Friday, September 14, 2012

Twelve Tips for Canning

It’s been a while since I have posted but have no doubts, the workshop lives on; I’ve just been preoccupied with getting pregnant as a surrogate!  I haven’t been tinkering with the house too much but my family’s need to eat food and my desire to stock up on nutritious vegies and fruits now, while the pickings are ripe has not diminished in the slightest.  With summer two thirds over, canning season is in full swing. 

Here are some general, random tips and ideas that I have found make it easier for me to process summer’s bounty.  Canning and preserving can seem daunting but the more you do it and the more tricks and methods you tap into, the easier it will become, I promise.

A few things I have learned –

Start simple.  Pressure canning is not that hard but water bath canning is EASY and you can do it with a big pot you already have or a not too expensive water bath canner.  You can use the water bath with anything acidic enough or that you can make acidic enough with a little lemon, citric acid or vinegar.  Think pickles, tomatoes, jellies and fruit, dilly beans and pickled vegetables.   Once you are comfortable with handling the jars, your timing and routine, venture to the pressure cooker which is good for anything with meat in it including broths, and things like green beans, peas, peppers, potatoes, squash and corn.  Also, start with simple recipes that you can easily obtain the ingredients for.

I love when I look at a recipe and already have most of the ingredients.  You will always find stocked in my house, tons of fresh garlic heads, dried red peppers, vinegar, alum and many spices.   My grandma says you don’t have to use pickling salt so you don’t.  I just use my sea salt in most recipes.

Keep your canning supplies close by.  If you are like me, you don’t need anything to detour you.  Having to fish for supplies from the attic is a big project stopper for me.  Try to keep your supplies all in one place and easy to get to. 

Using fresh ingredients and recipes you like is crucial.  If it doesn’t taste good before canning, it won’t taste good after.   If your tomatoes are bland ahead of time, cooking them isn’t going to give you good flavored tomato sauce.  If your green beans are stringy and your cucumbers are soft, they will be stringy and soft after canning.  If you purchase your veggies and fruits by the case at a store, farm or market, don’t be afraid to open the box and dig thorough it.  If things are overly wilted, moldy or not looking good don’t waste your time.

Can enough to make it worth your while.  If you are going to go to the trouble to get everything out, do more than 4 jars worth.  For water bath canning I like to do at least two or three batches, each batch containing seven jars.  For Pressure canning one or two batches (7 or 14 jars) is plenty since it takes longer.

Don’t can too much at a time.  One time I went to buy two boxes of green beans and they threw in two more for free.  My first clue should have been that they were trying to get rid of the beans.  They were too large and had been off the plant for too long.  Add to that that it took me two days to snap them and by the time they were processed, the quality wasn’t that terrific.  If canning takes over my life, like I have to stop everything for one or two solid days, it becomes unsustainable and I won’t can again for a long time.  I’d rather do smaller batches and fit it in as I go about my day than have to set aside whole days.  While canning does take time, I still have to get all the other stuff around the house and with the kids done so it can’t become too all consuming.

Have the kids help.  I don’t like kids in the kitchen so much when I’m pounding stuff out and it can be dangerous once you’re really going but there is no reason kids can’t snap beans and pull strawberry tops off and it will save you ton of time to have extra help with those tasks. 

Take more than just one day for tomato sauce and paste.  This is a real time consuming task and watched tomato sauce does not reduce.  Put your pot on medium low and go about your business.  Can the sauce or paste the next day.  I’ve even kept it on low over night to reduce.

Figure out your goal and work accordingly.  If you want fancy chutney to divvy out for Christmas then search for a perfect recipe and go for it!  Get cute jars and when it’s finished cover the lid with a piece of cloth and a bow made of twine.

If you want to save money, preserve your garden's bounty or afford to eat a better product, focus on what you use in the kitchen.  You can only eat so much jelly in a year.  There are so many fun recipes that I would love to try but by the time I finish canning the stuff I need to fill my pantry with for everyday use I don’t usually have time for cranberry mustard or zinfandel jelly.  That said, there is usually something I have canned each year that is worthy of giving to teachers and friends and family for gifts like blueberry conserve and peach salsa.  I get a lot out of supplying the family with food I believe in first and foremost.  One day I will make the time for more fun stuff like the sliced jalapeños mixed with pineapple chunks my friend gave me that was to die for!

Don’t compromise on your standards, if you are not comfortable with twelve cups of sugar in a recipe than figure out how to do it without the sugar or find a different recipe.

If you are sharing your goods, don’t be shy to ask for your jars back.  You could just say something like, “If you don’t have a use for the jar when you’re done, I’ll take it back so I can reuse it.”  I don't do this with teachers but friends and family are fair game.  Also don’t give your food to people who won’t eat it or appreciate it for what it is.  You know who I’m talking about.

Be on the lookout for inexpensive canning supplies.  This is a given but it’s worth saying.  There are sales on jars and lids and equipment all the time.  You might also have luck buying used equipment.  Thrift stores are descent places to pick up jars, just check to make sure they are not chipped.

At the end of every summer I buy these beautiful colorful cut Dahlias that come in a quart jar from a cute stand on the side of the road for $3 and justify it because I am not only getting beautiful flowers but I’m adding to my jar collection!  The honey I buy also comes in reusable jars - bonus!

Canning, drinking and loud music go great together.  Grab a glass of wine.  If you are a person who drinks, a long night of canning is the perfect time to crank the music and sip on a beverage in between steps.  

If you have young children, go easy on yourself.  I mean, we should all go easy on ourselves and canning should be fun.  But if you have a baby at home consider lowering your standards for how much you want to can.  You can only strap a baby to your back for so much of the canning process.  If you are pressure canning consider doing it after baby is in bed for the night (ya, like that's a guaranteed break, right?) and be prepared to be tired the next day or pressure can while someone else is watching him.  Trust me, it will get easier as the kids get older.  I think when we have young children is often when we start to want to be more self reliant and more conscientious of our food but unless you will starve if you don't can in the summer, relax and just get done what you are able. 

Happy canning!  I hope to get with it and post a few of the simple recipes I use.  There is nothing special about any of them but if I can inspire or give confidence to anyone or share ideas, than I am pleased.  It is such a remarkable feeling to be able to preserve you own food and can what is local and fresh from farmers you trust.  

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