Essential Tools for Making Preserves | Jam and Jelly

Some items you'll need for preserving - TheMessyBaker.com

10 Sep Essential Tools for Making Preserves | Jam and Jelly

I made my first batch of jam with nothing more specialized than two Dutch ovens and mismatched mason jars that had been collecting dust and dead spiders in the basement. Because I feared spiders more than bacteria, I put all my effort into sterilizing the jars. I didn’t see the point in buying special canning tongs or investing in a kit — even though it was inexpensive. I ended up with delicious, safe-to-eat jam. And second degree burns on my hand. Regular tongs lack the proper grip. Gravity taught me a valuable lesson.

I also wasted at least a jar’s worth of jam because my cheap, dollar-store, plastic funnel folded under the molten jam. After a season of spills and swearing, I bought a proper canning kit. Worth every penny.

Over the course of this week, I’ll cover most of what you need to know about making delicious jams and jellies without burning yourself or damaging anything. Not even your ego. I’ll be focusing on small-batch, fruit-based jams and jellies with the occasional venture into tomato products — which are technically still a fruit. If you have questions, leave a comment or email me.

And with that, lets begin…

Essential Tools for Making Preserves

Some items you'll need for making preserves - TheMessyBaker.com

In Canada, Ball and Bernardin make a wide range of jars and canning accessories. You can buy them in supermarkets, hardware stores and department stores. You can even order them online.

Use These One-Trick Tools When Making Preserves

Canning tongs: These have a specially designed grip that will allow you to pull hot jars from boiling water without dropping them. If you use regular tongs, jars can splash into the boiling water or crash onto the floor. Hot jam travels far, as does the broken glass.

Canning jars:  Accept no substitutes. Use jars designed specifically for preserves. Often called mason jars, these glass jars come in various shapes and are made to fit canning lids and rings. As long as they remain free from chips or cracks, jars can be reused indefinitely. The lip of the jar is key to a proper seal, so discard any with imperfect rims — or use them for storing non-edibles like buttons, beads or loose change.

Canning rings:  Undamaged rings can be reused. They don’t play a role in creating the seal, so don’t go crazy and screw them on like your life depends on it. Finger-tip tight is all you need before processing the jars in boiling water.

Canning lids: These lids have a soft rubber gasket around the rim which creates the seal. Even if the rubber looks perfect, use lids only once. It might seem like a waste, but it’s a safety issue. Besides, lids are very inexpensive and you can purchase them separately, without rings. If you hate to toss them after only one use, use them with less-than-perfect jars and old rims when storing those buttons, beads and pennies.

Some tools you'll need for making preserves - TheMessyBaker.com

Magnetic Wand: This plastic stick comes in most canning kits. It has a magnet on the end, which makes it invaluable for retrieving lids and rings from hot water without burning yourself. If you don’t have one of these, you can always heat the lids in a small pot of hot water, but who in their right mind would pass up the opportunity to use something called a wand?

Bubble Tool: This odd-shaped tool is designed to release air trapped in the jam or jelly before you process the jars. The nifty stepped edge also allows you to measure headspace. If you don’t have one of these, don’t fret. Eyeball the headspace and use a chopstick to dislodge air bubbles. Don’t use a metal skewer for this task as it can scratch the glass.

Canning rack: A rack is important since it allows the water to circulate under the jars during processing. If you don’t have a canning rack, use a cake rack or place the jars on canning rings. I found the rings moved about a bit but they work in a pinch.

Preserving Tools You Likely Have on Hand

Heavy-Bottomed, Non-Reactive Pot: I use a stainless steel maslin pan designed specifically for preserves. It has a narrow bottom that concentrates the heat and a wide top that allows the jam or jelly to boil down more quickly. This pot isn’t cheap but is worth the money if you put up a lot of preserves. Otherwise, a Dutch oven is perfect for cooking up small-batch preserves. Just be sure it’s non-reactive and has a heavy bottom. Stainless steel is the best material since it’s non-reactive and can take the high heat. Enamelled pots are fine, but avoid aluminum (which is reactive) or glass (which can break).

Tall pot with lid: You’ll need this for processing the filled jars. I use a tall stockpot but if you’re using short jars (125 mL or 1/2 cup), a Dutch oven might be tall enough. Either way, the pot should be at least 3 inches taller than your jars and wide enough that the jars don’t touch. This space allows the water to circulate and ensures the jars don’t rattle together when the water reaches a full, rolling boil.

