Despite the summer heat, you’ve done all the right things. You weeded. You fertilized. You discouraged (or killed) pests. You dragged out the hose and soaked everything before the temperature reached triple digits. Then your happy plants rewarded you with fruits and veggies. You ate all you could. You gave away sacks to friends and neighbors. You were the person at work who was pushing the soft, ripe tomatoes that would spoil if you let them sit over the weekend. If this is you, then you may already know about the food preservation technique known as canning, or bottling, or putting up whatever it is that your delighted plants keep on producing.
The technique was, like many innovations, borne out of a need to stack the advantage on one army’s side, so that they could go on warring through the cold months while the other army retreated or starved. Napoleon would be the reigning impetus behind the challenge to his countrymen to devise a way to preserve food, so that his army could march straight through the snow all the way to Moscow. Of course other factors intervened on the short man’s progress, but the world was left with a new way to kill microbes in food and store it for extended periods of time. While industry favored heating food and sealing it in metal cans, the process also caught on at home by using glass jars.
This is where you enter the picture. As the heat wanes, you spend more and more time inspecting the condition of your beans, tomatoes, squash, or other vegetables and fruits to decide if they are ripe enough to pluck yet. Whether you’ve got several bushels or only enough to fill one pot, canning will enable you to enjoy your bounty in the cold months (just like Napoleon wanted to), or your finished product will make great giveaways at Christmas with nifty little labels or a red bow tied around the lid. Who wouldn’t want a jar of homegrown pickled jalapenos to spice up soup or stew during a drab January?
There are plenty of how-to books, information, and specific recipes for canning. For instance, whenever I make fig preserves, I rely not only on information that was passed on to me in the oral tradition (like most canners), but I’ve also used a combination of measurements and ingredients from books, magazines, and the internet (one of the most comprehensive references is the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning, available several places on-line). However, the basics remain the same no matter what you’re putting up:
Wash everything. If you only use your big pot and jar lifter once a year, you’ve already washed it before you stored it after your last canning session. But it’s a good idea to wash it again right before you use it. Wash your fruits and vegetables thoroughly. Wash your jars and lids.
Boil everything. Well not everything, but definitely boil your jars and lids – anything that will come into contact with food – to sterilize them. Keep them hot throughout the canning session (cool glass might crack if you put hot product into it). Always use new two-piece lids and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for treating them.
Follow your recipe. Different foods have different densities and acidities and therefore require different preparations. Some need more citric acid (lemon juice) than others. Some recipes call for vinegar. Some foods require longer cook times than others. For instance, tomatoes usually require less time than corn or pumpkin.
Wait for the pop. Once you’ve spooned your product into the jar (careful not to slop it all over the rim), place the lid on (gasket against the glass) and screw it down with the ring. The jar will tell you that it has made the proper seal when it cools and the pressure inside the jar sucks the lid down making a little “pop” sound.
Label and store. Sealed cans should be stored in a cool, dry, and dark place. The best temperature range is between 50 and 70 degrees F. Be careful not to store near hot pipes, a furnace, or a place that will get any direct sunlight. You can write anything you want on your jars’ labels, but the essentials are: date, contents, and batch number (if you canned more than one).
No green thumb, no problem. Say you’re not exactly a plant person, and you don’t really know anyone who gives away what they’ve grown. Well, you can still can! Visit your favorite farmer’s market or local farm and buy what you like in bulk. Bring it home and use a well-researched recipe to make your own canned food. Then impress everyone by handing out your product (with ribbons and clever labels) at holidays!