Weigl: Judging the state fair's canning contest

andrea.weigl@newsobserver.comOctober 16, 2012 

  • Jalapeno Pickles This recipe from Rebecca Evans of Clayton won Best in Show in the pickling category at the 2012 N.C. State Fair. It assumes some knowledge of hot water bath canning. A good resource for a beginning canner is “Ball Blue Book: The Guide to Home Canning and Freezing.” 8 cups seeded, sliced jalapenos 3 cups sugar 1 tablespoon celery seed 1 tablespoon mustard seed 2 cups cider vinegar COVER jalapenos with boiling water and let stand for 5 minutes. COMBINE sugar, celery and mustard seeds and vinegar in large saucepan. Bring to a boil. Pack sliced jalapenos in hot jars. LADLE hot pickling liquid over peppers leaving 1/4-inch head space. Release air bubbles by running a butter knife around inside of jars. Wipe rims of jars. Seal with two-piece canning lids. Process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. Yield: 3 pints or 6 half pints.
  • Brandied Peach Preserves This recipe from Cindy Hobbs of Raleigh was one of the best I tasted while judging the preserves contest at the 2012 N.C. State Fair. It assumes some knowledge of hot water bath canning. A good resource for a beginning canner is “Ball Blue Book: The Guide to Home Canning and Freezing.” 2 quarts peeled, sliced peaches, about 12 peaches 6 cups sugar 3/4 cup good quality brandy 3 to 4 drops almond extract COMBINE peaches and sugar in large stainless steel Dutch oven, cover and place in a cool place for 12 hours. BRING to a boil slowly, stirring frequently, reduce heat and boil slowly for 45 minutes to one hour until the syrup thickens and the fruit begins to becomes opaque. You want the preserves to be thick like honey. When the desired gloss is achieved, add brandy and almond extract. Stir gently. LADLE hot preserves in sterilized half-pint canning jars leaving 1/4-inch head space. Release air bubbles by running a butter knife around inside of jars. Wipe rim of jars. Seal with two-part canning lids. Process in hot water bath for 15 minutes. Yield: 7 half pints

Last week, I marveled at jeweled jars of fig, strawberry and plum preserves. I admired wafer-thin slices of dried peaches and pears stacked inside Mason jars. I tasted pickled cherries, green tomato pickles and even dried kiwi and persimmon.

I have judged a lot of cooking contests, including those at the N.C. State Fair. But I had never judged the fair’s canning contest until that Tuesday. The contest is serious business with almost 1,300 entries, 20 percent more than last year.

I consider myself an experienced home canner. My pantry is stocked with more than 100 jars of pickled peaches, damson plum preserves, chowchow and more. This summer, I made watermelon rind pickles three times trying to perfect a recipe. (Do you have any idea how long it takes to peel and carve the rind from a watermelon?) I am also writing a cookbook for UNC Press’ Savor the South series on Southern pickles and preserves.

Despite all that experience, I feared the other canning judges – whom I envisioned as older ladies who have been canning for decades – would find my expertise lacking. I had nothing to fear. My fellow judge was Matt Shipman, a former restaurant cook and food writer and now science writer at N.C. State University. Shipman explained the rules and put me at ease. It turns out judging this contest requires common sense and a copy of the rule book.

Over the course of four hours, we judged the preserves and dried foods entries. At the end, I was lucky enough to help judge the best in show.

We checked each jar of preserves to make sure it was processed for the minimum five minutes. We verified that each jar was filled to about 1/4-inch from the top. Then we moved on to how the contents looked and tasted. There were a few misses, but the majority were good to excellent.

Preserves can be tricky. They are supposed to have discernable berries or chunks of fruit. If you cook them too long trying to get the honey-like consistency of the syrup, the chunks of fruit can dissolve. Then you have jam, not preserves.

In judging the dried foods, I was amazed by the obvious care that some contestants put into the entries. Fruits and vegetables were sliced paper thin and doused with lemon juice to preserve the color. Herbs were cut to specific lengths and attractively arranged in jars. Beef jerky was sliced into mind-bogglingly uniform 1-by-4-inch pieces.

Finally, I got to peruse the blue ribbon winners in the pickle category, which were best in show contenders. If you have ever made pickled okra, you know how hard it is to get enough okra to fit the exact height of the jar. The same goes with whole pickles. But there they were: jar upon jar of the most attractive pickles I’ve ever seen.

The experience left me in awe of the level of talent among home cooks in this state. A few of them were kind enough to share the recipes that really blew me away. While you may not have had the chance to judge, with a little work, you can have a chance to taste.

For a printable copy of the recipes, click the links:

Brandied Peach Preserves

Jalapeno Pickles

Weigl: 919-829-4848 or aweigl@newsobserver.com

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