Growing up in the 1970s, canning was still an every-summer event with my mom and maternal grandmother, “Granny.” I don’t remember eating store-bought fruit or veggies at all, except for citrus.
August meant peaches. Granny had a peach tree, though I don’t remember the fruit every ripening. That wasn’t a hindrance, though. In the country, there are plenty of places to buy fresh, ripe, local produce. Once she picked up a bushel or two, she would take perfectly juicy, tree-ripened peaches, scald them, peel them, pack them into hot Ball Mason canning jars, cover them with hot “heavy” sugar syrup, and process them.
The golden peaches sat in their watery tomb for months, jiggling when the jars were jostled but otherwise undisturbed. In mid winter, she’d ladle the peach halves out into a bowl with some of the now-peach-flavored syrup. The fruit was softer than when fresh, but the flavor and the sweetness were unbeatable. I would sneak a bit more of the peachy syrup because that was the best part to this little girl.
Mom continued the canning tradition. Our trellised rows of cucumbers would become bread and butter pickles. The tomatoes? Orbs floating in orange liquid or turned into tomato sauce for winter spaghetti. Blue lake green beans were picked, trimmed, snapped, and pressure canned into perfect little soldiers lined up in the jar. Grape jelly, strawberry preserves, peach jam… any fruit could be cooked with sugar into a wonderful spread for breakfast or a topping for ice cream. I only enjoyed the fruits of mom’s labor, never the labor, but when we moved to a place with a patch of wild blackberries and I added my own garden, I continued the tradition. 2003 through 2006 were heavy canning years for me, and the kitchen often smelled of sweet fruit.
In ’06, we moved to a new park (ah, the park ranger life), and it’s been a while since I found the time to put up anything. This week a peck of ripe peachesgave me the inspiration. An overcast, drizzly Saturday evening gave me the time. Peach butter was calling.
Fortunately I have built up a collection of canning jars, and a shelving unit in the basement is devoted to their storage, along with the all of the implements, pots, rings, and new lids I need. After picking up a bag of white sugar, I’m ready to go.
I cut up about 5.5 pounds of peaches, and I put them into my heavy-bottomed jam pot to soften in their own juices. There are several schools of thought about how much work to put into this part. Do you chop? Peel? Pit? Crush? I take the time-saving way. I cut the fruit into quarters, removing any blemishes as I go. I then roughly chop the quarters. Pits, skin, and fruit all go into the pot. (Cooking with the skin and pit helps develop pectin, which helps the fruit butter set..or so I’ve read.)
As the fruit cooks, I mash it with a spoon, which helps release more juice. Constant stirring keeps the mash from sticking to the pot. After spooning out the pits and any skins that I could easily grab, it’s time for the muscle.
Working in small amounts at a time, I ladle the fruit mash into my Mom’s old Foley food mill. This food mill has gotten a lot of use over the years, but it works better than a new Foley I bought a few years ago. Here is where not peeling the fruit can come back to haunt you, but with a bit of muscle and a lot of cranking, the mash turns into peach puree — lots of juice and small bits of fruit.
Now the fun part. I put 5 cups of the puree into my trusty red enameled cast iron pot. It’s oval, and I like the motion of stirring better in an oval pot. I add 2 cups of
white sugar and a half cup of demerera sugar, and I slowly bring the sugared fruit to a boil while stirring constantly…and then I keep stirring.
After about 30 minutes, the puree reduces and begins to thicken. I add a few pinches of spices. I like fruit butters to taste like the butters of mychildhood — clovy, nutmeggy creations that have a bit of a zing. I do lose a bit of the peachiness with this, though.
After 45 minutes total of stirring, the peach puree is officially peach butter, and it’s time to pack it into small jelly jars. The jars had been sterilized in boiling water for at least 10 minutes. The lids were simmering in a separate pot. The cloth towel, funnel, tongs, jar tongs, lid lifter, damp paper towel for wiping the rim, ladle (in this case measuring cup), and rings were all arranged.
I’m a bit of a germaphobe, so my process is straight out of my old Ball canning book.
* Using tongs, pull a jar from the hot water, pour out the water, and place it on the cloth towel (helps prevent thermal shock from a cool counter).
* Place funnel in jar and ladle in the hot peach butter.
* Remove funnel and wipe rim of jar with damp paper towel.
* Use lid lifter to pull lid from simmering water and seat it on the jar.
* Place ring on jar and finger tighten.
* Use jar tongs to move very hot jar back to the waterbath.
* Repeat till all butter is in jars.
I always have an odd amount left over, so I ladle it into another jar, let it cool, and store it in the fridge. Fridge butter is just as good but isn’t shelf stable.
Once all jars are back in the waterbath, I crank the gas to high and put the lid on the canner. After it’s at a rolling boil, I process the jars for the recommended amount of time. This particular recipe calls for 5 minutes. I go closer to 10 (again, germaphobe here).
I pull the jars from the waterbath and place them on a doubled towel to cool. Nine jars of peach butter and 9 “pings” as the air in the jars cool and retract, sucking the lids on the jars tight.
Eight of the jars will be hand delivered to family and friends. One I will carefully wrap in a few layers of bubble wrap and secure it in amongst baby wipes, hand sanitizer, magazines, and snacks I send to my sister, who is serving with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. She can’t get any fresh peaches this summer, but she can at least get a bit of the flavor.
As for me, Sunday morning breakfast today is a feast of local enjoyment: locally roasted fair trade/organic coffee, fresh Shenandoah eggs, and a slice of toast with my peach butter, which is made with peaches from Maury’s and Paugh’s orchards (both off of 42 here in Shenandoah County). What a way to start the day!
I realize I’ve continued a country tradition in our family, and I not only enjoy the fruits of my labor…I love the labor, too. – Stacey Morgan Smith*** This personal blog is comprised solely of the opinions, views, projects, and travels of its author, Stacey Morgan Smith. She is lucky enough to have loving family and friends whom she drags along with her on her adventures and whom she puts to work on her little farm. She uses this blog to help promote living in the mountains of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, from Roanoke to the Potomac River.**