Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Cranberry Relish


Every family has one or two recipes that come out during the holidays that are fairly unique to their family.  My family has Cranberry Relish.

It's not a pickled relish as you might expect from a hot dog relish.  It's all fruit, made with fresh cranberries, a whole orange, a whole apple, and just enough sugar to take the puckery edge off a bit.

Over the years, this has become my favorite condiment for that after-Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing sandwich.  I'll gladly pass the jellied stuff for a big heaping spoonful of cranberry relish.

Enjoy the recipe below.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Cranberry Relish

Ocean Spray actually sold a similar product in a tub in the refrigerator section of the grocery store back in the 80's or 90's.  It came in various additional flavors, such as cran-raspberry, but the texture and taste was nearly the same.  I'm not sure what ever happened to them.

1 12oz package fresh or frozen cranberries
1 large range, preferably a thin-skinned variety
1 whole apple, preferably a less-tart variety
1/2 to 1 cup of granulated sugar to taste

  1. Wash the apple and remove the core and seeds.  Chop the rest of the apple, skin and all, into large chunks.
  2. Wash the orange and slice-off the stem and blossom end so that you can see the orange flesh.  If using a thick-skinned variety, such as a navel orange optionally remove half of the peel (the thick white pith is the most bitter part).  Chop the remainder of the orange into large chunks, removing any seeds as best as you can.
  3. Wash cranberries if using fresh.
  4. Place the apple and orange chunks into the bowl of a food processor outfitted with a steel blade.  Process in pulses until the fruit is very finely chopped, almost pureed.
  5. Add the cranberries.  Pulse just until the mixture is the texture of hot dog relish.
  6. Remove mixture to a bowl.  Stir-in 1/2 cup of sugar.  Taste and add additional sugar until you like it.  Keep in mind that the mixture will sweeten slightly as it sits, so you may wish to under-sweeten it and add more sugar the next day.
  7. Pack into an airtight container and refrigerate up to 3 days.  Serve.
Optional Canning Instructions
This product is made of high-acid ingredients and thus is safe to can.  The instructions provided below were devised by reviewing recipes for pickle relish and making some adjustments to buy a little extra safety.
  1. If the relish seems dry, add about 1/2 cup of water or commercial orange juice to loosen it up.  This will keep the density down for safety.  You might also wish to allow the mixture to macerate overnight in the refrigerator, which usually extracts juices naturally from the fruit and softens it.
  2. In a large pot, heat the mixture just until it is heated through and is at a simmer.  Remove from the heat.
  3. Pack into jars no larger than quarts.  Leave 1/2 inch head space.  De-bubble as best as you can, wipe the rims, and add lids and rings.
  4. Process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Pickled Swiss Chard

Pickled Swiss Chard

I really like Swiss Chard.  It grows really well in my garden, has a mild flavor as greens go, and can be substituted for spinach, kale, and other hearty greens in soups, stews, frittatas...you name it.  Plus, it has a long growing season.  In fact, we've had a frost or two and it's still chugging away in my garden like it's nobody's business.

Unfortunately, this year we ended-up with too much.  I planted about 8 plants plus we joined a CSA, so I was receiving bunches of it from the farm each week.  We've also had a busy summer where I wasn't home cooking as much, so I really couldn't keep up with it.  I had to find a way to preserve it.

When it comes to greens, the easiest and most common way to preserve them is to blanch them in boiling water, drain, then freeze.  However, I find they get mushy and lose the fresh flavor that I love, so I was looking for something a little different.  I considered pressure canning them, but I figured that'd have much the same problem, plus they'd get kind of gray-ish.  Then, a thought hit me.

In my family, we've always eaten brassicas and greens (broccoli, spinach, cabbage, etc.) with a dash of vinegar.  I don't know where it started, but my Dad always did it and so I picked-up the habit.  It's a great way to give them a little pick-me-up flavor without drowning them in sauce or seasoning.  So why not pickle my chard?

I tried a single jar and it came out awesome.  So here's the recipe for you today.

