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Canning Food – A Neophyte’s Perspective

Posted Sep 26 2013 4:46pm

My first exposure to canning came early in my relationship with Dave.  He’s from Michigan, and every fall we took the kids apple picking in his home state.  (He was still living there until early 2000 so originally we’d go to his apartment in Buchanan and travel to local orchards from there.)  The kids were always enthusiastic and we’d bring back huge quantities of apples.

The first year, as we stood in the kitchen surrounded by sacks and boxes of apples, I realized we could not possibly eat enough fresh apples, apple pie or apple crisp to get through them all before they went bad.  Dave, however, didn’t even blink an eye.  The next day he put us all to work, peeling and slicing apples.  Then he made applesauce.

Up ’til then, I was a Motts girl.  It really never occurred to me that you could make your own applesauce; why would you, when you could buy it in the store?  Then we tasted Dave’s applesauce.  The kids went NUTS and I was just stunned into silence, it was that good.  We probably could have finished all his applesauce between the four of us, but he took it a step further and brought up canning jars from our candle workshop.  (Clean jars, not ones we’d made candles in!)  He set to work canning all but one quart of applesauce, and at the end of the weekend we had enough applesauce and apple slices canned to last us until the following autumn.

I didn’t participate in the canning; he kind of shooed me out of the kitchen and I was only too happy to oblige.  Like gardening, I figured this was his domain.  It felt a little like witchcraft, with the boiling cauldron and possibility of grave bodily harm if done incorrectly.  Better him than me!

Canning wasn’t something he did every fall, but he’d pull the equipment out every few years and can some goodies.  Once we started gardening more (a few years ago) he started canning tomatoes every year in late August or September.  The tomatoes were really a godsend – the flavor was incredible, and we use store-bought canned tomatoes ALL the time so we went through our home-canned tomatoes fairly quickly.

Around the start of August this year, Dave got that gleam in his eye and started talking about all the things he wanted to make with our tomatoes, canning-wise.  I had tried to get more involved with the garden this year, but it just isn’t my thing; my participation pretty much involved helping pick out the seeds we ordered, and helping with the initial seed planting in little peat pots.  Dave took over from there and I, having lost interest at that point, was only too happy to let him.

But canning … canning is more on the cooking spectrum, and I love to cook.  I realized this might be something we could do together, something I wouldn’t wimp out on less than halfway through.  So I told Dave I wanted him to teach me all about canning this year.  No shooing me out of the kitchen!

We stopped at Goodwill and I was lucky enough to find a great book for just 89 cents –Blue Ribbon Preserves by Linda Amendt.  I sat down and read the whole first section, before the recipes, so I could really understand what was involved and why certain procedures were followed.  I started learning the lingo (Headspace!  Hot and cold pack!  Boiling water and pressure canners!) and as I read, I realized it wasn’t as hard as I originally thought.

Speaking as a complete neophyte, here are some of the things I learned:

The lids, those round things with the red rubber around the bottom, don’t get reused.

The rings, the part that screws on, come off after processing is done and you can reuse them on your next batch of jars (after you clean them, of course).

Confession:  I keep calling everything ‘lids’ and confusing Dave.  I’ll say, “Hon, can you get me some lids from the dishwasher?” when I really mean rings.  (The lids stay in a little pot of water on the stove, simmering, and get pulled out one at a time as you need them.)

When we went shopping for our canning supplies this year, I laughed at the idea of using a lid wand (a plastic stick with a magnet at the end).  It was only 97 cents but I thought that was ridiculous.  (Even funnier considering we were buying a pressure canner at the time … 97 cents was a pittance compared to what that cost!)  After our first canning session, I turned to Dave and pleaded, “PLEASE can we go back and buy a lid wand?!”  Ugh, trying to get those slippery lids out with tongs is a huge pain.  Pay the 97 cents and get the lid wand!

You can’t just can your own recipes.  I had no idea how this all worked, but recipes need to be tested for a certain acidity to determine their safety when canning.  It’s worth it to buy a specific book with canning recipes (check Goodwill).  Another great recipe resource is the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving.  We got our (current) copy when we bought our canning supplies at Wal-Mart; it was less than seven bucks.  Don’t try to mess with the recipes!  You can add dry spices fairly safely, but anything else is playing with fire.  This is not the time to get creative; follow the recipe as it’s written so you don’t mess with the acidity level and accidentally serve a big batch o’ botulism to your dinner guests.

