This is an insanely busy time of year for me. Tomatoes are weighing heavy on the vine, farmers’ markets and farm stands are flush with fresh produce, and it’s nearly time to start putting the garden to bed. The biggest thing that occupies my time as the harvest comes in is canning, and now, because I’m retired, I can do more of it! Yay!
My son is apt to look at things I’ve canned and say with a smirk, “Mom, you know you can buy that at the grocery store for about $1.69 a can.” But there are many good reasons to can your own food. Since I grow most of what I can, for me it’s cheaper than buying canned goods at the store (as long as I figure my labor at the going hourly rate in Third World countries).
Commercially canned foods are processed in tin cans, which have recently been found to be lined with a plastic coating containing the dangerous compound Bisphenol A (BPA). These cans, which typically come with paper labels, are single-use items. In contrast, home-canned foods are processed in glass jars which, when emptied, can be used again in another canning session.
When you can your own foods, you know how fresh they are, and you know what’s in those cans. Everything from my garden is organic.
Then there’s the issue of food security and availability. In 2008, when gas prices started to soar, some truckers went out of business. Now gas prices are climbing up to—and beyond—2008 levels. If more truckers go out of business—or worse, go on strike—there could be a serious blip in the food supply chain. It’s been said that the typical grocery store has on hand two to three days’ supply of food. A blip in the chain that feeds that short supply could be disastrous.
As a means of food preservation, canning uses less energy than freezing. It does use a fair amount of energy during the canning process itself, but once the process is complete, no more energy is needed to maintain the preserved food. With frozen food, it’s only preserved as long as the freezer stays on. (But I'm not a canning snob. I use a freezer for foods such as berries, meats, soups, and baked goods.)
The Logistics of It All
I’ll have to admit, I do spend a lot of time canning, and I often feel like a one-armed paper hanger, trying to keep the logistics of it all straight. My go-to book for canning is the Ball Blue Book, known among home canners as the “Bible” of canning instructions. I often wonder what kind of kitchen the authors were working in when they came up with some of those instructions. I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible to do some of the things they tell you to do unless you have an over-sized stove or more than one cooktop.
For example, one of the first things the instructions usually tell you to do, if you’re canning with a water-bath canner, is to prepare the jars for canning. This means they must be thoroughly washed, then filled with hot water and placed on the canner rack in the canning pot, which must be filled with water up to just below the top of the jars. The water in the canner must be brought to boiling in order to sterilize the jars. While this is taking place, you’re also supposed to be heating a giant pot of whatever you’re going to can. Even if you’re using the “raw pack” method, where the contents are not cooked, you still need a large pot for the sizable amount of whatever liquid you have to heat to pour into the jars over whatever you’re raw-packing. And while you’re heating the two large pots, you’re supposed to sterilize the jar lids in boiling water in a small pan and heat—not boil—the screw bands in water in yet another pan.
Fitting all these pans onto the stove at the same time is not physically possible, given the size of the pans, the size of the burners, the clearance between each burner, and the clearance between the edge of each burner and the back or front edge of the cooktop. I end up rotating the pots on the available burners and crossing my fingers that everything will stay hot enough long enough. This means having hotplates or pads at the ready on the nearby countertop (or some other available space, like a kitchen stool or the top of a wastebasket) to temporarily hold whatever just came off the stove. When everything’s hot enough and cooked enough, I can complete the final step—actually filling the jars—on the butcher block cart in the middle of my kitchen. That’s the home stretch, with the end in sight, although by that time I’m so frazzled I sometimes forget to slide a knife down the inside of each filled jar to eliminate air bubbles, as the Ball Blue Book instructs, before placing the filled jars into the canner for processing.
Two Ways to Do It
Water-bath canning is one of two methods available to the home canner. The other is pressure canning. Water-bath canning can be used only for foods that are high in acid, which usually means tomatoes as well as pickles and most fruit jellies and jams. After years of water-bath canning, I finally ventured into pressure canning last year, because I realized that much of what my family actually eats goes beyond jellies and condiments. Last year I made, among other things, chicken stock, chicken soup, and spaghetti sauce (seasoned with garlic and herbs, which have a low acid content). It wasn’t as difficult as I’d imagined.
What to Can?
This might seem like a question with an obvious answer. If you grow tomatoes, can tomatoes! But in what form? Sauce? Crushed tomatoes? I used to can them only as tomato sauce. But this year I broadened my repertoire to include crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, bruschetta, fire-roasted tomatoes, and salsa. Using pears from my daughter’s prolific pear tree, I experimented with making pear butter, which has no relation to actual butter. It gets its name from its thick, spreadable, butter-like consistency. I also used some Bolton Orchards peaches to make peach butter.
Some of these foods take a while to prepare before you even get to the canning stage. Take tomato paste, for instance. I decided to make that because I use a lot of it. But after the experience, I could be persuaded to just buy it at the store, I think. I used about 7½ pounds of Roma tomatoes, which I cut up, boiled until they softened, and processed through a food mill to remove skins and seeds. That left me with about seven cups of sauce, to which I added a small amount of lemon juice, as per the Ball Blue Book, to assure a high acid content. Then I put it in a slow cooker and cooked it on ‘high’—for hours. By the time it reached tomato-paste consistency, there was enough to fill three 4-ounce jars. Three-quarters of one pint. The fruit butter experience was similar, but the payoff was greater—I’ve never seen peach or pear butter in the store.
The Proof is in the Pantry
In the end, the effort is definitely worth it, as far as I’m concerned—especially when I open the pantry door and see jars of black raspberry jam, grape jelly, pear butter, applesauce, elderberry-peach preserves, bruschetta, fire-roasted tomatoes, relish, crushed tomatoes, and more staring back at me.
I've made only a few jars of each thing so far (except the Pottsfield Pickle relish, of which I have 11 jars), but it’s a stash that makes me feel proud. Still, I’ll have to admit that I feel like a slacker when I look at the Facebook pictures posted by my Tennessee-farmer brother and his wife, of all the things they’ve canned: shelves and shelves of quart jars, in row upon row in their large pantry. Tomatoes, beans, beets, plums, and more. They must spend every waking hour of every day working on canning. (A canner can hold only seven or eight quart jars at a time, after all.)
When It’s Done, You’re Not Really Done
The challenge many people face after everything that can be canned has been canned, is to figure out how to use it all. It takes some out-of-the-box thinking to use black raspberry jam in some way other than as a spread on toast or bagels. A meatloaf glaze, maybe? And canned pears don’t always have to be paired with yogurt or used in dessert. I finally figured out I could use them in baked oatmeal, a favorite breakfast dish of mine. The follow-on task to summer canning is winter meal planning. That will be my next challenge.