This canning project started because of my insomnia. A good number of nights a week finds me wide wake at 3 am, with my mind turning over problems in my head that seemed inconsequential in daylight. Sometimes, I can stop the churning of my brain by writing whatever it is down on a pad of paper on my nightstand. Other times, I can make it go away by counting. But most of the time, the best remedy is to go out in the living room and turn on the TV and start watching Food Network. Usually, within an hour or so, I am sound asleep with any one of the Food Network's night time line up as my lullaby. This means it's usually that show "Chopped" where it's an alleged reality show where chefs get voted out of the kitchen for various cooking offenses. Sometimes it's "Unwrapped", where they show you how the sausage really is made at the sausage factory. If I am lucky, an episode of "Good Eats" that I haven't seen might be on. There's a show by celebrity chef Bobby Flay called "Throwdown" where he shows up at some bakery or restaurant and tries to beat out the chef's signature recipe. At first, I absolutely despised this show, but then I realized it is a cooking show aimed at men, so that's why all of the arrogant swaggering around that irritated me so much. I have never been to one of Bobby Flay's restaurants - he has many - but I have cooked some of his recipes and have come to appreciate him, even though I find his personality a little too "East Coast macho" for my midwestern feminist sensibilities. So, unlike "Diners, Drive Ins and Dives" or "Ace of Cakes", which are automatically channel changers for me, if "Throwdown" happens to be on, I'll watch it. And that's a good thing, because that is how I found the best barbecue sauce recipe I have ever tasted - Woodchick's Brisket Barbecue Sauce . One sleepless night, I watched this little petite blond gal kick Bobby Flay's butt in barbecue, so I tried her sauce recipe and it's what I use for just about all my barbecue stuff - not just brisket.
From Woodchick to a Canning Safe Recipe
For years, I have tried different canning recipes for barbecue sauces and I have never found one I liked as much as Woodchick's. Every year, I have looked for a recipe I like to no avail, so I knew I was going to have to develop one. During canning season for tomatoes (August/September here in Michigan) I don't have a lot of time to experiment. Usually, we are camping or getting the kids back to school, and there are so many things to preserve, I need to optimize my time in the kitchen. No time to spend the day in the kitchen testing recipes. So when it was announced that the March Can Jam challenge was aliums, I knew I'd use the opportunity to tweak a canning safe barbecue sauce that tasted like my favorite Woodchick one. That way, I could hit the ground running when my kitchen is buried in tomatoes this summer.
Rules for Canning Safe Recipe Tweaking
Wondering how to modify a recipe for tweaking a boiling water bath canning recipe to make it taste the way you want it?
- Start with a canning safe recipe
- It's okay to swap low acid ingredients with others, provided they are in the same pH range or lower
- It's always okay to add/reduce sugar or salt, because those ingredients are just for taste in canning recipes, not for preservation
- Never change the texture of the product. Canning recipes are tested to make sure they reach the right temperature throughout the jar during the processing, and food texture can affect heat transfer. Don't add thickeners, or use an ingredient like pumpkin puree which can affect the texture.
- Never add more water - it will raise the pH of the final product
- Never change the processing time
- Never reduce the amount of acid, but increasing it is okay
- Always use storebought vinegar or bottled citrus juices, because their acidity is controlled. Home made vinegar or fresh squeezed juices can wildly vary in pH
- Don't use butter
Looking through all of my canning books, I finally settled on one in the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving called "Sombrero Barbecue Sauce" as my starting point - I picked it because it had lots of low acid vegetables in it - celery, onions and green peppers. I wanted to swap out the celery and green peppers with onions. Woodchick's recipe doesn't have those ingredients, so I wanted to replace them with more onions. I checked the FDA's list of approximate food pH and saw that peppers have a pH of 5.20-5.93 and celery 5.7 - 6.0, so replacing their amounts with onions, which have a pH of 5.37 - 5.85 would not be a problem. Since it is winter here in Michigan, our only tomatoes at the grocery store are from Mexico and cost a fortune, so I opted to use canned tomato puree (organic, no salt) which is produced locally. In summer, of course, I'd use fresh tomatoes. In the Ball Complete Book of Home Canning, it said that 2 cups of chopped, cored, peeled tomatoes yields 1.5 cups puree, so I figured out how much puree to substitute. I was ready to get started. I made a batch of the Wood Chick sauce as a control, and I made up a batch of the Sombrero with tomato puree instead of fresh tomatoes and I replaced the celery and peppers with onions. I swapped out the spices from the Wood Chick recipe, which were already similar to the Sombrero one. It was time for a taste....and it didn't taste the same. Bummer!
Time to make more adjustments
I had some pH paper I bought at the home brew store and checked the pH of the Woodchick batch vs. the Ball recipe and found that the Wood Chick batch was much more acidic. Could it be that I needed to add more vinegar? Reviewing the recipes it was obvious that the proportion of vinegar to vegetables was much higher in the Woodchick recipe vs. the Ball recipe, so I added more vinegar. It's always safe to add more vinegar to a canning recipe. Reviewing the recipes back to back I could see that the Woodchick recipe had a higher proportion of sugar to vegetables than the Ball recipe had. The Woodchick recipe tasted sweeter, too, so I added some maple syrup and honey and some more brown sugar to mine. It's always okay to add or reduce sugar content in a canning recipe. Woodchick uses those ingredients, so I thought I would like to use them. I had some locally produced honey in the larder and the sap is running in Michigan right now, and I bought some local maple syrup from Snow's Sugarbush at the farmer's market that morning. I know that it's safe to use honey to sweeten food in canning, but is maple syrup? A quick review of the Ball Complete Book of Home Canning indicated it used often in recipes so I decided to go for it. I also noticed that the Woodchick recipe relied on store bought products like ketchup and chili sauce, and mine was just using tomato puree, so I decided to include ground cloves to capture some of that taste. Canning recipes for these products always include cloves, so maybe that would help. Also, maybe I needed some salt - I added some canning salt to mine. Last thing I observed is that the Woodchick recipe used Worchestershire sauce - I figured that was going to be okay to add because it is primarily vinegar, so I checked and sure enough, the pH of Worchestershire sauce is 3.63 - 4. Not a problem! Back to back tasting showed the canning recipe was now spot on. Out of curiosity, I checked the pH of my canning batch and it was now at 4.0 - the Woodchick recipe was at about 3.8, but 4.0 is well below 4.6 which is the pH that is safe for water bath canning, so I knew my recipe was fine. With the amount of vinegar in this recipe, perhaps it should more accurately be called a pickle or a chutney instead of a sauce!
Here's how I tweaked the Sombrero BBQ Sauce Recipe to make my own version of Woodchick's BBQ Sauce that my family loves. It's spicier, sweeter and more tangy than the original.
Woodchick Style Barbecue Sauce for Canning
2 c. finely chopped onions
2 cloves garlic
1 T. paprika
additional ingredients I added:
1/2 c. maple syrup
3/4 c. honey
1 T. ground cloves
2 T. canning salt
1/4 c. Worchestershire sauce
2 T. hot chili powder
2 T. allspice
In a large stock pot, combine tomatoes and onions and bring to a boil, boil gently for 30 minutes until onions soften, about 30 minutes. If making this recipe from fresh tomatoes, at this point, you'd puree the mixture until smooth, and then return it to the pot and reduce heat and boil gently until mixutre is reduced by half. If using canned puree, at this point add the remaining ingredients and boil gently stirring often until the sauce reaches the consistency of thing commercial barbecue sauce, about an hour. Prepare the canner and lids, and then ladel hot sauce into jars, removing bubbles and leaving a 1/2 inch headshapce. Process for 35 minutes.