 

Pickled Swiss Chard


For the Brine:
2 cups cider vinegar
2 cups water
1-2 tablespoons sugar (to taste)

1 teaspoon of pickling salt per jar
As much Swiss Chard as you like

  1. Wash chard leaves thoroughly.  Strip the rib out of the center and chop it into half-inch pieces.  Chop the chard into 1 to 2 inch squares.
  2.  Bring a pot of water to a boil.  Working in batches, blanch the chard and stems in the water until the greens wilt slightly.  Remove into a colander and run under cold water to stop the cooking and set the color.
  3. Prepare brine by bringing ingredients to a simmer until the sugar is dissolved and liquid is hot.
  4. Pack washed pint jars with 1 teaspoon of salt each and blanched chard, packing it full but not so tightly that it is compacted.  Leave 1 inch of head space.
  5. Pour brine over chard in jars leaving 1 inch of head space.  De-bubble as necessary.  Make additional batches of brine as needed to fill jars.
  6. Place lids and rings on jars.  Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Pickled Swiss Chard (in a Purple Jar)

Why is it Safe?
A 50/50 vinegar/water brine recipe is typical for most vegetable pickles and according to the NCHFP, sugar and spices can be modified at will in a pickle recipe (sugar is not acting as a preservative).  This particular recipe was adapted from the Food In Jars recipe for Garlic Dill Pickles with additional review of similar recipes.  A processing time of 10 minutes was chosen instead of 5 minutes to err on the side of caution against the chard being packed to compactly and making a denser product than cucumber pickles.

Butternut Squash and Feta Galette

Galette with roasted butternut squash, onions, pickled chard, and feta cheese.

While scrolling through my social media feed yesterday, I passed recipe from The Splendid Table for a Butternut Squash Galette and it reminded me of my love for open-faced savory tarts as a quick weeknight meal.  Since I had a piece of butternut sitting in the fridge, I knew exactly what I was going to make for dinner that night.

Galettes might sound fancy (it's a French word), but they're really just quick and dirty open-faced pies.  If you can make or buy a pie crust, you can churn one out in minutes and it's a delicious satisfying meal.

There's no real recipe.  I like to use whatever I have on-hand.  In the summer, I like to use tomatoes or grilled veggies from the garden.  Around the holidays, I've been known to make a mushroom version for a meaty-flavored but light appetizer.  Here's the basic process:

  1. Purchase or make your favorite pie dough recipe for a single-crust pie.  Roll or lay-out the dough round on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
  2. Spread a very thin layer of mayonnaise, sour cream, thick yogurt, or soft cheese across the dough round, leaving about an inch around the edges uncovered.
  3. Add a very thin layer of roasted or sauteed vegetables or bits of meat.  Tomatoes can be put on fresh if they're sliced very thinly or diced.  Don't put too much or the crust won't be able to hold the weight and keep moisture to a minimum.  This is a thin pie, not a pizza.
  4. Drop bits of goat cheese, feta cheese, shredded cheese, or even a heavy sprinkle of Parmesan over the top of the filling.  Again, this is not a pizza.  You're not trying to make a river of melted cheese on top.  Less is more.
  5. Turn the one-inch of dough around the edges up and over the edges of the filling, crinkling it rustically where it seems to want to.  Press down lightly so it stays in place.
  6. Brush the edges with an egg wash (an egg beaten with a tablespoon of water) and optionally sprinkle on some grated cheese or salt, pepper, or herbs.
  7. Bake in a 375 degree oven until the edges are golden brown and the cheese has melted or softened slightly.
  8. Cool slightly and slice into pie-shaped wedges.  This is excellent served with a simple green salad.  It can also be served at room temperature as an appetizer.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Pressure Canning Part II - How It Works

A couple of weeks ago, I did a Pressure Canner 101 post that was helpful in answering a lot of questions posed in the Food In Jars Facebook community, a group of which I'm a member.  There have been a couple more questions about choosing a pressure canner and whether or not to purchase a vintage or used one, so I thought it might be helpful to do a second post.

Pressure Cooker or Pressure Canner?

