The most important part is choosing the right fruit. For peaches and nectarines your choice should be a freestone or cling-free variety, which means the fruit will separate easily from the pit. Not only does this mean more fruit to can, but it means a lot less work. The fruit should be mature and ripe, the same quality as what you would want to eat when fresh. When you open that jar in the wintertime, you want to have that summertime taste of the highest quality fruits.
You can pick your own or buy them, but when it comes to buying I would suggest a Farmer's Market where you can buy larger quantities at really reasonable prices. It will take about 5 medium-sized peaches or 10-plums to fill a quart jar. Cherries, of course, will be a different story. The fruit averages out to about 2.5 pounds per quart jar.
Before getting started, I always like to have everything that I'll need within arm's reach. During the canning season I never even put my canning stuff away. It sits on a table, just for that purpose, and for each project I can select what I'll need, moving it to my kitchen counter. I even have my canning spices there.
For these fruits you can use a plain water-bath canner as opposed to a pressure canner, but if you are buying one for the first time, I would recommend one that you can use both ways.
You can use your choice of light, medium, or heavy sugar syrup, or you can use fruit juices, such as apple or white grape when canning any of these fruits. You can also use Splenda artificial sweetener or a mixture of part sugar and part Splenda.
- Light Syrup: 2 cups sugar & 6 cups water yields 7 cups syrup.
- Medium Syrup: 3 cups sugar & 6 cups water yields 6.5 cups syrup.
- Heavy Syrup: 4 cups sugar & 6 cups water yields 7 cups syrup.
You can also use plain water. Splenda syrup requires 1/4 cup Splenda to 7 cups water. When using fruit juice, use 7 cups fruit juice. You can also make a reduced calorie fruit juice by using 4 cups water and 3 cups fruit juice. Very light syrup would be made by using 1 cup sugar to 7 cups water. You can experiment with a combination of any one of these in order to come up with your family's favorite and one that meets your nutritional needs. The sweetness of the fruit may be a determining factor also.
To make the syrup, you just heat the water, adding the sugar slowly and stirring constantly to dissolve it. Bring the syrup to a gentle boil and then reduce the heat to keep it gently simmering, but not boiling. Be very careful you don't splash the syrup mixture on you. It cools slowly and will burn hot if it splashes on your skin.
You should also have your jars ready. They should be washed with soap and hot water, even if they are brand new out-of-the-box. You don't need to wash the lids (seals), as you will put them in a saucepan, bring the water to steaming and then reduce the heat to keep them hot. The screw-bands should be washed and both the bands and the jars should be checked for dents, chips, cracks and rust. Any of these conditions can cause breakage while canning or can cause the seal to fail, making your hard work a waste of time. You can buy jars used, but make sure to check them. They should appear new when washed and should definitely not have a white, calcified-looking stain. I like those rare garage sale finds of boxes of old canning jars that have never been used or that have been used gently. Some of them have a bluish or grayish tint to them and some of them are square and many have decorations or embellishments on the glass that you just won't see today. I'll always use those first and I always ask my friends and family to return my jars and bands when I have given them something. (I also don't give out my favorite jars.) I've paid as little as $1 a box for 12 quart jars! That's at least a $7.00 savings.
While putting the lids on to heat, you can also put on a large pot full of water and bring it to a boil. This will be used to remove the skins, a much easier process than peeling each fruit. You will probably not want to remove the skins on the cherries or plums and some people do not remove the skins from the nectarines. Some even leave the peach skins on, but I find them kind of slimy.
Once the jars are clean, they should be sterilized. You can either use the â€˜sterilize' setting on your dishwasher and then pull them out as you need them, or you can fill the jars with hot water and fill your canner with water to the top of the jars and bring it to a boil, and then reduce the heat to keep them simmering. As you fill the jars you simply use a pair of tongs to pull the jars out, dumping the water back into the canner. The screw-bands can just be set aside and the lids (seals) put into a saucepan as described above.
