Food in Jars: A Canning Queen and her Cookbook

by Sarah Henry on June 22, 2012 · 36 comments

in bay area bites,canning & preserving,food books,fruit,vegetables

Food in Jars author Marisa McClellan. Photo: Scott McNulty

Philadelphia-based canning and jamming queen Marisa McClellan, of Food in Jars blog fame, swings through the Bay Area this week offering a series of classes, workshops, and book signings for fans of putting up. The author, whose new book Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round, is likely to be well received here, given this region’s current preoccupation with preserving — though, okay, maybe it doesn’t quite rival the D.I.Y. zeal of picklers in Portland.

We’ll let McClellan be the judge of that, given her West Coast pedigree. A former Californian (she was born in Hollywood), who lived in L.A. until she was nine, McClellan moved with her family to Portland and went to college in Washington state. Post college, she relocated to Pennsylvania to take care of her ailing grandmother and wound up staying put — and rediscovering the old-fashioned practice of putting up.

Growing up on the West Coast, McClellan had apple and plum trees and blackberry bushes in easy reach. She went blueberry picking and came home to preserve with a mom who was touched by the back-to-the-land hippie vibe of that time and place. Every summer, McClellan remembers making a dozen jars of jam and filling the freezer with bags of apple sauce. It was just something she grew up knowing how to do, it wasn’t like her family was canning crazy.

But that can-do spirit never left McClellan, who writes a weekly pickling post for Serious Eats. The old-fashion practice became a modern passion and ended up finding a home in her new book, a collection of recipes for jams, jellies, marmalades, pickles, relishes, and chutneys — with some syrups, sauces, and salsas thrown in for good measure, along with a boozy infusion or two. (See below for select recipes.)

BAB caught up with McClellan at the recent BlogHer Food conference in Seattle. As a former Portlandian, it must be noted that this canner was dispensing cookbook postcards via a thoroughly au courant little purse with, yes, dear readers, birds on it. Proving, perhaps, that you can take the pickler out of Portland, but you can’t take Portlandia out of this preserver.


How is your book different from all the other canning, jamming, and pickling cookbooks already out there?

It’s a modern take on small batch canning — between three and four pints. Most classic canning recipes are designed to fill a canning pot, we’re talking seven to nine pints. Living in a small apartment I found that was always far too much: My apartment is a little less than 1,100 square feet and my kitchen is about 80 square feet, so storage and counter space are at a premium. For me, small batches are a way to be creative and explore different flavor combinations without canning taking up my whole life.

How would you characterize the canning community here?

The West Coast canning scene is about three or four years ahead of the East Coast — that’s just how things tend to happen in food trends — the East Coast is a little slower to pick up on things. The West Coast has ridiculously beautiful produce. California, Oregon, and Washington are all blessed, and people should remember not to take it for granted.

What do you miss about West Coast eating and drinking?

Pennsylvania has a lot of obnoxious liquor laws. I miss being able to buy a bottle of wine in the grocery store.

I miss the general aesthetic and attitude of the West Coast around food — especially California — everybody is really engaged in food here, whether it’s preserving or wanting to make things from scratch. On the East Coast I often feel like I’m shouting to an empty room.

What’s wonderful on the food front where you live?

We get really great sour cherries. And sour cherry jam is one of my favorite jams to make. So I feel really lucky to live in a place that has such an abundant sour cherry season.

We’re also fortunate to have the classic Brandywine tomato, which is originally from Pennsylvania. It was developed for that soil and it grows beautifully in that area. It’s particularly good for sauces and salsas.

Savory and sweet preserved produce. Photo: Steve Legato

How do you explain the new-found popularity of putting up?

So many factors have come together right now to make preserving popular again. There’s the locavore movement: If you want to eat locally and have variety through the winter and live in a colder place, as I do, then you’ve got to can. There’s the fact that people want some control over their food — they want to avoid chemicals or BPA — and the best way to know what’s in your food is by canning it yourself. There are also economic factors: People need to save money and canning can be one way to do that.

And there’s also the fact that many people are really disconnected from their food and they want to be more in touch with it and canning is a way to do that too. All those factors are coming together and making it just a perfect storm for food preservation.

