Everybody has that one friend or family member who gives out delicious homemade jams for gifts every December; adorable little mason jars of jewel-hued charm topped with a square of calico straight from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s sewing basket. Heart-warming, old-timey and sweet, just as often kept for decoration on countertops as actually eaten. Luckily that’s not what I’m going for when I can, because I would’ve driven myself insane by now.
My introduction to the world of home food preservation was at the hands of my sister-in-law back in 2008. We were on our summer vacation to Michigan to visit family. They had an enormous strawberry patch that fascinated our kids, pulling them back in for more until every inch of their skin was sticky and pink. We set both our broods to picking berries and she patiently taught me each step of the canning process. I was enthralled. She sent us home to Colorado with a 12-jar flat of strawberry jam, a few quarts of blackberries from their bushes and a 10lb box of blueberries from a friend. My first solo attempt resulted in scorched blueberry syrup that boiled over and permanently dyed part of the cabinet next to the stove. So I gave it another try, and this time it came out perfectly. I stood watching the row of jars after they came out of the water and waited, doing a tiny touchdown dance after each successfully sealed lid let out its unmistakable ::ping!::
That was it, I was hooked. I bought cherries at a butt-puckering $3.99/lb in order to make cherry-berry jam with the blackberries. Justin started helping on his days off, and pretty soon we added homemade pickle relish and dill spears to the growing line of mason jars in our makeshift pantry. I scanned the grocery fliers every Tuesday for the produce loss-leaders and wondered how we could preserve them. Fruit flies became a mainstay and our floor was perpetually sticky, boxes of pectin always stacked on the countertop ready for action. I burned things; getting waylaid by children, forgetting to turn the temperature down, and being of a generally ditsy and distractable nature all contributed. Slowly but surely I figured it out, and managed to successfully preserve more than I managed to wreck.
Canning really isn’t difficult, just painstaking. There is no room for experimentation in almost all recipes, or you’re risking improper processing and its BFF: food poisoning, particularly botulism. The amount of time your product spends in the boiling water of your water bath kettle or your pressure cooker depends on your altitude, the amount of air you leave between the top of the food in the jar and its lid depends on what you’re canning. Jar size and diameter of its opening depend on the same, as well as whether you want to be able to remove your final product without it looking like its already been chewed. It generates a crazy amount of dishes and pretty much puts your entire kitchen out of commission.
Tomatoes and peaches hold the title of biggest canning headaches in our home. Both have to be dunked into a rolling boil before a second swim in ice water, then their skins peeled away. This leads to the dreaded ‘tomato hands;’ symptoms of which include soft, ragged fingernails and prune palms. We’ve taken to using non-latex gloves not only for moisture barrier but for added grip, since accidentally squeezing the peach you just spent 3 minutes peeling and squirting it across your kitchen royally sucks.
Peaches require treatment with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to retain color, tomatoes require coring if their final destination is paste or sauce. A finished quart jar of whole tomatoes has an unsettling veiny spleen-ish appearance but tastes incredible compared to the bland, mealy diced tomatoes available at the grocery store (and its ability to double as a Halloween decoration is an added bonus! Dual-purpose is always a homesteading win.)
Apples are exponentially easier. A quick spin on the peeler-corer-slicer gadget and a few quick slices with a paring knife and they’re ready for either the food processor or a direct flight into the pot. Applesauce that actually tastes like apples and spiced apple butter are yearly must-haves in our house. Michigan is the third-largest apple producer in the country, and truly fresh apples are available at roadside stands all over the place for prices worthy of stocking up. We’re lucky enough to have the ultimate hook-up; family with peach & apple orchards and thornless blackberry bushes, all free for the picking. There’s nothing like a canning bee where you can sweat in the sun together, curse at uncooperative fruit together, throw peach pits at each other and take a mandatory drink of your malt beverage every time a jar seals.
Raw-pack pickling is one of the easier canning processes, and my personal favorite. After the usual wash and slice, your vegetable/fruit spears/slices/whatever get packed into hot jars and the pickling brine ladled in. A quick wipe of the jar’s threads and application of the lid and band, a relatively short boil in a standard water-bath kettle and boom- pickles worthy of serving, gifting, bartering, or just feeling like a bonafide preservation badass while you crunch them on your couch in your underwear.
I’ve always wanted to branch out into pressure canning, using a pressure cooker to process low-acid foods like corn, green beans, meats and other things. However, the draw of homemade jerky and fruit leather won out and we bought a 9-tray dehydrator with the pressure canner funds. So instead I’m working on adding more variety to the usual repertoire with a blueberry-basil jam, watermelon jelly, homemade steak sauce and Harissa (so far.) All have turned out pretty well, and pressure canning can always be conquered next spring anyways.
Interested in learning how to can? Here are a few good places to start:
*The Ball Blue Book. (Not to be confused with The Blue Ball Book… I’m sure there’s one out there.) Ball brand mason jars are the classic, and their Blue Book is like Canning 101. A great book to pick up for relatively cheap, so if you decide to go back to Smuckers-ville you’re not out a lot of money. Ball also has The Ball Guide To Home Preserving;’ this is my go-to book for canning and fruit leather recipes. A must-have!
*Pinterest. An amazing source for all sorts of canning recipes, from über-basic to WAY off the beaten path. Sometimes the cutesy-factor gets nauseating but all in all, a good place for info and inspiration (which you’ll need, if you decided to buy 35lbs of Kirby pickling cucumbers during a very busy week thinking you could find time to get them all processed during your spare time. Guilty.)
*www.pickyourown.org. Want freshness that’s guaranteed? Then use this site’s database to find local produce and go play farmer for an afternoon. Once your kitchen is piled knee-deep in fresh hippie time bombs start sifting through their recipe listings; they also have photo tutorials on various canning methods and techniques.
*YouTube. Wondering if there are any improvements you could make to your jelly bag technique? Well hey, it’s your lucky day! All of the knowledge and none of the dishes.
*Shared to the Heritage Homesteaders blog hop, February 2014!