Thursday, September 30, 2010

Canning: Some Basic Questions

Dear friends,

We've talked a lot about canning, and quite a few lovely ladies have asked me for some basic instructions on canning; so I will provide here a crude primer for the canning essentials, and some tips on where to look for further information.

What is canning? 
It is a simple method of preserving food for a long period of time.  It is a perfect fit for people like me who don't have a lot of freezer room, and need to keep food stored in a cupboard.  The canned food will keep in best condition for about a year, which works perfectly for those of us who can a product when it is in its annual season.  However, the food will still be safe to eat and sometimes you end up with random jars of things that last for a few years.

Why can at all?
There are many reasons, and most people who can draw a little from each reason. Knowing the content of the food you are eating is a big one; I prefer organic, and I enjoy supporting local farmers and knowing that my money is staying in the community, and my food is as fresh as possible because it only traveled a few miles.  Organic produce can be pricey, and especially so in the off-seasons.  It is also difficult to buy local produce over the winter; thus, canning provides me with cost-effective, local, organic produce throughout the year.  Continuing with the cost-effective note, it is often possible when you "know people" to get a lot of produce for free or very cheap.  The farmer I usually buy from will give us culls, leftovers, or produce that is too soft and damaged to sell, and we can turn it into sauce or jelly or some other secondary product.  The number one cost effective method for fresh, local, inexpensive produce is obviously to grow your own crops.  I think this is the ultimate goal for most home canners.  This brings us to the final reason for canning - it's very "green"!  The produce (being local) doesn't increase your carbon footprint by much, and the jars and rings can be re-used for over a century (until they break!).  The only thing that is eventually discarded is the rubber-ringed lid, which cannot reseal once it's been boiled.

What can you can? 
Just about anything, if you have a pressure canner.  Vegetables, fruits, any variation on those as pickles, relishes, jellies, etc; vinegars, beans, seafoods, and meats.  It is not recommended to home-can eggs, which would include egg products such as mayonnaise. Of course, you can also can water, if you wanted to.

How does canning work? 
I'll give you the short version here, but you can read more in-depth about it if you like.  There are two types of canning - water-bath canning, and pressure-canning.  The first method is for high acid foods (with a pH level of 4.6 or less) such as fruits, some tomatoes, and pickled items.  They only need to reach 212 deg. F in order to kill molds, yeasts, and bacteria, and inactivate enzymes to halt the rotting process and essentially "freeze" the product in its current state.  The second method, pressure-canning, is for low-acid foods, such as most vegetables, legumes, grains like corn, meats, and some tomatoes.  These products need to reach the higher temperature of 240 deg. F in order to destroy all of the bacteria, spores, and toxins they produce.  Boiling water doesn't get that hot, and this is where the pressure canner comes in.

Pressure canners are scary! 
Yes they are, if you don't follow the rules.  But modern pressure canners have extremely effective ways of sealing the lid down (they will not blow off) and the only possible danger is if you try to take the lid off before the pressure has completely dissipated.  This would be a little like trying to drink your tea when it was still boiling or sleeping on an anthill; I don't know why you would do it.  Personally, I love my pressure canners (I have four!).

What tools do you need to can? 
Not many, actually; most home canning can be done with home-tools converted to the purpose of canning.  Of course, there are lots of specialty tools you can buy to make it easier, too.  For water-bath canning, you need a pot deep enough to cover the jars by at least an inch of water, and a rack to set the jars on.  Before I had racks specifically made for canning, I just tied a bunch of rings together and made a rack.  The jars shouldn't be touching the bottom of the pot; they might break from the heat!  If you buy a water-bath canner, I recommend buying the largest one you can find.  Currently, the largest latest-and-greatest size holds 9 quart jars, but I don't know where to find those for sale (mine was a gift from my mom-in-law!).  If you want to spend more, you can buy very nice stainless-steel water bath canners.
For pressure canning, I recommend the Presto pressure canner.  It cools down fairly quickly, isn't too heavy, holds 7 quart jars or 15 pint jars, and is easy and straightforward to use.  I own three of these, as well as one smaller pressure cooker that only holds four pints (it is more for food than canning).
You will also need jars, rings, and lids.  Fred Meyer and WalMart have the cheapest prices on these.  To lift the lids from the hot water (they must be heated before putting them on the jars) you can use a fork, your fingers if you're quick, or buy a lid wand (a magnetic wand), or make a wand out of a magnet (Mr H says you can make one out of sticks and dung but I haven't tried that yet).
A jar lifter comes in handy for taking the jars out of the boiling water.
You will also need a towel for setting the jars on (I like to put them into a cardboard box lined with a towel so they don't break in the cold air).  Then there are other tools that may be useful depending on what you are canning, such as cheesecloth, jelly strainers, funnels, and Mr H (who is watching me write this) says most importantly you need a Woman.
If you want to get started canning, you can either find most of these tools at garage sales (the lids you usually have to buy new, although I have found unopened boxes at garage sales before) or buy a kit online or at your local grocery store.  But be warned, most grocery stores are extremely overpriced, and Fred Meyer is usually your best option.

Recommended Reading
Every canner needs to own the Ball Blue Book (most current version, if you're going to buy one).
I enjoy the recipes in the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, many of which are also in the Blue Book.
The Blue Book includes tips on drying and freezing (we will have to save that for another day!), and there are many other books that include make-ahead and preserve-able recipes, such as Preserving Summer's Bounty and Saving the Seasons.

Do you have any other questions about canning, or any tips, books, websites, or suggestions of your own?  We could talk about canning all day, and we would if I had my way - but hopefully this primer was enough to catch your interest!

Happy canning,

Mrs H
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  1. Ah, judging by his comments, Mr. H. must be a very wise man.

  2. I gotta get that poster. The wild-eyed, I've-gone-off-the-deep-end, don'tcha-wanna-come-too look is so very, very ME somehow...

    Miz Carmen

  3. So, is there a reason you wouldn't want to can high acid foods using a pressure canner? or is a pressure canner pretty much good for everything?




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