Canning jars and lids are designed to withstand temperature and pressure changes, and to make an airtight seal as they cool. Don’t try reusing jars supermarket food came in for canning, no matter what your Aunt Irene tells you. Single-use jars may break (wasting food or possibly hurting someone) or fail to seal. Stick with jars that use modern two-piece canning lids (a flat lid and a separate screw-on band); older jars with glass lids are nifty to look at, but save them for storing dry goods. Quilted Crystal Jelly Jars are readily available at hardware and grocery stores in a variety of sizes. A box of 12 (including lids and bands) costs $8 to $10. Canning jars are a good investment, as they can be reused for decades; but to save money, watch for sales, ask older friends if they have jars they no longer use, or look for jars at yard sales. Look for jars that say Ball, Kerr, Atlas, or Mason in raised glass letters on the side or the bottom. To make a good seal, the top rim must be intact and smooth; there should be no visible scratches in the glass (which can lead to breakage). If you are not sure a jar is a real canning jar, don’t use it for canning.
You will also need a large stockpot or canning pot at least two inches deeper than your tallest jar (or two jars, if you want to stack one on top of another), a rack that fits in the bottom to keep the jars up off the pot bottom (they may break if they sit directly on the pot), and a jar lifter (basically a pair of large-jawed tongs). A jar funnel, which helps get the contents into the jar, is nice but not required.
Related: The Dos + Don'ts of Canning
Here are two of my favorite recipes, along with some variations, to get you started making your own fruit preserves. Once you have the hang of it, you can explore the many canning recipe books out there. You’ll have a fully stocked pantry before you know it! These foods will keep for about a year if kept sealed.
Old-Fashioned Peach Preserves
Makes about 7 half-pints
2 quarts coarsely chopped peaches (or apricots or plums or a combination), with or without the skins
6 cups white sugar or 4 cups honey
¼ teaspoon mace
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup citrus juice
Combine fruit, sugar or honey, and spices if using in a glass bowl or a saucepan and allow to stand for 12 to 18 hours in the refrigerator. Slowly bring mixture to a boil in a thick-bottomed, stainless steel pot at least twice as deep as the raw preserves; they’ll foam and expand while cooking. Once boiling, reduce the heat, and simmer mixture gently, stirring frequently, until the fruit is clear and the syrup thickens, about 40 minutes. Skim off any foam with a slotted spoon (put skimmings in a saucer to enjoy right away).
While the preserves are cooking, put the rack in your canning pot, put the clean jars in, lids off, and cover them with cool water. Bring the water to a boil, turn off the heat, and leave the jars in the water until your preserves are done. Prepare the lids per manufacturer directions. When the fruit mix is done, remove one jar from the water at a time with the lifter or tongs, carefully empty the jar, place it on a folded tea towel or cutting board, and fill it with preserves before lifting out another.
Ladle in the hot preserves, filling the jar to within about ¼ inch from the top. Wipe the rim clean, top it with a new lid, and loosely screw on a band (do not tighten it). Once all the jars are filled, put them back into the hot water, adjust the water level to an inch over the top of the jars, and bring back to a boil. Boil gently for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, lift jars out with tongs, and place them on a rack or cutting board to cool. Don’t fiddle with the bands; as the lids cool you will hear a ping as each jar seals. When the jars are cool, remove the bands and test the seals. The center of each lid should be depressed, and the lid should adhere tightly to the jar. Jars that didn’t seal can be put in the fridge to eat first, or you can clean the rim of the jar, put on a new lid and band, and reboil the jar as above. Replace the bands of the sealed jars; wash each jar, label it, and store it in a cool place out of direct sunlight.
Makes roughly 5 to 7 half-pints
My mother loved picking wild berries and turning them into jelly, and my very favorite jelly when I was a little girl was apple-blackberry. Blackberries add a wonderful flavor and color, while the apples, especially underripe ones, are rich in natural pectin so you don’t have to buy any store-bought jelling aids. This is also a great way to use up any extra apples, especially the gnarly-looking ones.
2 quarts apples or crabapples, at least a few of them underripe, if possible
2 pints blackberries
Sugar or honey (exact measure will depend on how much juice you get)
Variations: Use raspberries, blueberries, or elderberries instead of blackberries for a different fruit flavor. For a spicy twist, cook 3 quarts of chopped apples with a few hot peppers. For a cool twist, cook 3 quarts of chopped apples, adding a cup of fresh mint leaves when the apples are almost mushy.
Wash apples and trim out any rotting spots. Chop into large chunks, stems, cores, and all. Place fruit in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Add enough water to cover the bottom inch or two of fruit. Slowly bring to a boil, stirring and mashing with a spoon. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until it is all soft and mushy.
Turn off and let the mixture cool as you line a stainless steel colander with a square of unbleached muslin (wet it first to keep it from slipping and/or attach it with clean clip clothespins). Or use a “jelly bag,” a mesh bag designed to let the juice drain, but not the pulp. Put the lined colander over (but not in) a large bowl to catch the juice, tip the fruit mush into the colander, and let the whole thing sit undisturbed in the fridge for 12 to 18 hours. Resist the temptation to squeeze the last of the juice out of the remaining pulp, or your jelly will be cloudy.
Measure the juice and put it into the heavy-bottomed pot. For each cup of juice, add up to ¾ cup sugar OR 2/3 cup honey. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring frequently (while you’re doing this, ready your jars as described above for peach preserves). Continue to boil; test the jelly every few minutes by holding a spoonful of it over the pot and letting it slowly spill back in. At first the mixture will run like water, then it starts to come off in ribbons, and eventually it will fall in a single wide sheet. At that point, turn off the heat and skim off any foam. Ladle it into the hot jars, filling them to ¼ inch of the rim. Process as for peach preserves.
Once the jelly cools it will firm up. If it is still runny after two days (this happens to the best of us now and then) you have two choices: Pour the un-jelly back into the pot and cook it down some more (or add a commercial jelling product according to the package directions)—or call it syrup! Homemade fruit syrup is delicious on pancakes or homemade ice cream and makes a great gift, perhaps paired with a sack of whole grain pancake mix.