The question often comes up about what the difference is between a pressure cooker and a pressure canner.  The National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) has some rather strong thoughts on the matter, but this is the short version:
  • At their core, they operate the same and can have identical features.  They can be made of aluminum or stainless steel, though aluminum tends to be more popular for canners (probably because it's cheaper and lighter when full of jars and water).
  • Some (not all) canners contain a pressure dial that indicates the pressure in pounds per square inch (psi) inside the pot.  Cookers generally do not.  This allows for more flexibility and insurance of accuracy.
  • Only canners that can hold 4 quart jars upright with the lid on have been tested by the NCHFP for proper heat penetration of the food inside the jars.  Since most stove top pressure cookers are 5 quarts or less, they can't be recommended for use as canners, even if their technology is identical.  Also, the time it takes the canner to come up to pressure and go back to normal pressure is considered part of the processing time in tested recipes and that time might be shorter with smaller pots.
  • No electric pressure cookers or multi-cookers have been tested by the NCHFP and as such, they are not recommended, even if the manufacturer claims they are a canner.  The concern is that the size and/or the heating element and electronics might not maintain pressure consistently throughout the processing time.

How do They Work?

As mentioned in my previous post, pressure cookers and canners work under a pretty simple premise.  If you trap steam inside a tightly sealed pot, the steam gains pressure and as the pressure rises, so does the boiling point of water.  In an open pot, water boils (and maxes out) at 212 degrees.  In a pressure cooker at 10psi, it boils (and maxes out) at about 240 degrees.  This means you can achieve much higher temperatures than you ever could in an open boiling water bath.  It's why pressure cooked food cooks faster and also why a pot with a lid on it boils faster (there's a small pressure increase, even under a loose-fitting lid).

Here are the parts of a pressure canner that make it work:

Lock and Gasket

In order to hold steam in, you need some way to lock the pot closed and trap the steam inside.  This is typically done with a lid that twists and locks like the Presto model shown below or a series of crank-down screw clamps like those on an All American canner.

Presto Pressure Canner Lid Lock and Rubber Gasket Seal

All American Canner With Crank-Down Clamps
Routine maintenance of the locking mechanism typically involves replacing the rubber or silicone gasket whenever it becomes cracked, brittle, or starts leaking steam or air during processing.

Steam Vent (aka Petcock or Stem)
The steam vent, also known as a petcock or stem, is like a tiny smoke stack in the lid.  Its job is to vent excess air out of the pot and then serve as part of the system that regulates the pressure inside the pot, letting out just enough steam to keep the pot at the desired pressure (mine clearly needs a good scrubbing).
Steam Vent / Petcock / Stem
Routine maintenance of a steam vent involves keeping it clean and free of crud and debris as well as replacing it if it seems to be corroding or can no longer be cleaned.


Regulator (aka Jiggler)
In most, if not all all pressure canners, the regulator is a metal weight with a hole in the bottom that fits onto the steam vent.  The metal weight is designed to be heavy enough to keep a certain PSI of pressure inside the pot (typically, 15psi).  When the pressure builds such that it will go over the target PSI, the regulator will tilt to the side or spin to allow excess steam to escape.  This constant rocking or spinning and allowing excess steam out keeps the pressure inside the pot where it should be.

An assortment of pressure cooker and canner jiggler-style regulators
Shown above are, from left to right:
  • The original 15psi regulator from my 23 quart Presto pressure canner.  This also fits the 16quart Presto canner.
  • A 15psi regulator from my generic Chinese-made 5 quart pressure cooker.
  • A replacement Presto pressure canner regulator that contains metal rings that let you choose the PSI you wish to maintain.  With both rings, it regulates to 15psi.  With one ring off, it regulates to 10psi, which is suitable for most canning recipes.
  • A 15psi regulator from my grandmother's 1940's Presto pressure cooker
Maintenance on a regulator is almost none, since it's just a weight.  Keep the hole clean of debris and gunk and try not to lose it in the bottom of the kitchen drawer.  Without it, your pot is useless.

