A late spring frost robbed the hills where I live of most of the tree fruit. My own trees have a grand total of three peaches nestled in the branches and my backup orchard has no fruit at all. This is a good enough reason to have extra canned food put up as you never know when weather or illness or some other unforeseen circumstance will get in the way of a harvest.
I was lucky enough to find an orchard within easy driving distance that did have fruit, so I loaded up last week and put in an order for a several more bushels for next week. I really appreciated my canning kitchen as I canned load after load. I put some banjo music on the CD player and got to work early Saturday morning. By mid-afternoon the table was full of golden jars of sweet, gingery peaches just begging for vanilla ice cream.
I have my own process for canning peaches and I’m always surprised to learn that other people have methods that differ from mine. In truth, there is no single “right way”.
There are as many recipes as there are canners I suppose. We each have a special ingredient or trick that makes our preserves unique to our family and our tastes. For instance, I never can peaches without ginger and I would never use heavy syrup. Even though we raise bees and I have gallons of honey around I never use honey syrup. I feel that the honey overwhelms the delicate peach flavor while a slice of ginger in the bottom of a jar enhances it.
I always skin my peaches. It’s a lot of work but I don’t care for canned peach skins. I dip a half dozen peaches at a time into simmering water for a bit less than a minute and then plunge them into ice water. The water is laced with two tablespoons of citric acid for every gallon of water. This prevents the peaches from darkening while I work. I try to work with freestone peaches as I do like to can halves rather than slices. This year, cling peaches were all that were available so while I worked on slipping skins, my daughter cut the peaches off the pits and plopped them back in the ice water.
In the meantime, my jars were heating in the water bath canner. I generally can in quarts for fruit. The lids were sitting in hot water and all my utensils were lined up on a large bath towel. I had already prepared a light syrup for the peaches. I make it in volume: 21 cups of water to 9 cups of sugar is about right. This has been simmered until the sugar dissolves and remains hot on the back of the stove. I peeled ginger and cut that in 1/2 inch slices and popped them into a bowl on the counter next to my utensils.
Once everything’s ready, I start to fill the jars. I remove one jar at a time from the water bath, pack it with peaches, add a slice of ginger and fill with syrup. After I release the air pockets, I add more syrup to leave a 1/2 inch head space. I add a hot lid and ring and return that jar to the canner. I will confess that I usually end up with some floating fruit. This happens because the fruit shrinks some as it cooks in the canner. It can sometimes be avoided by cooking the fruit in the syrup before loading the jars and I do this for fruit I display at the agricultural fairs. But as I think precooking overcooks the fruit and makes it tastes more like commercial canned fruit, I don’t do that any other time. We go for flavor over appearance every time at our home!
The peaches need 25 minutes in a water bath and that’s that. I check the seals, label them and send them to the basement. Nothing is quite as satisfying as surveying cabinets full of fabulous food that you grew or gathered and preserved yourself.
I found myself with about two quarts of sliced up peaches that didn’t fit in my final canner load. I also had a lot of leftover syrup and all of that wonderful peachy water too. It was time to get creative. I simmered the peaches in some syrup, added the last few inches of ginger and l pondered the flavor. It was missing something. Then I remembered. A few years ago someone had given us a small bottle of brandy. We don’t drink brandy so it sat forgotten in the back of a cabinet. I poured about a cup of that in the peaches. According to what I read, the alcohol would cook off. I hope so as most of my family does not consume alcohol. After an hour, the peaches were thick and transparent and gingery and delicious. We served it that night over ice cream and it was a huge hit. (If you would rather not use brandy, try vanilla, butter pecan or other flavorings to taste; 1 to 3 teaspoons should give you good flavor.)
The peach water was also used. I made a juice of 1 part syrup to 3 parts juice. Three gallons disappeared at Sunday dinner. Granted, we served the usual 16 people but that was still a lot of juice.
Our food is so good and so much goes into the process of raising it that I hate to waste any. We make the most of our produce. Skins and pits can be simmered for juice. When I use the steam juicer, I take the pulp left after jucing, mix it with sugar and apple sauce, and dry that mixture into fruit leather. Bits and pieces can go into stir fries, soups and sauces. Purees find their way into loaves of bread. With so many hungry around the world, we feel that wasting food is not just financially foolish but immoral too. What isnâ€™t consumed by people can feed chickens or pigs. At the very least it can feed worms and soil in the compost pile.
All off this canning and carting got me to thinking about something. I needed to put in a Lehman’s order in any case and I recalled seeing a canning jar tote I one of their recent catalogs. Carrying canning jars from kitchen to basement is always a chore and transporting jars to the fair is even harder. Boxes are just not sturdy enough to support the weight of 12 full jars. I just got off the phone and a set of totes is one their way to our house. I plan to keep one tote in the basement for bring jars up stairs and one tote will stay in the summer kitchen to use in bringing full jars the basement. As I think about it, another set might just come in handy. House to fair and house to church and church back home, full or empty, 12 jars is too much to handle any other way.