I drive 5 hours to harvest concord grapes for canning grape juice. It’s worth it to get 100 quarts of canned juice that lasts us all year long.
Childhood grape picking
I grew up in upstate NY (vineyard country) and in my early childhood we went every year to pick grapes for my mom to juice and can. I do not remember her doing any other regular canning (or gardening), but real concord grape juice was an essential in my early childhood home.
Homesteader looking for grapes to pick
Fast forward to about 5 years ago when we moved to our little homestead here in Maryland. I started wishing that I could find a local place that sold or would let us come and pick Concord grapes. I googled and called every vineyard within a 100 mile radius and found exactly zero places that I could come pick or buy Concords (for a reasonable price). Most places wanted table grape prices — about $3.00 per pound. I decided that it was worth it to “return to my roots” for this particular crop, and so began our annual tradition of heading up to Naples, NY for grape picking. At last check Jerome’s U-pick grapes were $0.40 per pound when you buy 200 lbs or more.
Concord grapes are available for picking the last weeks of September and first week of October. They are considered a blue grape and useful for eating, juicing, pie, and jelly. Concords are a “slip-skin” grape which means the peel easily pops off the pulp. They have a sweet tart flavor very different from the usual table grapes.
How to pick and transport grapes
Jerome’s usually has some scissors available to borrow for picking. Since we have a lot of littles helping, I like to have them each bring their own pair. The youngest ones use elementary school scissors and they work fine.
It usually takes us about 2 hours of picking and 4 wagon loads to bring all of our grapes to the big scale for 250 pounds worth. It’s hard to say exactly how many pounds that you need to pick to get 100 quarts of juice. It all depends how juicy the grapes are or in other words, how much rain they were watered with. Usually around 250 lbs will give you 100 quarts of juice.
I learned through trial and error what the best way was to transport 200 pounds of grapes on a 5 hour road trip. Even for a short trip, it’s important to understand that grapes piled on top of each other will juice themselves. Gathering them into the usual half bushel cardboard fruit boxes is okay for stacking up in the back of the car, but the grapes in the bottom of the box will start leaking juice and the bottom of the box can get quite wet and mushy. Not to mention some of the juice might ooze out of the boxes into your trunk (trust me on that, I know!)
We now bring our own small plastic rubbermaid type boxes for picking into and transporting. They are reusable, have lids, and can be stacked. The lids are important because bees and hornets love grapes and inevitably a few get trapped in the bins. We would rather have them be in there than whizzing around scaring kids inside the car.
How I juice and can the grapes
When we get home I get right to work juicing the grapes. It usually takes two long days of steamer juicing to get all the grape juice canned.
I have two steamer juicers. Once is an older model that a sweet friend at church handed down to me. I like it slightly better because I don’t have to tip it up to get the last of the juice out of the middle pan. It also seems to not need to have its steaming water refilled as often. Though I’m not sure why that is. The new model I use is this one, a Norpro 619 from Amazon. (I’m shocked by the price though. It was only 80 dollars four years ago when I bought mine). It works just fine.
The beauty of the steamer juicer is that the only prep work required is to rinse the grapes and fill the steamer water. It’s very easy to load up the top strainer with grapes and set the timer for 45 minutes.
I am normally a very “by the book” canner. Grape juice is a little different than anything else that I can though.
- It is naturally very acidic
- It leaves the juicer boiling hot. It’s important to be careful not to burn yourself on the juice or the steam. It is so incredibly hot.
- It goes directly from the juicer into hot sterile jars. I keep my jars warm in a 220 degree oven. I place them upside down in casserole dishes with about a half inch of water in the bottom (as I was taught 20 years ago in my first and only canning class). They should sit like that in the oven for about 15 minutes to be sterilized. I take out 2-3 hot jars at a time.
- I wipe the rims with vinegar and place hot sterile lids directly on the full steaming jars.
- They seal on the counter rather than in a boiling water bath.
How I use the leftover grape pulp
It would be an absolute shame to waste all the beautiful pulp leftover from juicing the grapes. And have you ever tried real concord grape jam? It is my kids favorite and bears no resemblance whatsoever to the grape goo that they sell in grocery stores.
I have to confess that shortly after I took this picture I broke this mesh strainer. Such a silly thing to do, uggh. I was very annoyed with myself and the machine. I learned later from my sister that I should have been using the grape spiral. Oops. I am all ready with one of those for this years jam making though. Live and learn.
I followed the Ball Canning directions for grape jam making — adding sugar and pectin to about 20 cups of this beautiful grape sauce. I hear grape pulp also makes delicious fruit leather. I did not get to try that though because I only got 20 cups before my machine broke. In previous years I pushed the pulp through a strainer by hand so I did not do any more than we needed for jam. Hopefully, I can update this with some fruit leather pictures next year!