“Maybe next year” was a response I received from many of my friends after hearing my adventures with canning this past summer. There seems to be a surge of interest in canning everywhere, not just among my friends. I notice more stores carrying canning equipment and there are many bloggers dedicated to canning. I think this increased interest is directly correlated with interest in organic, local, and whole foods and increased interest in shopping at farmers markets; according to the USDA there were 16% more farmers markets in 2010 than 2009.
The benefits of canning are numerous. You can pick your own produce by whatever is important to you: local and in season, organic, or heirloom; the jars are glass (instead of BPA lined cans, although canning lids may contain BPA as well); it reduces waste as jars can be reused year after year unlike commercial cans which must be recycled. And, just like any type of cooking, once you cook something yourself for the first time (let’s say salsa, hummus, or barbecue sauce), you understand which ingredients need to be there and which ingredients exist for some other reason – probably to benefit the manufacturer, not the consumer (think high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated anything.) I find this makes it easier to find higher quality products at the grocery store when I can’t make them myself.
Two years ago, when I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle I made it a goal to learn to can. This was the second summer my mom and I canned together. Here are our lessons learned:
1. Get a good canning book, or maybe two. My mom and I referenced two books, the first by Better Homes and Gardens, You Can Can and the second, The Complete Book of Home Preserving by Ball.
You Can Can has a great introductory section that introduces the reader to both water bath canning equipment and pressure canning equipment and briefly describes the science of home canning in addition to describing the methods, step by step. The book has large color photos of each recipe, and, from what I can tell so far, the recipes taste great.
The Complete Book of Home Preserving has fewer pictures, but contains more recipes. We used this book for its recipes for both years, and my mom for more years, and have been very happy with the results.
2. Know your farmers market. Canning takes a LOT of fruits and vegetables. Unless you have more time, land, luck or better climate than I do, you’ll most likely need to supplement your homegrown goodies with fruits and veggies from your farmers market. It’s good to be familiar with the market, what they offer, and who the farmers are.
My mom and I visited multiple farmers markets this summer. Our least favorite was, unfortunately, Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. Our favorite was the Olympia Farmers Market. At Olympia Farmers Market there is a fantastic pepper stand, sweet peppers on one side, hot peppers on the other (I’m kicking myself right now for not having taken a picture of it). The sellers at Olympia Farmers Market are closely tied to the farm, whereas the sellers at Pike Place Market, at least the people we talked to, were essentially middle men, collecting produce from many farms, including farms as far away as Hawaii and California.
3. Plan your shopping carefully. Before shopping, analyze the yield of each recipe. I think it’s disappointing to spend several hours on a recipe, including shopping, chopping, measuring, cooking, canning, and cleaning, to find that the recipe only yields five pints. Which, if you are canning with a friend, you have to figure out how to split in two! You may need larger pots for doubling, and sometimes tripling or quadrupling recipes, but it’s not much more work.
Keep in mind, if you increase recipes, that you must increase every ingredient proportionally. Canning recipes must be followed exactly. This assures cooking time is adequate for the pH of the recipe. Any change to the recipe could alter the pH and therefore affect the safety of the food.
Also cumbersome, if you are using multiple recipes, especially from different books, ingredients are often measured with different units. For example, green peppers may be measured by the each, the pound, or the cup. If one recipe calls for a ½ pound of green peppers and another calls for 1 cup of chopped peppers, good luck figuring out how many green peppers you need to buy! Make your best estimate, and then get a little extra, and you should be okay.
4. Have a backup plan. Have a backup list of ingredients, or better yet bring your cookbooks with you to the farmers market. Sometimes you will need an ingredient that is not available at your farmers market; it’s nice to be able to change plans on the fly. For example, my mom and I wanted to make green tomato salsa, but we had trouble finding green tomatoes. We were able to switch recipes at the last minute and utilize ingredients we’d already bought because we had our recipes with us while we were shopping.
5. Can with a friend. No doubt canning is a lot of work, but as an effort shared with family or friends, canning can be a rewarding weekend adventure that pays dividends all winter long! There’s a lot of cleaning, chopping, measuring, and stirring. I suppose some folks probably find time, and enjoy canning enough, to do it on their own, but for the newbie I would definitely recommend finding a friend to can with.
6. Get the right tools. The equipment for canning is fairly inexpensive. You Can Can has a section called “Canning Basics” that lists, and shows pictures of, the basic tools you will need for boiling-water canning (high acid foods) and pressure canning (low acid foods). For boiling-water canning you can easily get away with a very large covered pot instead of a dedicated boiling water canner (I use a beer-brewing pot – a nice multi-tasker!), just make sure to place a rack at the bottom of the canner to avoid glass jars being in direct contact with the heat source. Many recipes call for boiling-water canning. I’d recommend starting here before buying a pressure canner.
If you do can with a friend, you’ll need all of the biggest pots and measuring cups that you each can supply. Other tools that may be handy are chef knives for everyone to use, rubber clothes for chopping hot peppers (highly recommended!!) and an immersion blender which is convenient for smoothing things like barbecue sauce.
One last note, don’t skimp on buying a jar lifter. You may be able to MacGyver a system for getting jars out of boiling water for a while, but eventually you will probably fail and end up with a trip to urgent care. Avoid this.