Cydne Watterson loves to can peaches.
No, she really, really loves it.
She loves it so much, she called one morning and asked if we could come over, right that moment, to can peaches.
We couldn't – we have these things called schedules – but listening to Watterson talk about peaches, it's hard to resist her excitement.
“I'm not some Martha Stewart baking person,” Watterson insists. She doesn't cook much else, doesn't even make desserts. But canned peaches? She goes about that with the precision of a surgeon and the organization of a general.
She feeds peaches to her three sons and gives peaches to everyone she knows, even for Christmas. She's figured out the cost per jar right down to the sugar. (If Cydne has given you peaches, we apologize for breaking the news: She spent $1.99 on you.)
On a summer morning several days after her call, the proof of her passion was all around her, jars of peaches in the glass-fronted cabinets beside the sink, another two dozen jars glowing in the sun on a table covered with an heirloom quilt.
“Man, they are beautiful.”
A Utah tradition
Now, right here we need to tell you two things. First, Watterson is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, so she takes food storage seriously. The church urges members to keep a year's supply of food.
Watterson has two pantries, one for immediate use and another for long-term storage (including more peaches).
The second is that Watterson uses a different method for canning than the one the N.C. and U.S. agriculture departments prefer. Watterson is a native of Utah, where there is a tradition of canning with steam instead of boiling water.
The National Center for Home Food Preservation, which is supported by the USDA, only gives directions for water-bath and pressure canning, and some canning sites don't approve of steam canning because water-bath is more thoroughly tested. But Utah State University has tested it and says it is safe for high-acid foods such as fruit, as long as you follow USDA processing times. It shouldn't be used for low-acid foods such as vegetables and meat, which should always be canned using a pressure canner.
Watterson says she has tried water-bath canning and didn't like it. Water splashed everywhere, and she thought it was messier and more involved.
“I now know why nobody cans,” she said.
She uses an aluminum steam canner, which can be difficult to find, although they're sold on Web sites like amazon.com and canningpantry.com for $39.99.
A steam canner is a shallow pan with a rack and a deep lid that looks like an upside-down pot with two holes – Watterson calls it “the hat.”
You put 6 cups of water in the bottom pan and the filled jars on the rack. Then you cover it all with the top. It takes about 30 minutes to build up steam.
When the steam plume coming out the holes reaches 8 inches, you turn the heat down just a little to keep the jars from overheating and losing their liquid. Then you set a timer for 30 minutes (40 at higher elevations).
The advantage to steam canning is that it takes less water than water bath canning, the jars don't have to be hot when they go in the canner, and you don't have the hassle of pulling hot jars out of boiling water.
“If the bottom line is temperature, steam is hotter,” says Watterson. “Leave it to the Mormons to figure out a new way.”
‘Peaches for dummies'
Watterson's peach recipe is so simple, she calls it “peaches for dummies.” The trick is to make sure the peaches are fully ripe but not bruised. She buys a half-bushel about a week ahead, spreads them on her kitchen island, and fills jars as the peaches ripen.
“The hardest part is cleaning the kitchen the night before.” She does that with help from her husband, Paul. He's a plastic surgeon, so he knows a few things about cleanliness.
On a peach day, she runs jars through the dishwasher to make sure they're clean, then places them in one side of the empty sink and pours 1/4 cup of sugar into each.
She picks out peaches that are ready and drops them in boiling water for 30 seconds, then into ice water.
The skins slip off easily, leaving pristine peach flesh. She cuts each one in half, discarding the pit, and fits the halves into the jars.
She fills each jar with boiling water up to the bottom of the screw-top treads. She doesn't shake or stir the liquid; the sugar will dissolve as the jars cool.
She wipes each jar rim carefully, then tops it with a hot lid and screws on a band.
The jars go into the canner and in less than a hour, they're cooling.
Escape to the kitchen
“The whole reason I can peaches – August is so hot and miserable, but the kids have football camp, so I have to be here. So it's like a call to the kitchen.”
Actually, Watterson's two oldest sons are grown and away, one in El Salvador, the other in San Diego. The youngest, Michael, is a high school senior who's spending the last weeks of summer in football camp.
But for all three boys, Mom's peaches were a tradition. When they were little, she took them to pick peaches. Whenever someone had a late or busy night, they knew what dinner would be.
“Late at night, the kids come home and they're hungry. You pull out peaches and grilled cheese sandwiches and that's a meal.
“The real value is how we gather around the table.”
And that's really the secret to Cydne Watterson's peaches. It's not in the method, or the ripeness, or the cost.
“You want to bring a tradition forward. This is something grandmas did.
“When I give away a jar of peaches, I'm giving away a bit of myself and where I came from.
“I love that part.”