Apr 15, 2023

Jams, Jellies, Pickles and Preserves are time

In the warmth of summer's final act, Elizabeth Gibbs approaches the thicket of beach plum shrubs in her yard, bountiful with reddish-purple fruit. She carefully plucks the ripened, cherry-sized berries that speckle the spiny branches. With their tart and tangy flavor, the fruits could be consumed on-site. But these are called to a higher purpose: to be canned and preserved into a ruby-hued jelly that captures the essence of summer on Aquidneck Island.

It's a ritual that was introduced to Elizabeth by her mother, the late state senator June Gibbs, who planted many of the original shrubs at the Middletown home where Elizabeth and her husband, Eliot Raymond, live today.

"I mostly watched her to begin with, and as I got older, I would help her," Elizabeth reflects. "Mom grew up going to summer camp on the Cape, and it's possible she first learned to make [beach plum jelly] there."

When June and her family moved to Aquidneck Island, a landscape architect planned the yard with a dedicated area for raspberry and blueberry bushes. But June wanted to ensure that the iconic seaside beach plum plants, with their snowy-white flowers and toothy evergreen leaves, were included as part of the miniature orchard.

One of the many hard truths Americans have faced since the coronavirus pandemic began plaguing the nation (and the world) is the vulnerability of our food supply. Early into Rhode Island's shelter-in-place order, Aquidneck Islanders caught an unsettling glimpse of empty supermarket shelves. As the weeks passed and the weather warmed, many turned to their yard for solace amid the uncertainty.

Nationwide, interest in gardening and growing one's own food surged more than at any time in recent history. (Burpee reported it sold more seeds this past March and April than during any similar time frame on record.) You don't have to look hard to see a 21st-century parallel to the victory gardens that swept the nation during World War I and II.

With the fall harvest around the corner, August and September are ideal months to preserve (quite literally) the fruits of that labor. Canning, a food preservation technique used primarily for fruits and vegetables, but also soups and meat, uses heat to destroy food-spoiling microorganisms. The equipment has changed marginally in 200 years, but the methodology remains the same: foods are packed into hermetically sealed containers (typically glass jars with screw-on metal lids), then subjected to a thermal process to destroy microorganisms, thereby preserving the food for a prolonged shelf life.

Two canning methods are approved by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): water bath canning and pressure canning. High-acid foods, including fruits for jams, jellies, pie fillings and preserves; pickles and pickled foods; and tomatoes and salsas, require less heating than their low-acid counterparts. These foods can be preserved using a water bath canner or any large, deep pot or Dutch oven that can accommodate a round metal cooling rack.

Low-acid foods, which include essentially all vegetables (except for most tomatoes), should only be preserved with a pressure canner, and precautions should be taken. (A pressure cooker, like the popular Instant Pot, is not a suitable substitute.) The main threat is foodborne botulism, which is a rare but potentially deadly illness. Only a proper pressure canner can regulate the steam pressure to 240 F – hotter than boiling water – to kill microorganisms in low-acid foods.

"It's not like cooking, where you can be creative," says Nicole Richard, a research associate and food safety specialist at the University of Rhode Island. "It's important to follow tested recipes." The USDA, the National Center for Home Food Preservation, and educational institutions including the University of Georgia, have specific recipe instructions that spell out how much water should be added to the jar, how much headspace (space between the contents and the lid) to allow, how long to simmer fruits before extracting their juice, how much sugar and lemon juice is required for solidification, and processing time by altitude.

Though the threat of botulism is real, Richard says people shouldn't be intimidated to learn about pressure canning, as things only take a bad turn when directions aren't followed. "The biggest problem is when people aren't using tested recipes or they modify one. It's things that are preventable – when someone takes a big deviation."

It took a few years after her mom passed in 2012 for Elizabeth to revive the mother-daughter canning tradition. "I was a little apprehensive at first," she says. Today, the custom runs like clockwork. Elizabeth harvests her beach plums in late August or early September, depending on when the fruit has adopted a blueish-blackish hue and its signature firm texture. She’ll pick over the fruit, removing any stems and tossing any berries that are underripe or squishy. Following her mom's recipe, she’ll boil 4 pounds of beach plums in 3½ cups of water to produce a beautiful crimson mash. June Gibbs traditionally used cheesecloth to wring out the tangy nectar, but Elizabeth uses modern nut milk bags — pouches made from a natural material that are finely woven for straining and can also be reused.