Now you're making progress!
Thoroughly wash the fruit in either cold or lukewarm water. Now, use a slotted spoon or similar utensil to dip the fruit in boiling water for 20 to 45 seconds. You can do 4 or 5 at one time, but not more than that because you don't want to cook them. Then as soon as you remove them from the boiling water, submerge them in a large bowl or pot of water with lots of ice in it. (Throughout the process you may have to replenish the ice oftenyou want this water to be really cold.) Let the fruit sit for several minutes in the ice water, so if you really want to speed things up, use two large containers for the ice and water bath. Now the skins will slide right off! At this point you can save the peach skins in the fridge and make peach honey if you are just enjoying this so much you can't stop.
Cut out any brown or mushy spots, remove the pits and cut the fruit into halves, quarters or slices. Cherries and plums can be canned whole, but you'll want to pit the cherries. Peaches, pears and nectarines will turn brown with exposure to the air, so you can either sprinkle 1/4 cup lemon juice or use a fruit preserver to prevent browning and to preserve the flavor as you fill the bowl.
At this point you can make the choice whether to cold pack or hot pack. The only difference is that you put the fruit into the simmering syrup for five minutes before pulling it back out to put into your jars. Hot packed fruits are less likely to float and this process softens the fruit so it is a bit easier to pack into the jars. It will also help to reduce air bubbles. Peaches tend to retain air in their cells and this procedure allows the air to be released. Hot packing also tends to produce brighter, more intense colors. If you prefer to raw- or cold-pack, then just skip this step.
Pack the fruit into pint or quart jars leaving 1/2 to 1-inch headspace, which is the space between the fruit and the top of the jar which allows for expansion during processing. Cover the fruit with the syrup mixture and then run a rubber spatula down between the jar and the fruit to help air bubbles rise. Tilting the jar slightly will help and gently pressing the spatula towards the center of the jar, pushing the fruit will also help this to happen. You'll definitely want to use a jar funnel to pack the jars. The syrup is sticky and this can be a messy process. The jar funnel just makes getting the fruit from the pot or the bowl to the jar that much cleaner. If you pay attention, you will know at exactly what spot to stop on the inside of the funnel to give you the headspace you need. Once packed and the air bubbles worked out, you can top the jar off with the syrup, reducing the headspace to 1/2 inch. The fruit should be covered completely.
Use a clean, wet cloth to thoroughly wipe the rim and threads of the jars, place a lid on each one and finger-tighten the screw-band snugly, but not too tight. In the canner they should be covered with at least one inch of water and the timing should start when the water returns to a full boil. Your altitude will determine the processing time, but in general it will be 20 minutes at sea level and not more than 30 minutes. You can also process these in a pressure canner if you wish, but that is not a necessity. The processing time will drop to 10 minutes, but you should still use the guidelines for the pounds of pressure relative to the altitude at which you live.
Lift the jars out of the canner and place them on a towel, a jar rack or a thick layer of newspaper. As you start to lift them from the water bath, you may here that tell-tale metallic pop that means that the jars are sealing. It may sound silly, but this always makes me smile. Try not to bump them or knock them together and place them about an inch apart. Let them cool overnight and then verify the seal. The sealed jars will have a slightly concave circle in the middle of the lid and will not move when pushed gently with your finger. If the lid did not seal, the middle will be slightly convex and will pop up and down when pushed. You can also check the lids while the fruit is still hot, waiting about an hour to check them, and then immediately re-process the jar(s) for the same amount of time. You should replace the lid with a new lid and again wipe the rim and threads of the jar before putting it back into the hot water bath. You can also put the jar(s) in the fridge and use within a reasonable amount of time.
Once the jars are cooled you can removed the screw-bands, if you wish, label the jars or lids with the contents and the date and store them in a cool, dry, dark place. I prefer to leave them sit on the counter for a few days so that I can get more pleasure out of looking at the pretty jars. Canned goods from the grocery store just do not compare!