Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dig In - Canning

Can you can?  I think you can.  Can.  If you decide you want to.  So let's talk about it.

If you are going to eat local and eat well in the Upper Midwest, then sooner or later you will need to embrace home food preservation - on some level.  I know, I know.  You are barely keeping your head above water just putting meals on the table - on a regular basis - with seasonal fresh vegetables.  You probably are already feeling a little bad about not having time to deal with something that is getting old in the back of your vegetable bin.  (For me it is one giant beet.  It is fine but it isn't getting any younger.  It eyes me reproachfully every time I reach in and pull out some purple beans or a broccoli spear or cucumber.  Soon.  Soon I will get to the beet. It is also possible that I will fail.  And that the beet will end up in the compost.  I hate it when that happens.  But it is not the end of the world now, is it?)

You might be asking yourself - how can I possibly pull off food preservation?  Maybe a little corn freezing.  But CANNING?  Is she nuts?  (If you think I am nuts now - wait until we get to fermentation.  I am saving that for the fall.  You'll be more ready.) 

Do I have time?   Is it too complicated?  What are the chances that I will poison somebody?  Why should I even worry about canning since I can get anything I need at the grocery store?  These are reasonable questions.   Probably the best way to answer them is to spend a little time on "how" part of canning.  Like anything else, if you take it one step at a time it is manageable and not scary at all. It might even be exhilarating.   You know the old saying - a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.   Take a few steps forward.  See how it feels.  If you like it -- keep moving.

Decide that canning is something worth doing
So what is a first step?   Think about all the benefits of home canning.  Think about the fact that this takes some time and effort - no doubt about it.   Is this something you are motivated to do?  If not - that is ok.  Maybe stick to freezing for a while.  Or get a food dehydrator.   Or just keep cooking what is in season.  Get a winter share from Featherstone Farm, and decide that tomatoes are for summer.

I went to a canning class yesterday put on in Winona by the University of Minnesota Extension Service.  Here are some of the reasons the people in the class gave for why they like to can or are interested in doing more canning:
  • Home canned food tastes better.  
  • You control the contents of the jar and can buy or grow food based on what is important to you, such as avoiding pesticides or supporting local farmers. 
  • You can feel the pride of a job well done and have the satisfaction of knowing that you have valuable knowledge and skills that increase your self reliance.
  • You will always have gifts on hand that will be both useful and appreciated.
  • You will save money.  
  • You can create or continue family traditions, recipes and memories.  Some families look forward to events for canning tomatoes or freezing corn or drying apples just like they look forward to holidays.
  • You can enjoy the feeling of security and convenience that comes with knowing that you have plenty of food in the larder.
  • You can find recipes that suit your own personal tastes and preferences. 
If you are still not convinced, see what the Ball canning jar people say in answer to the question Why should I can?

This is why I preserve food
 Last year my husband and I made apple juice and canned it.  We also made grape juice, which we froze.  When our grandsons visited a few weeks ago they tried both.  Sam, the 5 year old, said without prompting "This is the best apple juice I have ever tasted."   BINGO!  This made every moment of work worth it.  Both Sam and his brother Wes also enjoyed their grape juice.
-Grandpa's grape juice makes me happy and healthy.

I love Grandma's homemade grape juice.
First steps
Once you have decided that canning is worth trying - or that you would like to expand beyond your current canning activity level -- then what?

Get a good book about canning
I cannot possibly tell you everything you need to know in a humble blog.  We are talking safety and science here.  Fresh food has enzymes.  Bacteria are in the air.   Food decays unless that natural process is halted.  If you are going to preserve food you need to think about temperature, acidity, oxygen and moisture.  This is not that hard - but there are a lot of details that cannot be ignored.

You will need some written materials to guide you. I have a lot of cool old canning books and guides, but thanks to Suzanne Driessen at the U of M  I am now persuaded that I need to assemble some new materials.  The world of home canning has changed a lot since I started canning in 1970.  1994 was a key year - that is when all the "experts" decided to update all kinds of protocols about temperatures, canning times, acidity levels - you name it.  So get at least one good book or pamphlet that was published after 1994.

A word to the wise
I caution you against just going out on the Internet and finding some site that looks fun or interesting.
When it comes to canning, you really do need to follow instructions.  I normally chafe at rigid cooking rules - but with home food preservation I am convinced that you need to toe the line.  Stick to trusted sources and follow directions and you will have nothing to worry about.  You can download free materials - but make sure you  stick to reliable and authoritative sources when it comes to both recipes and techniques. 

Sources for reliable information

National Center for Home Food Preservation -  If you are even slightly interested in exploring the wonders of home food preservation, bookmark this site.  The link here will take you to a list of their publications, as well as publications of the University of Georgia, which as far as I can tell is the go-to place for home food preservation information.  You can download specialized fact sheets depending on the project you want to undertake.  I am going to purchase a copy of So Easy to Preserve, 5th edition, for $18.00.  It contains the latest recommendations from the USDA and lots of step by step instructions. You can print a copy of the order form here.

United States Department of Agriculture
Here is the link to the 2009 USDA canning guide.  You can download it for free.  If you want to buy a hard copy there is information at this link for how to order it from Purdue University.  I am going to do this too.

University Extension Services and the Answer Line
The University of Minnesota has excellent resources to help you learn about home food preservation.
See this link for a list of fact sheets.  If you have particular questions and would like to talk one to one with an expert, you can call the Answer Line 1-800-854-1678 Mon-Friday 9-12 and 1-4 or leave a message.  This program is run by Iowa State University and Minnesota Extension helps pay for it so YOU can use it.  Our tax dollars at work.

Canning supply companies
Another book I am going to get is the most recent Ball canning guide.  I have seen it and it is very user friendly.  It is also very inexpensive.  Here is where you can get it online.  (The Fresh Preserving website is a great resource.)  I think you can also find it at good hardware stores or places like Fleet Farm.  Right here, for only $5.99, you can order the 100th anniversary edition of the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving.

I hope this preliminary discussion has piqued your interest.  Now I have to go.  I need to get organized because today I am going to can some tomatoes - just so I can show you how to do it in tomorrow's Hands On post. 

1 comment:

  1. So much information and encouragement!
    Thanks for putting so much into helping others figure out food.