A few years a go a friend introduced me to Marisa McClellan, her canning books, and by extension her blog; and I’ve been hooked ever since. Naturally Sweet Food in Jars is her latest cookbook. As a sidebar, is it really a cookbook if it has canning recipes? Canning isn’t exactly cooking, but at the same time, what else do you call it? At any rate, this cookbook features canning recipes that use more ‘natural’ sugars in place of refined white sugar.
A few notes on the structure of the book. The book has no slipcover, the image I posted here is printed onto the hardcover of the book. I like this because I find slipcovers just tend to get damaged when dealing with cookbooks. Inside the book is a nice balance between gorgeous pictures of the finished product and detailed recipes, each with an introductory paragraph. The pages are on the thicker side meaning they’re less likely to tear as you flip through the book. It has a strong binding, and the pages feel like they will stay open on the page I want with only a little assistance. They’re not glossy either, which I’m kind of iffy on. It means they won’t wipe easily if you spill something on them, but neither will they reflect light and become hard to read. All in all, it’s a sturdy little book and definitely feels like it could stand up to the rigors of a kitchen. I mention all of this because I think these are all important factors when considering buying a cookbook. Nothing is more annoying then a cookbook that won’t stay open when you’re trying to make something from it.
The book has seven sections, and starts with an introduction to canning chapter. Which means that if you’ve never picked up a canning book (or never canned before) this book contains enough information to get you started. While it was a review section for me, I still like to see that in my canning books because it means that it’s still accessible to the beginner. I think the procedures she lays out in this introductory chapter are fairly easy to follow so if you’re looking to get into canning but don’t want to buy a book full of sugar-heavy recipes, this is a good one to pick up. One of my favorite things about McClellan and how she approaches canning is that she doesn’t consider it something that you need to set aside a ton of time for, nor buy a ton of new equipment. This introductory chapter is full of that philosophy, and includes her adage that you don’t need a big canning pot in order to can.
After the introductory chapter the other six chapters are each dedicated to a different sugar. So the first chapter is honey based canning recipes, the second is maple sugar/maple syrup based, and so it goes. While most canning books are laid out in seasons, as her previous books are, I like this format here as the purpose of the book is to explore canning with different sugars and thus highlight those sugars. In addition to the actual canning recipes, she includes a few (not many) recipes that use the canning product. I’m particularly interested in trying the fruit butter granola. However, in addition to these recipes she includes a brief “I like to use this product this way” in her introductory paragraph before each recipe. For someone like me, who often cans because it’s super fun but then has no idea what to do with the finished product, these paragraphs are immensely useful.
As for the recipes themselves? The Rhubarb Parsley Syrup (sans parsley, because I’m not fond of it) was pretty simple to make and will probably make a delicious cocktail mixed with gin (or vodka) and sparkling water. It’s tasty on it’s own though, and I may have to make pancakes this weekend for reasons. The Caramelized Red Onion Jam is one recipe I’m dying to try. While I haven’t tried many recipes in this book, in general I can vouch for her recipes. I’ve made many a jam and pickle from her previous books and they’re always SO TASTY. I also really like that she tends to write recipes for smaller batches as that means you can preserve a wider variety of goods. This book also has a nice balance of sweet and savory preserves, containing not just jams and jellies but pickles, relishes, and a few sauces.
For me personally, I’m less sold on the idea of natural sugars. I do tend to like my fruit preserves more tart and less sweet and so I think this book is a decent addition to my collection, but I don’t really have a lot against refined white sugar. Obviously, your mileage may vary and I am really interested in the two sections that use fruit-juice concentrate and dried fruit as sweeteners. However, I felt the book overemphasized the guiltless feeling of using all of these sugars instead of refined white sugar. There were a couple of places where I rolled my eyes at the idea that these sweeteners are somehow more virtuous then refined white sugar simply because they were unprocessed. I mean, I love maple syrup but it’s still a sugar you know? There’s also the fact some of these sugars (agave) are just as refined as the good old white stuff, though the chemical make-up is slightly different.
Basically, I think it’s an informative book with some really tasty looking recipes. If you’re interested in canning this isn’t a bad book to start with (though I’m probably more likely to point you to the Ball Blue Book simply because it’s considered the basic must have for canning). But if you’re worried about your sugar consumption and would like to try alternatives to the sugar filled jams in the grocery store, you should check this book out. As a note, guys really homemade is so much better then the store bought stuff. Try making just ONE homemade jam and then see if you’ll ever go back to the grocery store. McClellan’s blog has a lot of very simple, easy to follow small batch canning stuff using the tools you probably already have in your kitchens.