how do I safely experiment with recipes?

olbrota(5)January 16, 2013

I've been a home canner for several years using recipes from books and websites. I want to start experimenting with my own recipes, but how can I make sure I'm doing this safely? Does anyone have any advice or know of any sources I can reference to make sure my sugar/salt/acid to fruit/vegetable ratio is what it needs to be when I'm experimenting with different fruit and veggie combinations?

Additionally, I'd like to start experiementing with adding different herbs, spices, and even nuts to my canning recipes, but I'm unsure how to go about this. I know some herbs will not store well long term, so I'd like to infuse them somehow. I'm also curious how nuts and seeds will hold up with canned fruit over time. Does anyone have any advice?

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readinglady(z8 OR)

The most polite way to say it is that experimenting with canning recipes is a crapshoot.

The first caution would be that many of the books and websites themselves are unreliable, so even the recipes you have worked with previously may have presented some risks.

Learn as much as you can about the science of canning so that you can introduce safe modifications. Be aware of the constraints of high-acid and low-acid foods, the issues of density and particularly, the limits for home canners. It is simply not possible for a home food processor to moderate and test for safety the way professionals can.

1. Dried spices and herbs can always be introduced with safety, as can dried peppers, dried garlic or other dehydrated foods. Since shelf time often strengthens flavors, it's best to start small in amounts and batch size and take notes.

2. Generally (with the exception of fermented foods), sugar and salt can be increased or decreased as you wish, allowing for the fact that at some point reducing sugar will affect texture (firmness) and shelf life.

3. Nuts do not hold up well in canning unless you're talking about a traditional conserve or something like nuts in a sweet syrup (i.e. a sundae topping). Even then, toasted nuts will maintain texture better than raw ones.

Regardless of whether you wish to modify recipes or not, the best thing is to get a good handle on basic canning principles by taking the NCHFP self-paced free online course and/or finding the nearest Master Food Preserver course offered by Extension.

You'll have a much better sense of the challenges and be able to assess existing recipes more accurately.


    Bookmark   January 16, 2013 at 3:24PM
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Thanks so much for your response! A few clarifications - I always make sure the recipes I use are from reliable, up to date sources, like the National Center for Home Canning, and books that are well regarded, current and trustworthy. I am aware that all recipes that are considered safe have been "scientifically tested", so I'm wondering how I might start to do that kind of testing myself with my own recipes, or if there is a guide that describes how to do this. I am happy to hear that dehydrated items may be added safely, but I do worry about how the flavors will change over time. I am happy to taste and find out as long as I know it is safe. Thanks so much!

    Bookmark   January 16, 2013 at 3:50PM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

No sarcasm intended so please take this in a helpful spirit but honestly, the only way you can experiment with your own recipes and insure safety is either a) get a degree in food science and set up your own lab, or b) pay an existing food lab to have each of your recipes tested.

Annie, who posts here often can tell you about what all is required to have your recipes tested as she had it done for her Annie's Salsa recipe. Either are a costly and time consuming process. Then if you planned to sell or trade any of the recipes to the public a whole other world of rules and restrictions open up.

Now obviously some recipes are more risky than others so how much risk you would be incurring would all depend on the recipe itself. Care to post any of them? We can often point out the obvious issues with them.

As Carol said the best place to begin is with a certified course. Following that up with a Certified Master Food Preserver course would be the next step.

The simplest and safest approach to what you want to do is to shift your focus. Individual creativity in home canning has always had a very limited role, and intentionally so. Canning is a science, not art.

So focus instead on what home canning is intended to be - preservation of the basic ingredients per their tested instructions and then combining and experimenting with those ingredients AFTER opening the jars and serve them for fresh consumption. That way you have no concerns about safety and the resulting recipe is of much higher quality.


    Bookmark   January 16, 2013 at 4:09PM
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readinglady(z8 OR)

We are not trying to rain on your parade, but there simply is no foolproof way to test recipes in the home setting. If it were that simple we wouldn't need the Ball Blue Book or other reliable sources.

Low-acid canning recipes, in particular, have been scrupulously tested for the optimal balance of safety, texture and flavor.

Some recipes are inherently low-risk and can be modified with minimal concern. For example, high-acid sweet preserves can be altered in all sorts of ways because the fruits are acidic, in addition to the sugar which not only serves a preservative function but also reduces water activity (a factor in food safety).

But the home kitchen is not a laboratory and with the exception of a few here who have degrees in micro-biology, food science and related disciplines, most are not qualified to accurately test and assess.