She can pickle that! Photo: Steve Legato

What’s a good gateway savory and sweet option for novice preservers?

On the vegetable side: basic refrigerator pickle, you don’t even have to do the boiling water bath process. It’s just chopping cucumbers, adding some garlic and other spices, pouring some hot vinegar over it, and letting it sit in the refrigerator for a day or two. That makes the best, crunchiest, most flavorful pickle you’ve ever had. They’ll stay crisp and good in the refrigerator for three or four weeks as opposed to six to twelve months on the shelf but the texture is better if you just do it as a refrigerator pickle.

On the fruit side: blueberry jam because blueberries are very high in natural pectin, so even a beginner is going to get a good jammy set out of blueberries. Strawberries — which new jammers often try first — are one of the hardest to get a good set out of, so they end up with a failure, a strawberry syrup, and they’re disappointed and may not make jam again because it didn’t turn out. Blueberry jam always turns out.

Slathering on some homemade blueberry butter. Photo: Steve Legato

How do you feel about the cult status and gentle mockery of preserving by the Portlandia crew: “We Can Pickle That!”

At first I was sort of uneasy about the whole Portlandia thing and now I love it. I feel like: Why not? The more people talk about this stuff the better. It’s making fun of it but it’s doing it in a loving way and that’s fine with me. I laugh when I watch Portlandia because I feel like I know those people, I grew up with those people.

Photo: Marisa McClellan

Recipe: Apricot Jam

Apricot was not part of my childhood repertoire of jams. When it came to homemade jams, we were more of a plum and blueberry crowd. So I never gave it much thought until the day someone introduced me to the company “We Love Jam” and their Blenheim apricot jam, and it blew my preserve-lovin’ mind.

While I can’t get those precious Blenheims where I live, I’ve found that just about any locally grown, tree-ripened apricot makes stellar jam and I can’t really see going a year without its sweet-tart goodness for spreading on buttered toast.

Makes: 3 (1 pint/500 ml) jars

6 cups peeled, pitted, and diced apricots (about 3 pounds/1.4 kg whole apricots)
31/2 cups/700 g granulated sugar
Zest and juice of 1 lemon

Prepare a boiling water bath and 3 regular-mouth 1-pint/500 ml jars according to the process on page 11.

Place the lids in a small saucepan, cover them with water, and simmer over very low heat.
Combine the apricots and sugar in a large pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Boil for 10 to 15 minutes, until the fruit is tender and the liquid looks syrupy.

Add the lemon juice and zest and return to a boil. Insert your candy thermometer into the jam and attach it to the side of the pot. Let the jam boil vigorously until it reaches 220°F/105°C.

When the jam has reached 220°F/105°C and the temperature has remained steady for 2 minutes, remove the pot from the heat and ladle the jam into the prepared jars. Wipe the rims, apply the lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.

You might also like:

FoodWorks: Canning Company Preserves Marin’s Produce
Vanessa Barrington: The D.I.Y. Delicious Diva
June Taylor’s Artisan Way With Fruit
Canning for a Cause: Let’s Preserve
Jam Maker Dafna Kory Turns Hobby Into Thriving Business

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple June 23, 2012 at 7:26 am

It’s interesting that you say that the West Coast is ahead of Pennsylvania in terms of “putting up”. Must be in the “new” generation.

I’m almost 42, and I grew up in Western PA, “putting up” with my mom. It’s just now becoming popular as far as I can tell, here in Southern California. But my sisters and cousins have been doing it forever, since they moved out on their own mostly. Maybe it’s more of a rural vs. urban thing?

My husband and I started canning a few years ago, but we really only choose to do one item per year. Last year: tomato sauce and salsa. Year before: tangerine marmalade. Before that: strawberry jam.

This year? Eh, I’m about to give birth, so probably nothing, except maybe tangerine marmalade again, because that’s a January thing, when our tree ripens.
Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple´s last [type] ..The Microwave


Sarah Henry June 23, 2012 at 9:24 am

Hi Marcia:

Thanks so much for chiming in with this perspective, which I’ll share with Marisa too.