Many modern pressure cookers (not canners) contain other pressure regulating mechanisms that are spring-loaded.  They also might have buttons that allow you to evacuate the pressure quickly for a "quick release" instruction in a recipe.  Quick release is rarely, if ever, used in canning so it's an unnecessary feature on a canner.

Pressure Gauge
This is a pressure gauge much like you might see on the heating and system in your home or an automotive air compressor.  Few, if any, pressure cookers come with a gauge since pressure accuracy isn't a high priority in cooking.  However, quite a few canners have them.

Pressure Gauge
If a pressure canner comes with a gauge, it will often come with only a 15psi regulator/jiggler.  This is unfortunate, since the great majority of pressure canning recipes call for 10psi.  This means you will have to stand at the stove and fiddle with the heat until you get the pot to stay around 10psi.  Since the weighted regulator is designed to "jiggle" at 15psi, it will likely hiss but never actually rock back and forth.

On the other hand, pressure needs to be adjusted if you live far enough above sea leavel and a dial gauge with a 15psi weight allows you to make those adjustments.  The NCHFP makes specific recommendations about PSI for certain elevation levels and styles of canners.

If you live at sea level and have a Presto pot, I highly recommend purchasing the three-part weighted regulator, as it buys you extra peace of mind and lets you more easily multi-task in the kitchen as your jars are processing.

As far as maintenance goes, the NCHFP recommends taking your dial off and having it tested professionally at the beginning of each canning season.  If you have an active Cooperative Extension office in your state (often attached to a public university), they can often do it for free or a small fee.

Safety Plug or Valve
Perhaps the most important, yet simplest feature of your pressure cooker or canner is the safety plug.  On canners and simple cookers, this is typically nothing more than a rubber plug in the lid.  Should the steam vent become clogged with food and the pressure rises to unsafe levels, the plug will blow, allowing steam (and food if you're cooking something like stew) upward, away from the cook.  The downside, of course, is that escaping food will get all over the cabinetry, range hood, or ceiling.

Vent Plug and Hole on a Presto Pressure Canner
Vent Plug and Pressure Indicator Pin on a 1940's Vintage Presto Cooker
Safety Release Valve on a Generic Chinese-Made Cooker
Notice that the modern and the 1940's vintage pot both use a rubber plug but the generic Chinese-made pot contains a spring-loaded vent valve.  In the event that pressure is too high, the black plastic knob, which is spring-loaded, would rise and vent steam to either side of the valve instead of popping a plug out.  Many modern pressure cookers contain similar safety valves to prevent food from redecorating the kitchen.

Maintenance of the safety plug is as simple as replacing it on a routine basis or when it becomes old, brittle, or appears to leak steam or water.  This is the piece you want in the best working order and since it only costs a few dollars, it's well worth having extras on hand.

Pressure Indicator
The pressure indicator is another optional, yet useful item.  On the Presto pots, it's simply a metal button that will pop-up when there is pressure building in the pot.  This indicates the pot is under pressure and you should not attempt to open it.  When it pops-down (and it makes an audible clank), you know it's safe to open the pot.

Notice above that on my grandmother's 1940's vintage cooker, the pressure indicator is a metal pin in the center of the safety plug.  The pin rises when the pot goes under pressure and the whole plug would blow out should the pot go over safe pressure.

Pressure Indicator Button on a Presto Pressure Canner
Jar Rack
The last and final feature, which I did not photograph, is a thin metal or mesh plate that fits in the bottom of the canner to raise the jars just slightly off the bottom of the pot.  The purpose is to shield the jars from the direct heat of the burner and, more importantly, stop them from bubbling and clanging against the bottom of the pot, which would promote breakage.

What About Vintage or Inexpensive Canners?

Many people are weary of purchasing vintage canners or cookers from consignment stores, thrift stores, etc.  The fact, however, is that this can be an inexpensive way to get into pressure canning and, as long as the pot has been well cared for and is in good repair, it'll work just as well as any new pot you could buy today.

