When it comes to kid-friendly kitchen projects, canning might not be top of mind. A fear of screwing up the process and ending up with botulism is a real deterrant, but the truth is, that’s extremely unlikely—especially when you do things according to the USDA’s advice. So when faced with a few hundred pounds of peaches this fall (yes, fall; that’s when they ripen in our yard in Maine), it seemed a perfect time for a serious canning project. And as it turned out, my 5-year-old daughter wasn’t simply interested in all of the glass jars and boiling water and various combinations of fruit and sugar—she proved to be really helpful, too.
Canning is like baking in the sense that it is rather exacting, and requires following directions closely. But if a kid can make his or her way through a batch of chocolate-chip cookies, then there’s no real reason that, with a bit of help and guidance from an adult, they can’t give a hand with some canning, too.
The wonderful thing about canning is that you can put just about anything in a can. At the end of this growing year, I was focused on things that I had in spades, like those peaches. (A not-insignificant amount of fruit went into freezer bags or were given away to friends.) My daughter, Story, and I put a number of different things into cans—peach butter, peach chutney, peach jam, canned peaches in syrup, and pickled green tomatoes—but don’t feel like you have to go out and buy a flat of peaches in order to do a canning project at home. The most reasonable thing to can is the thing that you have the most of—or can get the most of. Canning is thrifty kitchen work, after all.
The wonderful thing about canning is that you can put just about anything in a can.
For beginners, making something other than jam, which can be hard to get just right without the use of boxed pectin (something I tend to avoid), is more likely to result in a delicious success. And whether you’re canning fruit in syrup or pickles in brine, there’s lots of peeling, chopping, measuring, and mixing involved—work that kids of all ages can get a hand in on.
Younger kids can help with measuring out ingredients for syrup or brine (which for our purposes is also essentially a syrup, just made with less sugar and the addition of vinegar, salt, and spices), as well as washing fruits or vegetables. They’re also great at prepping ingredients, whether that be peeling blanched peaches (nibble little fingers!) or snapping green beans or asparagus for pickling. Older kids who are comfortable with a knife can assist with chopping vegetables or pitting (or coring) and quartering fruit.
(A note about food safety: Before enlisting the help of any kids, clean all of your jars, lids, rings, and utensils with very hot, soapy water. Refer to USDA guidelines for processing times.)
The gist of the process goes like this: The fruit or vegetable is cooked in the syrup/brine. The boiling liquid both cooks and sterilizes the produce. The just-boiled mixture is then packed into your very clean canning jars using a wide-mouth funnel, and a very clean lid and ring is affixed on the top. The closed jars are then lowered into a pot of boiling water with a wire rack sitting at the bottom, keeping the glass away from direct heat, and left there for the appropriate amount of time (see note above). The boiling forces the remaining air from the jars, as well as activating the seal on the lid, making the everything shelf-stable for the year to come. It’s old technology, but it seems like magic to kids, replete with a bubbling cauldron.
Things can get a bit more flexible—and fun—when it comes to flavorings. Whole spices and even some fresh herbs can add a wonderful touch to canned fruit—cinnamon or allspice, rosemary or lavender—and you can leave the decision about what to use up to tiny helpers. Spices and herbs can be infused straight into the syrup (a stick of cinnamon, or a few sprigs of rosemary; err on the conservative side) and plucked out after the fruit is cooked and before it is packed into jars. There’s similar flexibility for pickles, which can be accented with classic flavors like coriander, celery seed, and other “pickling” spices, or you can let kids pick out fresh herbs to try—like tarragon or dill.
There are moments in this whole process when you’ll have to take over, like when jars have to be lifted into and out of boiling water. But even at those moments, there’s still a lot of exciting, interesting goings-ons for kids to watch. This recipe lets you experience the fun of canning without any exact amounts: You can work with the amount of fruit you have, since you’re using a ratio.
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