There are people who dislike marmalade, but I love it—especially if it has a strong tang behind the sweetness, plenty of peel and a slightly caramelized flavor. It was my quest for the ideal marmalade that led me, last winter, to start canning.
I began with an all-lemon number, then switched to orange, one batch with ginger and one with Scotch in it. When spring came, I bought several pints of strawberries for a strawberry-vanilla jam that made my apartment smell like shortcake. After the berries came the stone fruits. Did you know that the skins of nectarines contain pectin, and will make homemade jam a lovely rose color? It’s true. I also made several jars of dilly beans. Soon it will be fall, which means I will go apple picking, which means a few quarts of applesauce.
The things I’ve canned have been delicious, and I enjoy the process, the stirring and steam and near-misses with scalding water. It feels productive (which it is) and thrifty (which it isn’t, at least in monetary terms, at least not yet).
Here’s why making my own jams and pickled things hasn’t saved me a cent. Aside from an occasional jar of marmalade, I rarely think to buy jam for myself, so my work isn’t offsetting a regular expenditure. I have given homemade jam to other people, but these were casual handoffs, not special-occasion gifts I’d have paid for otherwise. However, my gentleman-friend eats a peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich for lunch every day. If he does not have a jar of something I made, he buys Bonne Maman preserves, which retail for $4-$5. I figure I’ve saved him from buying five jars of jam since I started, so I’ll estimate $25. (This is a good time to recommend peanut-butter-and-marmalade sandwiches.)
Pickled beans aren’t something I buy, but I do buy pickles, and when I have a stash of dilly beans on hand I’m less likely to run down to the Ukrainian market in my neighborhood and spend $3 on a jar. I made four jars, so I’ll peg my cash savings at $12. Between that and the un-bought Bonne Maman, we can assume $37 in savings from forgone purchases.
But now: the cost of canning. My freezer is too small for freezer jams, and I don’t go through jam quickly enough to make refrigerator jam worthwhile. For keeping purposes there are two ways to process homemade jams and pickles: pressure canning and boiling-water canning. I’ve taken the latter route, which means I can use the same pot for canning and for making big batches of stock or soup—important, since my apartment has limited storage space. When I first caught the homemade marmalade itch, I did not own a pot of sufficient size. As luck would have it, this was a week or two before Christmas, so I asked for (and received) a canning setup—large pot, rack, funnel, jar lifter, lid lifter and headspace tool—as my gifts. Tip: If you have a loved one who’s showing interest in canning, find out what he or she needs and make it a gift at the next possible occasion. Gratitude will be measured in jam.
So my personal outlay for the setup was $0, but I can tell you what it would have cost me to buy: The utensils came together in a pack from Ball, retail $9.99. The rack came separately ($15.99). A 16-quart stock pot works well for canning. Oneida makes a great one for about $60. Le Creuset sometimes goes on sale (especially around the holidays), so you may be able to get a $170 model for closer to $100—that’s what I got. If you’re only going to use your stock pot for canning—that is, boiling water—you could pick up a beater pot at a lawn sale or church fair ($5? $10?). Or maybe a relative has one gathering dust in a cupboard ($0). You could buy something elegant in French copper, but I understand people who spend more than $500 on a pot about as well as I understand people who shun marmalade.
Let’s reckon $126 for my pot and utensils.
Jars are the next necessity in canning. For some reason, basic Ball canning jars are expensive in New York City, where I live now. They’re also hard to find. In Maine, where I’m from, you could buy 12-packs of Ball jars at the supermarket, and they were cheap. At one Brooklyn kitchen specialty store I visited, a single half-pint jar was $1.50, which would set you back $18 before tax for a dozen. You can order jars from Ball’s website–$10.99 for a dozen half-pint jars, $12 for a dozen pint jars–but then you have to calculate shipping, which added over $10 to my total. The cheapest New York City jar source I’ve found is the Ace hardware store near my office. Apparently this is an open secret among city canners: Ace is the go-to for jars, although some locations may have slim pickings. You can also order from the Ace website and have jars delivered to your nearest Ace store, for free. A 12-pack of half-pint jars (with lids and bands) costs about $10, a dozen pints are around $15.
I’ve bought 24 jars so far, for a total cost of about $25. I have been able to reuse jars and bands by purchasing fresh lids; I got a dozen of these for $3.
Total outlay for containers, then, is $28.
Last but not least, ingredients. Normally I buy conventional citrus fruit, because I peel it or juice it, but for Operation Marmalade I bought organic, since I’d be eating the peel. I did not keep exact notes about my purchases last winter, but as I recall I bought organic lemons at Whole Foods for about $2.50 per pound. Organic oranges were cheaper, maybe $1/pound. I spent close to $15, including tax, on citrus. In the spring, strawberries were $5/pint at the Union Square Greenmarket, and I bought two pints ($10). The pickled beans cost me nothing: I picked the beans and fresh dill from the gentleman-friend’s parents’ garden, and I had vinegar, garlic, kosher salt at home.
So far, so good—but then there was the Nectarine Disaster of August 2013, in which four pounds of farmers’ market nectarines molded because I was too tired to preserve them the day I after bought them, and I thought they’d last another night in a bowl. I was wrong. That was $15 of nectarines down the garbage chute, but I had nectarine jam on the brain, so I bought more for $13.
Besides the produce, I’ve bought a couple bags of sugar (one organic cane, one regular Domino’s), for a total of $5. I used Pomona’s Universal Pectin in the strawberry-vanilla jam—I’d read that it was a good choice for people who don’t like overly sugary jams, which it is, but it cost $6.50.
Ingredients for a few batches of marmalade, one of strawberry-vanilla jam, a round of pickled beans and a batch of nectarine jam: $64.50.
If you’ve been keeping track, you’ll see that the total cost thus far (pot and utensils, containers, ingredients) comes to $218.50. I’ve made eight pints and 16 half-pints of food. That’s approximately $6.82 per half-pint, and while the math isn’t exact because we’re combining pickled beans and jam, and the commercial equivalents of these may be sold in different quantities, it’s clear that my homemade canned goods are pricier than store-bought.
The only way to improve that ratio is to keep canning. Most of my costs this year were fixed: I won’t need another stock pot or jar lifter, so future canning expenses will be the variable costs of jars and ingredients. I could make those costs even cheaper if I were willing to use non-organic produce, which I’m not, because if I’m going to spend four hours making jam I sure as hell don’t want any pyraclostrobin in it.
Not factored in to any of this is my desire to make my jam (or what economists would call the utility I derive from jam-making). One night last spring, I considered going to a movie, but decided to stay in, listen to the radio and make strawberry jam instead. I would have paid $15 for the movie, or $7.50 per hour. An hour spent puttering in the kitchen with ripe berries and sticky notes about gelling time seemed far more desirable, perhaps twice as desirable. I’ve spent more than 20 hours canning, I reckon. Could you say I got $300 worth of utility? Probably. I know I’ve got a shelf full of colorful jars that I processed myself, and I know that on some dreary November day I’ll have toast with spring strawberries. It feels awfully profitable.