Canning is NOT hard.  I mean, seriously – not rocket science.  You just have to follow the rules; there’s not that many of them and they aren’t hard to remember.  Follow your recipe and you’re good to go – it will tell you everything you need to know, and the best method for processing your food, so there’s no guesswork.

It’s not hard, but it is time-consuming.  More than once so far we’ve had grand plans for the day (we’ll can glazed carrots AND apple slices AND apple jelly AND caramel apple butter wheeee!!) and then after one batch is done, we realize it’s halfway through the afternoon and Dave’s eyes are shutting.  (He’s a morning person and prefers to do all of this earlier in the day; by 2 pm he’s ready for a nap.)

If the recipe says you have to pressure can the jars, you can’t use a boiling water canner.  You also can’t use a regular pressure cooker; it has to specifically be a pressure CANNER.  (The pressure canner, however, can do triple duty:  it serves as a canner, pressure cooker, and boiling water canner.)  Pressure canning is not scary for us; I use a pressure cooker fairly regularly so I’m used to how they work.  It’s just on a bigger scale.

You don’t need fancy equipment to can, so it’s budget-friendly after the first big expenditure to buy what you need.  Since we wanted to can veggies, we did buy the pressure canner (you need that for low-acid foods) and that was our biggest expense, at less than 70 bucks.  We already had a lot of jars and lids/rings, a jar lifter, funnel, food mill, sieve and a water bath canner with rack (found that at Goodwill).  We did buy the bubble remover/headspace measuring tool (we use that ALL the time, and it was only 97 cents) and, eventually, the lid wand.  We picked up some liquid pectin for when we do jams/jellies, and some Fruit Fresh.  Next year all we’ll have to do is buy replacement lids, basically, since we can’t reuse those.

Everyone wants to know how hard it is and I’m here to tell you, it’s so easy to can your own food.  If you can set aside a block of time on a weekend, you’re good to go.  Give yourself 30 minutes to read up on how it’s done (the Ball Blue Book, again, has all of that info plus the recipes), get some basic supplies and give it a shot!  It’s a great feeling to see all those jars when you’re done, to know exactly what’s gone into each one; even better if it’s food you grew in your own garden, but we’ve taken advantage of great prices on bulk local produce when it’s in season and canned that as well.

And homemade ketchup?  OMG.  It tastes SO good.  We made that last weekend and I was kind of thinking I probably wouldn’t like the way it tasted, with my picky tendencies.  I sampled some after we were done filling the jars and I couldn’t get over how delicious it was.  (I’m deliberately adding roasted potatoes to our dinner menu tonight so we can have ketchup with them!)  Also, the faux pineapple recipe, where you peel and dice zucchini and then can it in pineapple juice and lemon juice?  Tastes exactly like pineapple.  It even feels like pineapple when you’re chewing.  We highly recommend that if you’re drowning in zucchini and want to put some up for the winter months.  It’s delicious!

Today we made glazed carrots; our apple plans got pushed to tomorrow (Dave is napping as I type this).  So far in the past few weeks we’ve canned applesauce, green beans, tomatoes, ketchup, faux pineapple and glazed carrots.  We’re canning barbeque sauce tomorrow morning, then moving on to the apples:  slices (for pies and crumbles and such), jelly and caramel apple butter.  Next weekend we should have more tomatoes so we’re going to try a hot pack with those, since they’re paste/roma tomatoes and should hold their shape okay.

The fruits of last weekend's labor:  Ketchup (three pint jars in front, still with lids because they'd just come out of the canner); faux pineapple; tomatoes (lurking in the back)

The fruits of last weekend’s labor: Ketchup (three pint jars in front, with rings still on because they’d just come out of the canner); faux pineapple; tomatoes (lurking in the back).

Ironically, most places recommend starting with a basic jam (strawberry is popular) and I have yet to make jam of any kind!

If you’re like me and really like to study up on something before you start, the National Center for Home Food Preservation has a great, FREE online course called ‘Preserving Food at Home:  A Self- Study.’  Sign up at and then wait a few days; they’ll send you an email with login information.  I’m on the third section right now and I love it!


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