Preserving Tools that Are Nice but Not Essential

Funnel: It’s not necessary but it does prevent spills. A wide-mouth funnel is best for preserves. Silicon ones are popular and are often sold for canning, but I use a stainless steel canning funnel equipped with a removable narrow spout. Its versatile design makes it useful for both wide and narrow jars — whether or not you’re making preserves.

Ladle with a spout: Again, stainless steel is my material of choice. If your ladle doesn’t have a spout let the funnel catch the spills.

Candy thermometer: This is handy for determining when jam is set, especially if you’re new to preserving. If you don’t have a candy thermometer, don’t worry. I’ll cover various ways to determine if a jam or jelly is ready for the jars later in the week. The model from King Arthur Flour is very sturdy, which is an asset for clumsy people like me. I have broken a couple of glass tube-style thermometers and don’t recommend them.

Up next: Keys to Successful Jams and Jelly.

Got tips or preserving questions? Leave a comment.

[box type=”note” style=”rounded” border=”full”]Note: The links I provide in this post go out to products I use. I have not been reimbursed for these links and I do not have a professional relationship with any of these suppliers. I provide them because I trust these products and think you’d like to know where to get them.[/box]

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6 Comments
  • Lisa MacColl
    Posted at 02:31h, 11 September Reply

    Canning tongs. How did I ever survive without canning tongs? I invested in the honest to gosh preserving kit a couple of years ago after making do the first year with regular tongs and a tea towel in the bottom of the pot. I still don’t have a canning rack, but my cake rack fits perfectly in the bottom of the pot.

    I’ve been doing more pickles and relish than jams, because of the abundance in our CSA box that I don’t want to throw out. The lid magnet thingy is the best invention ever! And to think I used to think it was okay to sterilize my jars in a low oven and sealed my jam with paraffin. Things you learn! Small Batch Preserving is my favorite cookbook at this time of year.

    Looking forward to learning about jelly, Charmian!

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 12:31h, 12 September Reply

      I got canning tongs after the first batch of jam. My regular tongs just couldn’t grip well enough and I dropped more than one jar back into the hot water after processing the jars. I got burned from splashing water and figured it was just a matter of time before I ended up in hospital. Best investment! And I love my magnetic wand. I didn’t know what it was for at first and fell in love with it quickly. So simple and handy.

      I know how you feel — an entire generation grew up sterilizing jars in the oven and sealing jam with paraffin. We thought it was the correct method. Makes me wonder what current practices will be changed down the road.

      Enjoy your small batch preserving! I hope to do some tomatillos this fall — if my garden provides enough.

  • Sherri Walker
    Posted at 20:44h, 29 July Reply

    What do you know about split pepper jellies sold online? I think they’re just gorgeous and would make amazing Christmas gifts, but wonder if they can be made in a regular kitchen, like mine, without special equipment and techniques.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 09:46h, 30 July Reply

      That’s a really good question. While pepper jellies are very doable at home, I’ve never tried creating a version with the split (For those who aren’t familiar with split jellies, this is where two different jellies are preserved in one jar with a striking visual effect — a bit like a yin-yang symbol.) Theoretically, you would have to make both jellies at the same time, pour the heavier jelly in first and top with the lighter jelly — assuming they were different. The split would then be horizontal. For a diagonal split, like the jars in the shops, you’d have to fill tilted jars, which would be the challenge. I’d burn myself to bits.

      Anyone tried this? If so, I’d love to hear about your technique and experiences.

  • Judy Cheetham
    Posted at 10:16h, 08 September Reply

    Have you ever heard of a
    “jel meter”, which is a glass tube used to measure the amount of pectin needed for your juice. In the 60’s, our Home Ec class in college required us to buy one. Mine got broken years later and I’ve never been able to find another one.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 14:31h, 08 September Reply

      I’ve never head of a jel meter before. It sounds fascinating! I know several Home Economists, so will ask if they know about them. Preserving has changed a lot (my mom used to pour wax on the top of the jam to seal it) so this piece of equipment might not be manufactured any more. Great question, thought. Good luck with your preserves.

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