Sunday 2 October 2011

Pears in Brown Sugar Syrup With Ginger

Pears are tricky.  When you buy them here, they're green and have to let them ripen.  There is a very brief few hours between when they are perfectly ripe—yellow and slightly yielding to the touch but still firm—and when they become overripe.  If you’re canning, that few hours can feel like a nanosecond.

I canned pears this week.  A lot of them.  They were on sale for $4.99 for an 8 lb box, so I bought 64 pounds.  Because they were picked, shipped, and stored together, all my pears ripened at exactly the same time.  That time fell about dinner time a few days ago so, after supper, I rolled up my sleeves and set to work.  I canned—quite literally—all night long.  My labours yielded me 42 pints of pear quarters in syrup, 15 pints of pear sauce, 20 jars of pear jelly, and 16 jars of pear butter.

Canning has kind of gone out of style.  Back in the day, every housewife spent the months of the harvest working hard to stock the pantry shelves with jars of fruit, vegetables, and pickles.  Nowadays fresh produce is readily available year-round and most women work outside the home.  Our busy and demanding schedules make it difficult, if not near impossible, to set aside a block of hours devoted to putting food by. 

Why then do I can at home?  Certainly not for love of the process; I find it tedious.  Not because it’s less expensive, either.  By the time you factor in the cost of canning jars, ingredients, and electricity—not to mention labour—it’s almost always less expensive to buy fresh, frozen or canned fruit at the grocery store.  No, I can fruits and vegetables at home because it gives me better control of the quality of the food I eat, and because it affords me the opportunity to enjoy flavours and combinations I wouldn’t readily find at the market.

This year, I canned all of my pear quarters in brown sugar syrup, with ginger.  It’s not the first time I’ve done this but it is the first year I’ve canned all of my pears this way.  Last year, I split my canning between pears in regular syrup, with a little lemon, and pears canned in brown sugar syrup with ginger.  Not a single jar of the pears in regular syrup was opened until all of the ginger pears were gone, so this year I decided to just go with what we like best.

I’ll be happy to tell you how I canned my pears but I do also want to recommend that, if you’re planning to do some canning yourself, you invest in a good canning cookbook and that you read the instructions carefully before beginning work.  Food preserving isn’t just a matter of art but a matter of science too.  The only way to ensure that your food will be not only tasty but also fit to eat is to follow proper safety practices, and to follow them meticulously.  However tempting it may be to do so, don’t shortcut canning procedures.  I want you to stay alive and healthy to enjoy a second batch!

Pears oxidize very quickly, turning brown first at the edges and along the center line where the stem is removed, then browning wherever they’re cut.  If you’re canning them in regular syrup, most canning books recommend that you either toss the cut pears immediately in lemon juice or bathe them briefly in an anti-oxidant solution of either lemon juice and water or ascorbic acid and water.  If you’re canning the pears in brown sugar syrup, this is less of a concern because the syrup is a  light brown colour and will help to disguise any oxidation.  Even with brown sugar syrup, I recommend working quickly and filling each jar with syrup as soon as the pears have been packed into it.  Once the syrup covers the pears, providing a barrier between them and the open air, oxidization is no longer a problem.

Many canning books recommend cooking the pears in their syrup before placing them in the jars.  If you’re working with green pears this certainly helps to soften them up and makes packing them into the jars an easier task but, if you prefer to let your pears ripen before canning as I do, cooking them in the syrup and then cooking them again in the canner gives them too soft a texture.  I pack my pears into the jars raw, topping up the jars with syrup as soon as each one is filled.

Before I begin canning pears (or any other food), I make sure I have all the necessary tools and ingredients on hand.  To can pears you’ll need:

-a cutting board
-a paring knife
-a melon baller (not strictly necessary but it makes the job much easier)
-a ladle
-a couple of forks and a knife with a thin blade
-measuring cups
-a large pot to make your syrup in
-prepared jars and lids (You can find more information on this in my infused vinegars
-a canning kettle and racks

and these ingredients:

-ripe pears
-brown sugar
-candied ginger

Begin by preparing your jars and making your syrup.  I usually allow about a cup of syrup for every pint (500 ml) jar I’ll be using.  If I need more, it’s easy enough to make it as you're working.  Last year I made a simple syrup using equal parts brown sugar and water.  This year I made a light syrup using one part brown sugar to two parts water.  I have to say that, upon preliminary tasting, I liked the simple syrup better but that’s just me; use whatever proportions you prefer.  Bring your syrup to a boil and then reduce it to a simmer.

Work one jar at a time, keeping the rest of the jars hot, in their sterilizing water, until you need them. 

Put a piece of candied ginger into the bottom of the jar.

Peel and cut your pears, then pack them as you go.  I start by removing the stem.  Then I remove the blossom end of the pear with my melon baller.  Once the blossom end is removed, peel the pear.  Cut it in half, then use your melon baller or a small measuring spoon to scoop out the center core, where the seeds are.  Cut the pear into quarters and put them in the jar.  You may find that you need to use a fork to arrange the quarters in the jar so that they all fit tightly.

(I save the blossom ends, peels, and the core with its seeds into a second large pot with about half an inch of water in the bottom.  When I’m done canning the pears, I cook these scraps over low heat to soften them and encourage them to release their juice.  I squeeze them through a piece of muslin and save the juice to make jelly with.)

When your jar is full, up to the raised line molded into the glass where the bottom of the screw top lid will rest, tap the bottom of the jar on the counter a few times.  This will cause the pears to settle into the jar a little and should make room for a bit more fruit.  You may have to cut some smaller pieces of fruit to top up the jar. 

Once the jar is packed, ladle in enough syrup to fill the jar to the raised line in the glass.  Rotate the jar, looking for any air bubbles trapped between the pears and the sides of the jar.  If you find bubbles, slide a thin knife down the inside of the jar to release them.  Top up the syrup if necessary. 

Wipe the rim of the jar with a clean cloth or damp paper towel then run your finger around it to ensure that there are no little pieces of fruit stuck on the rim and no chips in the glass.  Top the jar with a prepared lid and tighten it to finger tight, no tighter.

When all your jars are packed, process them in a boiling water bath.  You’ll need to cook pints 25 minutes or quarts 35 minutes.  Remove them from the canner, let them cool, and then check the seals.  Refrigerate any unsealed jars and use them first.

The longer you let your pears sit in their syrup with the ginger, the better their flavour will be.  I like them best served very cold, but you can also thicken the syrup by cooking it with a little cornstarch and then use the hot pears as a filling for a crisp or as a topping for pound cake.

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