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Introduction to Canning

So, you want to get started with canning. When the DH and I were first married, we lived in a house that did not have a freezer and the freezer in the fridge was teeny. How could we put food by? We got a book, bought some equipment and got into the ‘pick yer own/ can yer own’ thing. Someplace in the house is a photograph of our kitchen table, so overburdened with jars of canned stuff that it was bowed down in the middle. We didn’t have a lot of cupboard space, either so we used to store all the boxes of the canned goods under the bed. There is truly no feeling so secure as lying in bed while there is a blizzard going on outside and you know that you have at least enough food to probably last you until spring.

So, what can you put into a jar and process vs. what doesn’t work really well processed in a jar?

Well, anything you can find in your grocery store that comes already in a can will work well for you. Think about what you pick up from the shelves at your supermarket – whatever it is – YOU can do that, too, whether it is your own ‘bread and butter pickles’ or spaghetti sauce or beans or zucchini with mushrooms and onions in tomato sauce or apple pie filling or blueberries or whatever you want. The DH and I once, early in our married life found a terrific deal on chickens and we cut them up into pieces, put them in jars with broth and made canned chickens – the meat was rather soft, I admit – it was really only good for things like chicken salad sandwiches or chicken and biscuits later on, but it was there.

Canning, however, does not work for everything. Think of the things that you can’t find in cans in the store and only find in the freezer case: broccoli is one. On the other hand, many many things can be frozen – but they really don’t taste as good as canned – green beans is one of them. Frozen fruits are great…but not as good as canned (the only exception Aunt Toby has found is strawberries; the only way I can preserve strawberries in the jar is to make…strawberry preserves; plain old sliced up strawberries really work better as a frozen product. And frankly, I’d rather just eat them fresh).

As exotic as sticking stuff into jars and processing them sounds, remember something: This is one of the methods that people used to ‘put things by’ before there was such a thing as home freezers. And it really is pretty fail-safe. If a jar loses its seal – you can pretty much tell as soon as you pick it up off the shelf – remember that ‘push the button’ on the center of the lid? If that happens, throw that product away. It is no good. On the other side after you’ve processed the jar and put it on the shelf, if the lid is bulging at all, that’s another key that there are bacteria growing in the jar and generating gas – that jar is not safe to eat – open it up, throw the contents down the toilet. You can wash out the jar and use that again, but not the lid.

The key to canning safely is three things: clean good quality food, clean jars, clean lids and the whole thing processed properly. Trust me – the DH and I did not come from families that canned – we learned everything from out of a book and no one at Chez Siberia has gotten sick yet. In this photograph, you see the beginnings of the process: The person doing this has washed the jars really well and is draining them before putting them into the oven to heat them up. What we’re also not seeing is a pot of water on the stove with the lids and bands in it heating up, nor are we seeing the bowls of fruit, or veggies or chili or soup, or stew that is ready for putting into the jars, to be sealed up, put into the canner and processed. But let that picture remind you of THE most important thing in terms of food safety: clean, good quality food, clean (and hot) jars, lids and bands, and following the processing instructions(which will run something like “process for xx minutes at yy pounds of pressure”).

A short piece of ‘extreme bias’ here — Pressure canner vs. ‘water bath canner’. Water bath canning is a huge pot of water on your stove that you put the jars in, cover the pot and just keep the water at a certain temperature for a certain period of time. IT ACTUALLY CAN ONLY BE USED FOR ACID FOODS LIKE TOMATOES. Not pink or yellow or orange tomatoes, mind you (those are low acid types) – and even red ones might not be acid enough. And if you mix your tomatoes with something else, like onions or zuccini, it’s not safe at all. The pots are huge things. I used them early on, but never liked it and now we don’t have the space for the pots. At the same time, the prime time to can is summer – using a water bath canner releases a huge amount of moisture and heat into the kitchen. A pressure canner is a much better idea: uses less energy, does not release all that heat and humidity, and you can use it for everything: green beans, meat sauce, tomatoes, fruit, meat. Everything. Why keep space for two different technologies when one will do all the job?

Here are some resources to help you get started, whether it is finding supplies, recipes, books, and so on.

