm-resources/farmer-resources/cooperative-extension.aspx] for advice.
About the Author: Debbie Moors is a Colorado-based freelancer who says the pinging sound of jars sealing is music to her ears.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2011 issue of Hobby Farm Home.
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