Extension Educators are frequently asked if so much sugar or salt must be used in recipes. Often the answer is “no,” but you should be aware of the role each plays in preserving foods. If you are trying to reduce the amount of sugar or salt for health reasons, you will need to balance the quality of the product with the health benefits.
Sugar is not needed in canned fruit for safety, but it preserves the firmness and texture of the product and helps to maintain color. If your diet allows you to have sugar, experiment with reducing sugar to find the least amount of sugar you can use and still have a product that is acceptable to you. Fruit can be safely canned in plain water or non-nutritive sweeteners can be added. Aspartame products are not recommended for canning, because their sweetening properties are greatly reduced when heat is applied. Non-nutritive sweeteners will not have the positive effect on color and texture that sugar provides. Some fruits are canned in fruit juice, taking advantage of the natural sweetness of the juice; the natural sugars in the juice will provide a small amount of texture and color protection but not in the same way as sugar. Mild-flavored white grape juice and apple juice are frequently the juice of choice; pears are good canned in pineapple juice. Of course, sugar can still be added if juice replaces the water in canning. When juice is substituted for water in canning, it provides calories that need to be considered for people on special diets.
Other sweeteners such as brown sugar, corn syrup and honey can be used, but the flavor of the canned food may be different than expected. It is difficult to convert a volume of sugar into an equivalent amount of corn syrup at the same sweetness level. Best results occur when these other sweeteners are used in a recipe specifically indicating how much to use. Avoid the use of honey in products that will be eaten by infants under one year of age.
One place where it is not safe to reduce sugar is in traditional and long-cooking jams and jellies. The proper proportion of sugar, acid and pectin is necessary for a desirable gel to form. Do not use non-nutritive sweeteners in regular jelly. Instead, choose some of the modified pectin products that allow you to make tasty spreads using from 0 to 3 cups of sugar per recipe. Again, with less sugar, the jelly will be less firm and will not hold its color as long in storage. A few recipes exist for all fruit spreads made by cooking down fruit pulp to a spreadable consistency.
The absence of salt (sodium chloride) in most vegetables, meats or soups will not affect the safety of the product. Salt is added for flavor. Over the years, our taste for salt has decreased and you might prefer to use less salt or omit it entirely in canned vegetables and meats. However, salt is essential in making fermented pickles and sauerkraut. Never reduce the amount of salt in these two products. Salt favors the growth of desirable bacteria while inhibiting the growth of others during the fermentation process. If a recipe calls for large amounts of salt, it is there to control bacterial growth or determine the quality of the pickle or relish. Most salt substitutes contain potassium chloride. Do not substitute potassium chloride for sodium chloride (regular salt) in fermentation recipes.
Canning salt or pickling salt is a pure salt with no additives and is the best choice for canning, pickling and sauerkraut. Table salt is safe to use for canning but usually contains anti-caking additives that may make the liquid cloudy or produce sediment at the bottom of the jar. Iodized salt is not recommended because it may cause canned foods to darken, discolor or be spotty. Sea salt contains various minerals that may cause canned foods to discolor. While kosher salt is a pure salt, it is a coarse, flaked salt that varies in density and measures differently; therefore, it is not recommended for fermented recipes.
One way of reducing the sodium (salt content) of salty foods like sauerkraut is to rinse the product with water just before heating and serving. Don’t do this before processing the food.
If you have food preservation questions, a Home Economist is available to answer questions on Wednesdays 10 a.m.—2 p.m., by calling 717-394-6851 or writing Penn State Extension, Lancaster County, 1383 Arcadia Road, Room 140, Lancaster, PA 17601.