I love how you and your husband have your one-item agenda for canning. Less overwhelming, perhaps? I attended a recent canning class Marisa taught and after seeing her in action — she made it look so easy — and tasting the end product, this jam-loving gal is hooked on the idea of canning.


Marisa June 23, 2012 at 1:33 pm

Hi Marcia! I do realize that people in more rural areas have been putting up for years and years. The empty room I feel like I’m shouting to is the one in Philadelphia and its suburbs. There’s also a new attitude towards canning and the artisanal food movement that’s far more developed on the west coast than it is back east.
Marisa´s last [type] ..Livestream at 2 pm EDT/11 am PDT


Marcia @Frugal Healthy Simple June 23, 2012 at 2:30 pm

I can imagine Philadelphia is a whole other world away from Clarion County. At least, it was in the 80′s, probably just as bad now!


Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi June 23, 2012 at 10:37 am

I’m a fan of Marisa’s blog and the book is on my Wish List. If there was a Kindle version, I’d have it already, but man, the shipping cost to New Zealand bites!
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Art Deco Juice


Sarah Henry June 23, 2012 at 11:28 am

Hmmm, let me think about this, Melanie. My brother is visiting from Australia this week. Maybe he could include a copy in his suitcase and mail one from there to you.
What say you?


Marisa June 23, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Hmm, there is a Kindle version in the US. I wonder why it’s not available in New Zealand!
Marisa´s last [type] ..Livestream at 2 pm EDT/11 am PDT


Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi June 25, 2012 at 9:41 am

There IS one! Woo-hoo! I’d looked before and thought it wasn’t available, but there definitely is one now. Downloading! And thanks for the offer, Sarah.
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Princess Buttercluck’s First Egg


Sarah Henry July 3, 2012 at 6:01 pm

Pleasure, M. Glad you found what you needed. Enjoy.


MyKidsEatSquid June 23, 2012 at 11:08 am

I’m going to have to check out Marisa’s blog. I grew up canning with my mom and now I’m bummed I can’t recall more of what she used to try to teach me. So if you boil the jars for 10 minutes in the water bath it seals them? I’m going to have to go to her blog to check this out.


Sarah Henry June 23, 2012 at 11:32 am

There’s info on this in the book, MKES. For beginners looking for some online canning info (or those who just need a refresher course), Marisa points potential canners here:


Kris @ Attainable Sustainable June 23, 2012 at 8:32 pm

MKES, a stint in the water bath seals jars, but time varies depending upon the product/recipe. A water bath process is only acceptable for higher acid items (fruits/pickles/tomatoes). Low acid items (vegetables/meats) must be processed in a pressure canner.
Kris @ Attainable Sustainable´s last [type] ..A Sweet Chick


Sarah Henry June 24, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Great tips, Kris, thank you for sharing.


Kris @ Attainable Sustainable June 23, 2012 at 8:28 pm

This is in my Amazon cart as I type. Can’t wait to read it. I’ve been canning my own produce for 20+ years now, and I love that the idea is catching on and other people are giving it a try.

(I’m compelled to point out that while I do believe that home canning in glass exposes us to less BPA than buying canned goods, metal canning lids are not BPA free. Tattler lids are BPA free, but plastic. So far, I’ve yet to see a really good solution to this problem.)
Kris @ Attainable Sustainable´s last [type] ..A Sweet Chick


Sarah Henry June 24, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Methinks you’ll enjoy this book, Kris. And thanks for the BPA free (or not) info. Another matter I’ll run by Marisa and have her respond to, if she sees fit, since she’s the expert in this arena.


Marisa June 25, 2012 at 5:01 pm

It is true that conventional canning jar lids are lined in BPA. Like Kris said, there’s no really great way to avoid it. The Tattler lids are BPA free, but they’re made of plastic, are expensive and from what I’ve heard, have a disturbing tendency to go bad after six months or so. I’ve used them through two canning seasons now and haven’t had a problem, but it’s definitely something I’ve heard from more than one source.