Money doesn't always equate to more safety, either.  The main difference between a Presto pot and an All American pot, aside from a $179 price difference, is the locking mechanism.  Those screw-down clamps may look more imposing and safer, but the fact is that if the pressure is too high, both pots will just blow their safety plugs.

In the course of this post, I've shown you three pots (two cookers and one canner) that I personally own and have used.  Two of them are quite unexpected, but work beautifully:

Vintage WWII-Era Presto Aluminum Pressure Cooker

This was my Grandmother's and I snagged it when she moved into assisted living.  She's maintained it in immaculate condition over the years, right down to the original user manual and handwritten notes about how to obtain replacement parts.  I brought it home and immediately put it into service cooking some corn on the cob and it worked beautifully!

Notice that this pot, which is over 70 years old, has exactly the same features as my 7 year old pressure canner.  The technology hasn't changed!

1940's Vintage Presto Pressure Cooker

Cheap No-Name Brand Chinese Import

I bought this pot from a third-party seller on Amazon for about $25 when I was new to pressure cooking.  When it came in, I found it packaged in a happy meal style box with broken-English labeling on the box, throughout the user manual, and even on permanent safety decals on the cooker itself.

Off-Brand Inexpensive Pressure Cooker

ATTENSIONS: Before cooking, turn the lighten button to fit the ear of the pot vight after feeling it unloose then move it one more and a half ring orso.  (360 degrees for one ring).  When it Will be ready to use it there [...] around the cover.  Please refer to instructions carefully.
As comical as this pot and its instructions are, it has served me over 10 years without failure and is my everyday pressure cooker.  I occasionally have to tighten the screws holding the locking knob and handles on, but I've never had to replace the gasket or any other parts (and likely wouldn't be able to find spare parts, anyway).

Buying a Vintage Pot

If you do choose to buy a vintage or off-brand pot, here are the things to consider and be aware of:
  • Look the pot over and make sure it doesn't have any large dents or cracks.  Scratches are usually part of normal wear and tear.  Black or brown discoloration and mild pepper-like pitting on aluminum is unavoidable, but doesn't damage the pot.
  • Make sure all the components are included or you know you can purchase replacement parts for missing components.  Typically, the loose parts are the regulator, safety plug, and jar rack.  For the All American, a clamp screw could be missing.
  • When you get it home, scrub all the pieces with soap and water.  Replacing the sealing gasket and safety plug is a good idea.  Have the dial gauge tested or purchase a new one.  Most parts are available online, many of them right on Amazon with Prime shipping.  Some old-school hardware stores and independent kitchen supply stores also carry parts in-stock.
  • Read the instructions cover-to-cover and know the features of your pot and how it works.  If it doesn't come with instructions, use Google to locate a user manual online.
  • Fill the canner 1/3 full with water and take it for a test drive with no jars in it.  Make sure it has no obvious leaks and comes up to pressure as expected.  Allow to drop pressure naturally until the pressure indicator (if you have one) shows it is no longer under pressure.

Is it Less Safe Than My Electric Cooker or Insta-Pot?

A lot of people might feel safer with the push-button electric pressure cookers and instapots because the electronics seem to be doing all the work for you.  The fact is, they operate much the same way as a stove-top model and the risks are probably about the same:
  • Electric pots are regulated by spring-loaded valves and electronic pressure sensors instead of jigglers and plugs.  Theoretically, these can break easier and may not even be possible to clean properly or replace.
  • When you close the pot and hit a pre-set button like, "Rice," the pot's computer chip is programmed to know how many minutes of pressure cooking rice needs and takes care of getting the pot up to pressure, counting the cook time, allowing the pressure to drop, then switching to warming mode.  It's convenient, but just as easily done with a kitchen timer on the stove top.
  • Electric pots are just aluminum pans inside a housing with a tight-fitting lid that are powered by an electric coil, similar to a hot plate or slow cooker.
  • As mentioned above, the NCHFP does not recommend electric multi-cookers as canners because they have not been tested and it's unclear whether they would maintain proper temperature for the proper amount of time or whether the pressure-up and cool-down cycle would be too short for tested recipes.
 That's it!  I hope this post helped you.  Happy Canning!

