Concord grapes, stemmed and rinsed.
In addition to simply canning, I was intrigued by using agar (comes in powder or flakes) instead of pectin. I relied on my friend Lori's research that turned up the fact that commercial pectin is produced via a chemical process, and is not very healthy. Plus, using agar--derived from sea veggies and vegetarian--enables you to reduce the amount of sugar in the recipe a lot. This also intrigued me. Oh--and the lady at Fruitful Yield pronounced it aa (as in cat)-gahr. Someone else pronounced it ay-gahr. Or ah-gur. Or even agar-agar with your pick of aa-ah sounds. So who knows? :)
If you want all the details about agar/pectin, plus how to make Lori's blueberry-peach jam with agar instead of pectin, visit her blog post here. I made peach preserves using her exact recipe (except I used agar powder instead of flakes), and they turned out fine. Yes, it's important to follow her recipe exactly. You can experiment a bit once you're comfortable with the method and with using agar.
Okay, back to my canning adventures using agar instead of commercial pectin...
Since my grape preserves turned out perfectly, and since grapes are currently in season, like right now, I'm going to share that recipe first. I used Concord grapes, which I bought at our farmers market, and which are seeded. Therefore, these grapes require more work than the seedless kind. Plan to spend an entire afternoon working on this, so go ahead and prepare a big batch. Or get someone to help you, like I did!
Grape Preserves with Agar
Makes 6 to 8 half-pint jars
Not quite four pounds of Concord grapes
1/2 cup water (I use filtered)
1 1/4 cup sugar (I use organic cane juice crystals)
2 tablespoons plus one generous teaspoon agar powder
Using your fingers, pinch individual grapes, separating skins and pulp into two saucepans. (A helper is extremely, well, helpful.) Bring grape pulp to a boil over medium heat and boil, stirring frequently, until soft, maybe ten minutes or so. Press pulp through a fine sieve (I use a food mill), discarding the seeds. Note: I use the food mill, and when I've gotten as much pulp through that as I can--the seeds are rather bulky for the blade--I dump the seeds into a sieve and press the rest of the pulp out. Set this pulp mixture aside.
To the saucepan containing the skins, add enough water to prevent sticking. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat, cover and boil gently until skins have softened and liquid is nearly evaporated, about ten minutes. Combine skins and pulp in a large, deep stainless steel saucepan. Since I have an issue with food texture, I puree the whole batch. Although a stick blender works well, I found that at the end of canning, there were a lot of skins on the bottom of the pot which I ended up discarding. Next time, I will puree everything in batches in my heavy-duty blender.
At this point in the recipe, I have my canning pot filled with water, put on the stove, and set to high. I also have my jars in super-hot water in a dish tub in the sink (they've already been soapy-washed and rinsed). Aaaand, I have my seals in a small bowl, with boiling water poured over them. I'll add more boiling water if it cools off too much. I'm assuming here that you've canned before! If you haven't, get a good basic canning book and read how to do all this, before you ever start trying this recipe. Ball (which makes the canning jars) has an excellent book, from which I adapt my recipes: Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. ISBN for the paperback version: 0-7788-0131-4. ISBN for the bound book: 0-7788-0139-X. Back to our recipe.
To the pot of grape mixture, add in sugar and stir; bring to a boil, then turn to simmer. As far as sugar goes, you can add more or less to your taste. I've found that I can adjust the sugar in these recipes pretty easily to allow for my individual taste, without affecting the overall process or the quality of the finished product.
Then, little by little, sprinkle the agar into the mixture, whisking with each sprinkle to mix it in thoroughly. I dumped mine in, and ended up having to use the stick blender because it clumped up into globs, lots and lots of grape-covered agar globs. Now I know to sprinkle the agar and whisk, little by little, until it's all mixed in. (If you use flakes you shouldn't have this problem.)
Now you must simmer at a nice simmer for 15 minutes or so, whisking or stirring pretty much the whole time. (Here's where your helper--or a book--comes in handy.) It won't thicken much, since it thickens at room temperature. Trust me on this.
At the 15-minute mark, you can take a spoonful of preserves and put it in a small dish that you've placed in your freezer at the beginning of this process. (This is an example of why you need to read through the entire recipe before you begin...) Wait 3-4 minutes then run your finger through it. It will thicken a little further than this, so if it has thickened at all, it's probably good to go. If you feel you need to add some more agar, add only a little. It thickens pretty quickly. Trust me on this, too. Please. :)
When you've reached the 20-minute mark of simmering and stirring, you're ready for the canning process. Ladle hot preserves into hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. I use a ruler to measure this, since I'm terrible with distances and length. Remove air bubbles (with something glass or plastic, not metal which will cool the liquid too much) and adjust headspace if necessary. Wipe the rim of the jar, center the lid on the jar, and screw the band down until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip-tight. Do not crank it closed!
For this process, I usually work with 2-3 jars at a time, filling, placing seals and rings, and placing in my canning rack. You can do one at a time, or whatever you're comfortable with. Just try to keep the jars hot for as long as possible.
Place jars (or place canning rack with jars) in canning pot, ensuring they are completely covered with water. Bring back to a boil (with the lid on the canning pot!) and process for ten minutes. Make sure it stays at a good boil the entire time! Remove canner lid and wait five minutes. Remove jars to a cooling rack. I remove my canning rack, pulling it up and out of my pot, and place it on a large cutting board. From there, I use canning tongs to remove the individual jars to a cooling rack, where they sit for 24 hours.
After a day, I check the seals to make sure they've sealed, and refrigerate any unsealed jars. I gently wash the outside of the jars with warm (not hot) soapy water (to remove any residue from the canning process), then dry them, label them, and store them in my basement food storage area (affectionately called the Bomb Shelter).
Some pictures, just in case you're like me and want to see what things look like along the way. I put these at the end, so the recipe isn't interrupted and you have to keep scrolling to find out what next. Here they are:
Pinch the innards from the skins through the hole from the stem.
Innards go in one saucepan; skins go in another.
Pots on the stove, coming to a boil.
The innards, simmering for about ten minutes or so.
My food mill, a garage sale find and a must-have for my canning adventures.
After using the food mill, I press the remaining pulp from the seeds using a sieve and a scraper.
The stick blender--usually a favorite in my kitchen--works okay, but next time,
I'll use my Bosch blender to puree my preserves.
Feel free to leave your preserves chunky if that's what you love!
The finished product!
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