You will see comments online making such recommendations as pH strips or pH meters. What most don't realize is that even within a high-acid mixture (i.e. a salsa recipe) there may be low-acid "islands" not sufficiently penetrated by the acid which will remain if the mixture is not sufficiently heated during processing. A pH meter in those circumstances can give a false impression of the relative safety of the contents.

And that's just the beginning of the complications.

I think Dave's suggestion is the best and that is to post modifications you are considering. There are members who have a pretty good sense of what's doable and what's not.


    Bookmark   January 16, 2013 at 11:34PM
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Wow, what a great forum I've stumbled upon!

I am mostly thinking of adding dried herbs and spices, or infusing dried herbs and spices into a simple syrup and adding that to the sugar in a tried and true recipe. Does anyone have any experience with this? The consusus seems to be that dried herbs and spices are safe to add.

Does anyone know if it is safe to add balsamic vinegar to a recipe?

If I dehydrate my own chile peppers can I safely add those to a recipe? Does anyone have a good source for pepper jelly recipes?

Thanks so much for all the feedback. This forum is great!

    Bookmark   January 18, 2013 at 11:10AM
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digdirt2(6b-7a No.Cent. AR HZ8 Sun-35)

Unlike fresh herbs and spices, dried herbs and spices never create a safety issue. They can however create quality/flavor issues as many of them intensify greatly or turn bitter during shelf storage. So the standard recommendation is to use them sparingly when canning. Since more can always be added after the jar is opened there is little to be gained by over-using them upfront.

So yes, dried chili peppers can be used as a flavor enhancer, again with care as they too can always be added after opening. One possible exception would be if adding them as a primary ingredient (whole or in large amounts) to recipes containing other low-acid vegetables. Large amounts of them could skew the over-all pH. You will sometimes see the instruction to rehydrate them in vinegar before adding to the recipe.

There are lots of discussions/recipes here about pepper jellies that the search will pull up for you. I linked some of them below.

Balsamic vinegar as an "addition" to an existing recipe would be fine as it would only increase the acidity. But as a "substitution" for other acidifiers in the recipe there are some restrictions. It must be 5% acidity (some are not) and it cannot be substituted for lemon or lime juice as they are much more acidic.

Hope this helps and welcome to the forum. :)


Here is a link that might be useful: Pepper jelly discussions/recipes

    Bookmark   January 18, 2013 at 12:16PM
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readinglady(z8 OR)

Infusing fresh herbs in a simple syrup and then removing the herbs, using only the flavored infusion, would not present any problem at all.

By the same token, in some recipes it's possible to infuse garlic, remove the garlic itself and use the infused liquid for additional garlic flavor.

Jellies generally do not present problems as the very nature of a jelly is a solid-free sweet preserve. If you are interested in herbal jellies, there are some posted on this forum and there's also an herbs forum here on Gardenweb.

Authentic Italian balsamic vinegar by Italian law must be at least 7% acidity, so it wouldn't present an issue in any recipe calling for vinegar. However, as Dave mentioned, it can be very assertive and used in excess can over-take the other ingredients.


    Bookmark   January 18, 2013 at 1:57PM
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I tried to make pear jelly from fresh pears. I learned a few things while trying this. One - it takes a lot of sugar. Two - the pection MUST go in first before the sugar or it will not set. Three - pear syrup is just as tasty as pear jelly. Four - pears run through a kitchen ninja makes pear sauce. Which is quite tasty too but again does not make good jelly.

Live, Learn, Get smarter!

    Bookmark   February 3, 2013 at 8:10PM
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pattypan(z6b CT)

i have found what i consider a great list of jam flavorings at (search for signature jam flavor maker chart). this seems like a safe way to experiment with recipes. has anyone else tried these ?

    Bookmark   August 22, 2014 at 5:04PM
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I don't see any safety issues with that chart, though she does warn that some flavorings are "daring" (such as sage) - I think those are the ones that are more likely to either be strong to begin with, or intensify or change in storage.

    Bookmark   August 22, 2014 at 8:59PM
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balloonflower(5b Denver CO, HZ 5-6, Sunset 2b)

With regards to the herbs, you would need to learn which ones dry and infuse flavors well, which ones change flavor, which ones intensify, and which ones lose flavor. Some of that info is out there, some is trial and error, and some is personal taste preference.

I do have lots of fun experimenting with herbs and liqueurs in my jams, jellies, and syrups. Some have been successes, some not that great, and some just not to my liking. Some are infusions, and some are herb pieces mixed in. The basil mint plum jam from the Pomona pectin cookbook is amazing. I used apple mint and Thai basil, and am prepping my 4th batch today.

    Bookmark   August 23, 2014 at 1:32PM
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