OK, so I’m a contrarian. I don’t know whether it’s one of my best or worst characteristics, but push me too hard and I get real pigheaded. My contrarian tendencies really get the better of me when some scientist says I should or shouldn’t do something based on the latest research. The reason I balk is that I spent many years in the health-care field and a number of those years doing quality improvement, where research and the use of data are paramount. I know that people falsify data. I know that less than stellar research results can be spun just as crazily as any political statement. And I know that the money supporting some of those research projects can wind up influencing the results. So when it comes to making jams and jellies, there are some points at which my back goes up and I do it my way.
I don’t use a water bath when making jams or jellies. I know the latest instructions tell you to use a water bath for 5 to 10 minutes. But I’ve read the research and the only thing you get out of a water bath is a slightly tighter seal. Since I’ve never had a problem and I’ve been using the “invert jar for 5 minutes after sealing” method for about 40 years now, I think I’m OK. I will add that my mother died over 25 years ago. The jams and jellies my stepmother recently asked me to clean out of her cellar that were put up by my mother several years before she died still have a good seal from the invert method.
First, let me point out there are some steps for which there are no shortcuts. You absolutely must have squeaky-clean jars that do not have nicks or cracks. You must put both lids and jars in boiling water and leave them submerged until you are ready to fill them. You must work quickly, as keeping things hot and sealing quickly keep contaminants out of the food. Finally, my contrary methods below should never be used for canning things like vegetables or meat; those need pressure canning. Where I veer from the mainstream path is in skimming, ladling and water baths.
I don’t skim the foam from jams or jellies. Foam will not hurt you; it just makes the top of the jelly look different than the rest of it. And the process of skimming means it takes longer to get the hot liquid into the jars. Letting the liquid stand in an open kettle or pan increases the chances that airborne contaminants can get at it. Cooling will increase the risk of spoilage; hot liquid, sealed quickly, will decrease spoilage. Skimming also makes the whole process messier and increases the risk of a burn. By the time you get to the last jar or two, the foam has already been poured off, so if you want something pretty for a gift, use these jars.
I don’t use a ladle, for similar reasons – mess and cooling. Instead I pour the cooked jam or jelly into a pitcher that has been thoroughly washed and disinfected and equally thoroughly rinsed in very hot water (since I can’t get it into a kettle to boil it). I then take each jar out of the boiling water one at a time, fill it by pouring from the pitcher and quickly clap on and seal each lid. Using a pitcher means I almost never have a spill, so the rims of the jars rarely need to be wiped – another time-saving method that decreases mess and keeps things hot until sealed.
Sometimes the latest research is good stuff, and sometimes it’s hooey.