"The most important thing is to get the juice as soon as possible," she explains "But then there's a little leeway. Over the course of a couple weeks, I’ll do the canning." Using the water bath method, Elizabeth mixes the juice with sugar and pectin until it becomes a thick gel. She fills glass Ball jars with the mixture, seals the jars, and inserts then into a lobster pot filled with simmering (180 F) water, so the jars are covered by 1–2 inches of water. After bringing the water to a robust boil, she places the lid on the pot and the processing time begins. "You wait for the moment when they seal, and 15–20 minutes later, you hear that pop," Elizabeth says. "Every pop has a cheer that goes with it."

The result, she says, is a jelly with a jewel-tone glow that she’ll store for a year or longer. "Some years are really good and some years are hardly anything. A good year is four dozen jars," she says. "Besides our bushes, I do have a few other sources of berries. I may have a real bumper crop, but other years, I might only have a dozen. They’re pretty fickle."

Elizabeth gives her beach plum jelly to loved ones at Christmastime, just as her mother did. "Sometimes people sheepishly admitted they didn't love it," she says with a hearty laugh. "But I have some cousins that really love it. They can't get enough."

Amongst a sea of banal raspberry and blueberry jellies, beach plum jelly is exceptional, says Elizabeth. For beach plum jelly makers and enthusiasts, the location of the plants from which they forage are a closely guarded secret. Purists, like Elizabeth, know nothing compares to a beach plum jelly made from a family recipe. "Store-bought beach plum jelly just doesn't taste like beach plum jelly … it's usually cut with something else. It needs to be all beach plum juice," she warns.

Anybody with the great fortune to have a decades-old recipe inscribed on a stained, dog-eared index card and handwritten from the generation before knows they have a rare treasure. For Elizabeth, her mom's beach plum jelly recipe is tried and true. Continuing the tradition, she says, is best described as "bittersweet … but mostly sweet."

If you don't want to tackle canning, there are other easy, low-tech food preservation methods that can be used to prolong the spoils of an Aquidneck Island summer. Jim and Michelle Garman grow about 40 different vegetable and fruit crops on their five-acre farm in Middletown, and while the bulk of their yield finds its way to their farm share and wholesale customers, the couple preserves foods so their family of five can enjoy a taste of summer anytime they want.

Low-acid foods like strawberries, raspberries and blueberries can be processed into jelly, but the Garmans suggest simplifying the process by making preserves, which skips the juicing process and merely mixes the fruit mash with lemon juice and sugar. (Follow tested recipes for respective measurements.)

Wineberries are Jim and Michelle's favorite. "They’re the berries you often see by the side of the road with thick, red, spiky stems," explains Jim. "They are sort of a raspberry and were brought into America by Japan in the 1800s. They kind of went bonkers — they’re now on the invasive list, but they’re amazing!"

Pickling is another proven preservation method. Zucchini, squash, cucumber and radishes (almost any vegetable, for that matter) can be easily pickled, with fresh vegetables delivering the best flavor. Cut them to your liking (coin-shape, lengthwise, matchstick, etc.) and gently pack into jars. In a pot, make a brine using vinegar and water mixed with salt, bring to a boil, then let it cool before pouring over the contents until submerged.

White vinegar, apple cider vinegar, rice vinegar – even white wine – will work for the vinegar. The salt can be sea salt, Kosher salt or pickling salt (which tastes similar to table salt but is more potent, has a finer grain and dissolves quicker). Avoid iodized salt. Herbs and spices including garlic, dill seed, crushed red pepper flakes and whole black peppercorns can be added for extra flavor.

For a simple 16-ounce batch of pickles, about a pound of cucumbers will do, plus 1 cup of water, ¾ cup of vinegar and 1 tablespoon of salt. Consult The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving for recipes and ideas.

So, are pickling and fermenting foods the same? Not exactly. Both processes involve brine and acid, so while fermented veggies are pickled, the fermentation process involves microorganisms breaking down carbohydrates (bacteria and yeast) into alcohol or acids. Sauerkraut, for example, is simply cabbage and salt that's taken anywhere from one to four weeks to ferment. If you’re interested in taking things to the next level, Domina's Agway in Portsmouth carries supplies for fermenting in small batches.

Finally, good old-fashioned freezing is virtually fail-safe, although its recommended shelf life of less than a year pales in comparison to canning. Tomato purée is ideal for freezing. Start by inspecting the tomatoes for any blemishes and discard or remove the imperfections. Blanch the tomato by cutting an "X" into the bottom and placing it into hot water for a minute. Remove, then place into an ice bath for about a minute. Extract the tomato and the skin should easily slide off. Core and halve, then proceed to purée with a food mill, immersion blender or food processor. After cooling, pour the purée into a food storage bag, make as airtight as possible, and store for future use.

What's the difference between Preserves, Pickling and Purées? preserves Pickling fermentation freezing