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Pressure Canning 101

Corn Chowder (un-thickened) and Tomato Soup
I've mentioned that I recently became a member of the Food In Jars Facebook Community.  Food In Jars (and its author, Marisa) is one of the best and most comprehensive resources for beginning and advanced canners aside from Ball and The National Center for Home Food Preservation (the USDA-sanctioned organization for canning safety in the US).  If you're looking to get into canning, I highly recommend Marisa's first book, Food In Jars.

One of the questions that has come-up on the Facebook Community over-and-over is, "How do I get into pressure canning?"  As an experienced pressure canner (and pressure cooker), I'm usually the one to pipe-in with an answer.  This post is an expansion on my usual response and I hope it's helpful to everyone.


Is It Safe?

Everyone has heard tales of Grandma's pressure cooker "exploding" and sending food up all over the ceiling. Combine that with the idea of broken glass jars and people are naturally scared.  The truth is that there's very little to be scared about.  All pressure cookers and canners--even ones built during WWII--have safety devices that prevent actual explosions and it's nearly impossible to open a pot under full pressure.  What Grandma probably experienced was the backup device, a pressure relief plug (essentially, a rubber cork) doing its job.  The unfortunate side effect is that the contents of the pot comes streaming upwards.  While it's thankfully projecting away from your face and body, it does redecorate the ceiling.

If you're still worried, consider this fact.  The rubber tires on most cars are inflated to about 35psi (pounds per square inch).  Pressure canners are made of metal and operate at 10 to 15psi.  That means your tires are under more than double the pressure and made out of a much more likely material to puncture.  You've more of a chance of your tire bursting and causing a traffic accident than you have of a pressure canner exploding.

The important part is to know your canner.  Read all the instructions.  Know how all the features work.  Keep it clean and in good repair.  Do all that and you'll have no problems.

Quarts of Homemade Chicken Broth


How Does It Work?


Pressure canners and cookers work under a pretty basic principle.  You have a large pot with a tight-fitting lid with a locking mechanism and a silicone or rubber gasket to trap steam inside.  The steam builds-up, increasing the pressure inside the pot.  When pressure increases, so does the boiling point of water.  At a pressure of 10psi, water boils at about 240 degrees instead of the usual 212 degrees.  This higher temperature is enough to kill botulism spores, which produce a nerve toxin that can be fatal (212 is not).

Vegetable Soup
The second component of your pot is a pressure regulator (often called a jiggler).  The regulator sits atop a straw-like pipe in the lid of the pot (called a stem).  When the pressure goes over a certain psi, the regulator will tilt slightly and let some of the steam out.  This gentle back-and-forth rocking motion allows just enough steam out to keep the pot at the desired pressure (usually, 10psi for canning and 15psi for cooking...more on that later).  Some pressure cookers have spring-loaded regulators instead of jigglers but most pots specifically designed to be a "canner" have an old-fashioned, tried-and-true jiggler.

The last component of your pot is a safety relief valve.  There are any number of designs for this, but the most simple and common is a basic rubber plug in a hole in the top of your pot.  Should the stem become clogged during cooking and the pressure were to rise above safe levels, the plug would shoot out of the hole and release steam (and food or water) to relieve pressure.


Okay, so Which Canner Should I Buy?

The Cadillac of all pressure canners is widely known to be the All-American.  It's an imposing-looking device with crank-down clamps that make people feel safer.  However, it has a hefty price tag at close to $250.  If you're looking to get into pressure canning without committing your kid's college fund, the Presto 16qt Pressure Canner is a great alternative.  At $71, it's much more affordable and I've seen them regularly for $15-20 less at Walmart and on Walmart.com, especially during the end of canning season.  That said, I have two additional recommendations:

#1 - Buy yourself this replacement 2-part regulator for the Presto canner.  Most canning recipes call for 10psi and the pot ships with a 15psi jiggler.  This means you need to regulate the pressure by watching the gauge and tinkering with the stove dial to adjust the heat throughout processing.  The three-part jiggler allows you to take one ring off the weight and it will keep your pot at a constant 10psi, even if the heat is a little too high.  It's great insurance, especially if you're working with an electric stove.

