No one’s homemade pickles will ever look as beautiful as fair pickles.
It’s probably dangerous to make any kind of universal statement about pickles, but these were perfect. Some 4-H’er had cut them with surgical precision and packed them into the jar so the spears looked like a circle of green pickets. The Vlasic pickle-jar-filling machine could not have done it better.
On Thursday, while 1,350 steers passed under the critical eyes of judges in the stock pavilion at the Rock County 4-H Fair, judges in the Craig Center were applying the same scrutiny to pint jars of jam and half-quart jars of pickled asparagus.
The food preservation category includes classes such as “mixed-fruit jam,” “sweet corn off the cob,” “collection of three jars of food for a meal to include one jar each of meat, vegetable and fruit, attach menu for well-balanced meal.”
Each category had different standards, but some things remained consistent.
First, food has to be “processed” the right amount of time. In canning, processing refers to the amount of time the canned item is in the boiling water bath or in the pressure cooker.
“Safety is always first,” said Judge Jodi Swatek.
Next, she looked for qualities such as the right amount of head space, if the jam or jelly had set properly, the consistency of the chunks of fruits or vegetables, the spread of the same items throughout the product, and the cleanliness of the jar.
Head space, as canners know, is the amount of space between the top of the product and the jar lid. For jams and jellies, it’s one-quarter inch. For tomatoes, salsas and other vegetables, it’s usually one-half inch.
The space is needed so the food inside the jar has enough room to gently boil without hitting the bottom of the lid. Steam or fluid can get caught under the lid, and the result could be a jar that doesn’t seal properly.
The appearance of the item was crucial. Fruit needed to be evenly distributed through out a jam. Jellies needed to be clear and uniform in color.
Overall, she was pleased by what she saw.
“The quality was good, but the quantity wasn’t there this year,” Swatek said. “It’s been a crazy growing season this year. It was super dry, and then it was wet, wet, wet.”
Contestants aren’t required to use garden vegetables, but many like to do so.
Some of the usual items she saw on Tuesday included a three-jar set of jellies that included grapefruit, lilac and watermelon.
Those came from Norah Swenson, 18, of River Valley 4-H. She received a blue ribbon for her work. The lilac jam was made from boiling the flowers to create a kind of fluid essence of lilac. She said it has a fruity taste.
Other unusual items included a mango-tomato salsa and a strawberry-vanilla jam that included scrapings of two whole vanilla beans.
Home canners and beginning canners might find the fair’s food preservation display a little intimidating.
Swatek offered these tips to ease their anxiety.
Take the beginning canning course offered by UW Extension.
“It’s really kind of fun,” Swatek said. “It takes the fear out the process, and you realize that it’s not that hard.”
It’s also a good idea to start with jams and jellies, she said. Then, if you make a mistake in the processing and the cans don’t seal, you can just pop the jars into the freezer.
Finally, the internet is filled with canning recipes and instructions. For safety’s sake, Swatek recommended using UW Extension’s recipes and processing times. They’re based on solid food science research and are safest.