Monday, June 14, 2010

Pickled Beets

The first act of canning for 2010 turned out to be pickled beets. I've always liked pickled beets, though when I was a kid my mom made them by taking a can of beets and marinading them overnight. I first canned some back when I had a job taking down the Austin Farmer's Market during the summer, and we'd get a lot of leftover veggies the vendors didn't want to drag home. One weekend I got a big sack of beets, and another I got a sack of pickling cucumbers, so I had to learn how to can.

So far I have only done boiling water canning, which works for pickles, tomato products like salsa and pasta sauce, and jams and jellies. Other foods need a pressure canner which I don't have since they cost $200 or more.

Even though you can get boiling water canners that are specifically for that purpose, I've just been using my big stock pot. The advantage is I already had it, and I can use it for lots of other stuff besides canning. The disadvantage is that it doesn't have a rack to hold the jars in place, so they knock around a bit in there while boiling, which makes them more likely to break.

Except I haven't had a breakage for four years of boiling water canning, so I should be fine.

Before you can anything, your jars need to be sterilized. If you're getting your jars straight out of the dishwasher, they'll be OK, but mine were sitting around in the cabinet, so I boiled them for 10 minutes.
You also have to sterilize your bands and lids, except the lids shouldn't boil because that breaks down the rubber seal. You should only let them come up to a simmer. What I do is put them in a smaller saucepan, wait for the water in my stock pot to boil, and then ladle some boiling water over the lids in the saucepan and put them on low heat with a lid on. That seems to keep them at a nice, gentle simmer until I'm ready for them.

Also, I always go ahead and boil a full pot of jars (which is seven for pints), even if I don't think I'll use them all. I've found that I never end up with the exact amount of end product the recipe says I will, and boiling one more jar because you ended up with enough stuff to fill five instead of four is a pain and uses up a lot of extra energy. If you boil extra jars and don't need them all, you can just stick the extra back in the cabinet.

Canning jars and bands are reusable, if your family and friends cooperate and actually give you back your jars when they're done with them! So they may seem expensive, but they will last for years if you manage to hang onto them. The lids, however, are not reusable. The squishy rubber seal only works once.

The only specialized equipment I have for canning, besides the actual jars/bands/lids of course, are these three gadgets which really help when you're working with hot glass and metal objects that have been sitting in boiling liquids! In the front is a lid lifter, which is really just a magnet on a stick, to get the lids and bands out of their boiling water bath. On the left is the jar lifter, which is so named because it allows you to lift the jars out of the boiling water. The black part is the handle, and the blue part grips the jar around the rim. On the right is a canning funnel, which is not totally necessary but makes it a lot easier to neatly pour hot jam or pickling brine into jars without a drop getting on the rim and possibly compromising the seal. It also has a handy line inside to show you how high to fill your jars so you have the right amount of headspace (an air pocket you need between the surface of the food and the lid of the jar so you can get a proper seal; too much or too little are both not good).

I used a combination of recipes for my pickled beets. For the most part, I used the National Center for Home Food Preservation's pickled beet recipe, except I halved it because I only had 3-4 lbs. of beets from the garden. Instead of boiling the beets, however, I roasted them like Alton Brown does in his refrigerator pickled beet recipe but without the oil and herbs. I just don't like boiling vegetables. It leaks all the goodness out. I bet it would be OK steaming them too. I sorted them for size since I had some puny ones from my CSA with the big ones from my garden, so I could take the smaller ones out of the oven sooner.

The beets are cooked whole with the skin on, and then after they're cooled the peel loosens up, and it's very easy to pull it off with your fingers. Though I warn you, it WILL look like you have murdered someone in your kitchen once you're done.

The brine boiled while I skinned my beets and realized why this variety of beet is called "Bull's Blood". The brine has water, salt, sugar, cloves, and a cinnamon stick.

The recipe says you're supposed to boil the beets in the brine and then pour them in the jars, but that's messy and difficult when you're dealing with large pieces of food, so this time I layered the sliced beets and a sliced onion in there first and then poured the hot brine over using the canning funnel. I ended up with enough veggies for five jars.

To seal the jars, you put the lids on, then screw the bands on just finger tight. You don't want to screw them on too tight, because the bands are just there to hold the lids on, while allowing air to escape. As the jars boil, the air expands and bubbles out. When you take the jars out of the hot water, the air that's left inside cools, condenses since gases condense when they cool, and sucks the lid onto the jar creating a tight seal. It's SCIENCE!

The NCHFP says I have to boil jars of pickled beets for a full 30 minutes, which was unexpectedly long. Jams only take 10 minutes. Oh well, I don't want to argue with the experts and risk botulism, so I did as I was told. After a few minutes, I got worried as the water in the pot turned pink...


Great, so the first time I decide to blog my canning is also the first time I get jar breakage! The bottom of this jar blew out, and broken glass, beets, onions, and pickle juice spilled out into the pot. At least it was contained. I pulled out the jar (what was left of it), but left everything else alone until the 30 minutes were up. I pulled the survivors out, and poured the rest of the contents of the pot through a strainer into the sink, to catch the mixture of vegetables and broken glass so it could go into the trash.

And here are the four survivors. When you pull the jars out of the water, after a minute or two (sometimes sooner, sometimes longer) you should here a "POP"! That's the air condensing and popping the lids down. It means you did good. I'm glad to say all four survivors popped and therefore were successfully canned. I waited until they were cool before I washed off the outside to get any more broken glass and sticky sugar solution off. I didn't want to pour cool water over the hot jars and cause any more thermal shocks.

I guess I should start looking into buying a real canner with a rack to keep my jars from banging together. They're built to be boiled and cooled many, many times, but there's only so much abuse a little ol' Mason jar can take.


  1. I also can with my stock pot and I put a towel in the bottom to help prevent the jars from banging around. Also, I'd never heard that you had to sterilize the bands too, I just sterilize the lids.

  2. Enjay, I can see how sterilizing the bands might be overkill, since they aren't really supposed to touch any of the food. I don't always bother to do it.

    When I used to use a stock pot and towel, I had a lot of trouble with the towel floating up, being lifted by the boiling water. It worked; it was just a pain.