#2 - I don't recommend the 23qt pot unless you know you're going to be doing full two-layer batches of jars at least 95% of the time you can.  And keep in mind, you can only fit one layer of quarts and a 2nd layer of pints or two layers of pints.  When you do smaller batches in the bigger pot, you have to fill the empty space with steam before the pot comes up to pressure, which means a much longer time spent processing.  A 16qt pot is perfect for most people.  And, it's smaller and easier to store.

How Do I Get Started?

With a tested recipe, of course!  You can find recipes and how-to's on the NCHFP website and the Ball FreshPreserving.com website.  As far as books go, I recommend the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving as a starter.  The last chapter is dedicated to Pressure Canning recipes and covers all your basics (tomatoes, soups, stews, broths, etc.).  Another good resource that's sadly out of print is The Joy of Cooking All About Canning and Preserving.  If you can find yourself a used copy, grab it.  It's a great book.

Homemade Marinara Sauce

Can I Pressure-Can My Own Recipes?

This is probably the most common question.  The NCHFP and Master Canners everywhere usually strongly discourage this.  A common answer is, "No.  Absolutely not!  Always use a tested recipe from a trusted source."  That's excellent advice, and new canners are wise to follow it.  However, when it comes to pressure canning, even the NCHFP is a little more relaxed on the subject.  They've published a small set of guidelines for canning your own soups (Hats-off to Benita from the FIJ community for pointing me to this reference).  Also, I'm going to let you in on an unofficial secret...

If you flip-through the tested recipes in the Ball Complete Book, you'll notice that the processing times fall into a few basic camps (with some exceptions):
  • Recipes with meat or meat broth in them or very varied ingredients, such as soups and stews (~75-90 minutes).
  • Vegetable-based soups with a variety of vegetables (55-85 minutes).
  • Recipes with a single vegetable like green beans (~20-25 minutes)
  • Broth (20-25 minutes)
The specific ingredients are mostly irrelevant within each category because it's the high-temperature that's killing and warding-off the bacteria and spores, not acidity (as with Boiling Water Bath canning).  As long as you don't produce a product that's substantially more dense than the original, you can borrow processing times from a similar tested recipe and apply it to your home recipes with a fairly low safety risk.

Disclaimer - Let me stress...it's up to YOU to decide what level of risk you can live with for you and your family and it's good practice to always tell someone you've shared a jar with if you've deviated from NCHFP safety practices and tested recipes.  Botulism is serious stuff...it's a nerve toxin that can kill you and it's colorless, odorless, and thrives in low-acid oxygen-free environments (like the inside of a canning jar).  I feel comfortable with the above recommendations for me and my family.  You need to make the same call.

With that said, here's my general rule of thumb for adapting recipes:
  • Whenever possible, start with a tested recipe and modify it slightly.  You'll always be safer this way.
  • If you really want to can something that you can't find a tested recipe for, find the closest tested recipe.  For example, beef stew in place of your homemade chicken stew.  Borrow the processing times from that recipe and try not to alter the ratios of ingredients (meats, veggies, liquid) so much that you affect the density of the finished product.
  • Stay away from the usual "no-no" list of ingredients for canning, including: flour, corn starch, pasta, rice, dairy, and large amounts of oil or butter (a little bit to saute onions is fine).
  • Don't try to can puree'd pumpkin or winter squash.  NCHFP has determined the density to be too inconsistent to recommend processing times, even for pressure canning.  The only tested and approved recipe for squash is one from the Ball Complete book for cubed squash in water and frankly, it tastes awful.  I've tried it.
  • If canning tomato products, there's no harm in still adding a little extra lemon juice to acidify the product (in fact, NCHFP recommends it).  Belt AND suspenders.
So that's it.  That's all I have for now.  Go buy yourself that a canner and get canning!