If you really want to avoid BPA, you can start collecting Weck jars. They have glass lids and so sidestep the issue of a lined lid. However, they are expensive and so aren’t a cost-effective option. You can also start looking for the old style bailing wire Ball jars. They have glass lids like the Weck jars and you can still buy the rubber seals for them from Lehman’s and other home canning outfitters. If you find a cache at a good price, they can be quite reasonable and are entirely BPA free.

All that said, if you do a good and thorough job with your home canning, your food should not be in contact with the lid. So the risk of BPA contamination should be pretty minimal. I still use conventional canning jar lids.
Marisa´s last [type] ..Canning Chat with Punk Domestics


Brette June 24, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Small batch canning! This is exactly what I want to do! I, like many, have always been intimidated by canning, but perhaps I can try it.
Brette´s last [type] ..Chicken with Garlic Scapes and Other Adventures


Sarah Henry June 24, 2012 at 1:28 pm

This book seems like a perfect fit for beginners like you and I, Brette.


HeatherL June 24, 2012 at 6:23 pm

Small batch canning sounds just right for me. Glad that there’s a book to refer to now.


Alisa Bowman June 25, 2012 at 7:27 am

This is another thing I’d like to learn how to do–and do more of. Thanks for alerting me to this title!
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..Why Alisa Bowman Isn’t Filthy Rich


Sarah Henry July 3, 2012 at 6:02 pm

You’re welcome, Alisa, from a fellow non-filthy rich writer.


Vera Marie Badertscher June 25, 2012 at 7:34 am

Small batch may be exactly what I need. Gotta get that book, pronto. When I was young I helped with the day, and sometimes two-day marathons of peeling apples, cooking, steamy kitchens as Grandma and Mom and Aunt Sarah put up things. When I see preserves and pickles at Farmer’s Markets now it takes me right back to my Grandma’s basement shelves.
But those long, hot days turned me against canning as too complex. Small batch–maybe that would work.
Vera Marie Badertscher´s last [type] ..How To: Shopping in Paris Markets


Sarah Henry July 3, 2012 at 6:03 pm

Sounds like starting with small batches may be just the way you find your way back to preserving, Vera. That and a break in the super hot summer spell.


Living Large June 25, 2012 at 7:55 am

This looks like the perfect book for me, we live in 480 square feet and canning a huge batch is too overwhelming for our tiny house!


Sarah Henry June 25, 2012 at 9:15 am

There could be a whole genre, LL, of cookbooks and craft books and such for people like you and I who reside in small abodes.


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. June 25, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Love Marisa’s small-batch approach – not only appropriate for small apartments but for older houses like mine that are already filled to the rafters! Sour cherries are going into the pot this week for my annual stash of jam.


Sarah Henry July 3, 2012 at 5:57 pm

Ha! What’s your house full of, Casey? Good eats, I’m sure.


Jane Boursaw June 27, 2012 at 12:10 pm

This is awesome. Growing up, canning was always a big affair that lasted for days/weeks on end. Good to think it doesn’t have to be that way! Love the idea of small batching canning.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Mini Darth Vader from Super Bowl Commercial Has Open Heart Surgery


Sarah Henry July 3, 2012 at 5:58 pm

Good point, Jane. I think Marisa’s low-key and small quantity approach makes the idea of preserving less daunting for newbie DIYers.


Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart June 27, 2012 at 4:34 pm

One of the canning jar companies has a booth at our local farmer’s market that’s staffed by a canning coach. She hands out coupons, does weekly giveaways, answers questions, etc. It’s kind of neat.

I’ve done jellies and such, but I’ve never really canned veggies or pickled anything. I hope to try this summer. I’ve stumbled this post for later use. Thanks!


Sarah Henry July 3, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Hey, Rox. Thanks for the stumble and good luck with your summer pickling project.


Sheryl July 2, 2012 at 11:54 am

what mouth-watering photos! Love sour cherry jam and apricot, too. My two faves!


Sarah Henry July 3, 2012 at 6:00 pm

You know, Sheryl, I’m not sure I’ve tried sour cherry jam. My bad. Clearly need to remedy that situation — and soon.


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