Supplies and Canner Parts:
Cooking and Canning
Canning Pantry
Pick Your Own – Canning Supplies
Store It Foods – Canning

Canning Instructions and Videos:
All About Canning
Canning Videos 1
Canning Videos 2

Canning Recipes1
Canning Recipes2

One of the things you will want to know to get started is – how much xxx do I want to end up with? Not that you want to sit down and think, “How many big cans of tomatoes do I use in a year?” – you’d be canning tomatoes forever. But if you want a case of quarts of canned tomatoes, you will need to get your head around some basic measures so that whether you buy at the farmers market, go and pick your own or whatever, you will have a pretty decent idea of how many jars you will end up with. Here is a great charge that shows how many pounds are in a bushel of xxx. Scroll down from the top to find the fruits and veggies section.How much is in a bushel?

Really do get a good canning book; it is worth it to have on the shelf. Now my favorite book, which I got years ago, Farm Journal’s Freezing and Canning Cookbook, (and by the way, any book that you find put out by Farm Journal is worth having, so try used book sites, etc. to find them because I think they are OOP) says, for example, that for a bushel of tomatoes(which weighs about 53 pounds), you will get 20 canned quarts. A bushel of green snap beans, 15-20 canned quarts. So, think about what you want to end up with so that you don’t end up standing in a steaming kitchen at 2 a.m. and cursing yourself.

The other thing to think about is this: When you are doing your own processing, you are in complete control of what goes into that jar. One of the things is energy – no matter what happens later, the only energy you have used is the electricity or LP (or whatever form of heat you use) used with the canning process. After that, you are not using any energy to keep that food safe. One time energy use — unlike freezing where you continue to use energy in the freezer until you take the food out to eat it. Secondly, all food made in a pressure canner has been ‘cooked in the jar’ – if you had no energy, you could still open it up and eat it. Again. one time energy use. Second control is food quality: If you don’t want salt in your canned beans, you don’t need to put it in – you are using a pressure canner, so you don’t need salt for that (making pickled things is another issue). If you don’t want to can your fruit with syrups, you don’t have to – you can process them with plain water(and they actually make a really tasty juice that way, too). If you want to put a clove of garlic in the jar with the beans, you can do that (and by the way, it tastes great that way). But the other part of this is the quality of the stuff that is going into the jar. Commercial processors are not going through the beans one by one or even combing through the bushels. What comes out of the can is never better than what goes INTO it – so make sure that when you buy or pick your fruits, veggies, meats, etc. that they are the freshest you can get. Make sure you also wash everything really really well (organic doesn’t necessarily mean ‘spotlessly clean’). If you pick a tomato out of the bushel and there is a spot on it, even if it’s been washed – cut it out. Make sure that the product that you are putting into the jar and processing has its best chance of tasting fantastic when you open that jar back up. If you are processing stone fruits – peaches, cherries and so forth, make sure you get all the pits out (and with peaches, you are also going to want to dip them in boiling water for a bit and then into ice water to loosen up the skins so that you can take those off and get rid of them before you cut up the peaches and put them into the jars).

When you have finished with processing, and the jars are all cool and you’ve wiped them off with a damp cloth or a sponge, you can then put them away. If you don’t have a celler to store them, put the jars right back into the case boxes that you bought them in and label them so that you know what you have and when you made them. Put the cases into a closet, under the livingroom couch or your bed..wherever you can room to stash them. It’s your private food bank account. No matter what happens in terms of storms when you can’t get to the grocery store or losing your power, you’ve got a whole lot of food that is already pre-cooked, safe and edible.

Bon Appetit!
(photograph courtesy of Baha’i Views)

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  1. Votus says:

    This is just what I needed! Thank you, Toby.

  2. Votus says:

    Is there some special player I need to install to watch these videos? I’ve tried a couple of times to watch them and I got this message: “Playback of this video failed. Please try again a little later on.” When I did try later, I got the same message.

  3. Toby Wollin says:

    Votus – it’s flash based – I took them with a Flip camera and I used flickr to get them onto the site…

  4. Votus says:

    Toby–I got it figured out. I couldn’t get it to play with Firefox, but it worked fine with Internet Explorer.

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