by Margaret Rumpeltes (Pastry Chef and Culinary Instructor)
“Preparations for winter on the Farm: …The preparations were almost like those for an Arctic expedition. In the stone walled cellar were potatoes and vegetable bins and a shelved jelly, jam and pickle cupboard. Late in the fall that cupboard had no resemblance to Mother Hubbard’s. Instead of being bare, the shelves fairly bent under the weight of glasses of apple, currant and quince jelly; jars of strawberry, raspberry, gooseberry and plum jam, and apple butter. Great stone jars of sweet and sour pickles, horseradish, and sauerkraut stood on the floor beneath….Hams and sides of bacon were smoked in the smokehouse and hung in the “summer kitchen”,….Here too, were jars of headcheese, country sausage, and big pieces of salted pork and corned beef.” (A Backwoods Boyhood, L.H. Roddis, 1967).
“I don’t think I have ever been in any home in this country which did not contain a bottle of ketchup, a jar of mustard, a glass of jelly, and probably a jar of some kind of pickles;….So obviously, we are used to serving condiments and relishes with various kinds of food, but we tend to become pretty unimaginative about what we can produce, relying for the most part on…the shelves of supermarkets.” (Fine Preserving, K.Plagemann,1967)
“The Napoleonic wars were directly responsible for subjecting food to high temperatures and sealing it tightly in hot clean jars. When Napoleon’s troops were dying in vast quantities from scurvy…, a Frenchman by the name of Nicholas Appert…worked methodically and prodigiously for almost fourteen years before he submitted his discoveries…No other single discovery has contributed so much to the general well-being of mankind.” (The complete Book of Home Preserving, A. Seranne, 1955)
These three quotes are from my favorite books about food preservation. The first, taken from a book my grandfather wrote about his growing up in Minnesota, first got me thinking about home preserving. Amid all of the excitement over eating local, eating seasonal, and eating well, I think we lose track of how far north we are here in the Northwest. Exactly how do we eat local when there is snow on the ground? If it is not growing in your garden it is not growing at some magic local farm within a 80 mile radius of Seattle! We live in a mild enough climate for winter greens like kale or chard to be available for much of the year, and many of the cruciferous vegetables can be stored for quite a while (think kohlrabi or cabbages). But for a good 4 months of our grocery shopping here in Seattle, we are looking at products shipped from the sunny south, sometimes as far away as Chile or New Zealand. While the availability of these shipped fruits and veggies may keep scurvy at bay, we can do much for ourselves by preserving a few favorites. With care and a little know-how, food preservation can save you money, shrink your carbon footprint, and use up that bumper crop! Trading jars with friends can lend variety, and make looking in your pantry cupboard just like grocery shopping!
What to Can
What is safe to can at home? Safest is jams and jellies and acidic vegetables like pickles. This means the vegetables are brined in a mixture of vinegar, water, and spices. Canning non-acidic foods (meat and fish) require more know-how and absolutely require processing in a pressure canner.
Looking for inspiration? Visit that condiment section of your local grocery store and consider what you could make on your own instead of buying. Look at old fashioned cookbooks…dill pickles, pickled green beans or carrots, chow chow (mustard pickle), chutneys, and spiced jellies for eating with savory goods, horseradish, pickled peppers! Look at ethnic cookbooks for great items like preserved lemons, chermoula, and salsas. Put up cherries for your Manhattans or asparagus for your Bloody Marys, cocktail onions for your martinis, and do a whole craft cocktail theme! Try not buying a single commercial jar of jam for one year. Dehydrate your own hiking foods. Flash freeze your own berries for smoothies. The possibilities are endless.
As a professional chef, I have three guiding principles to suggest:
- Sanitation! Sterilize jars and lids, cutting boards, knives, your hands, everything!
- For any food you are unsure about, process using water bath processing or a pressure cooker. Better to err on the safe side than unknowingly eat a deadly pathogen!
- Start simple, make a small batch of something before you launch into canning your whole garden. I recommend jams as a good starting point, they are expensive to buy, you can make yours without high fructose corn syrup, and they are “easy peasy.” Make it a party and do a few with friends then trade jars to take home.
Here are a few helpful items to start you on your way:
Jars: Available at the Seattle Farm Co-op ($11.39/6 64oz). You can also find smaller jars at hardware stores, larger grocery stores in season, and online. Price range: $11.99-15.75 for twelve with rings and lids. “Vintage style” colored glass are about 2x more. ($10.45/6, Amazon). Alternative: keep wide mouth jars from things you buy in the grocery store and use paraffin wax to seal. You can cover this with a bit of parchment paper tied with a ribbon or keep the lid to put on after sealing with wax. Cheaper up front but a bit more of a hassle. It is not recommended to water bath process jars unless you know they are tempered glass, kind of a problem, if you are sealing. But for freezer jams, this works.
Lids and Rings: I buy new self sealing lids for every new jar of jam (you can purchase both at the Co-op!). Rings I use over and over until they either get bent or show any signs of rust.
Wooden Spoon, 6 qt. Saucepan or kettle for cooking jam. I like an enamel ware pot I have: It is non-reactive and really smooth so I can clean it really well.
Knives, pitters, corers, peelers, wide mouth funnel: Basics are just fine but if you are a gear buff, there are many options.
Canner and rack, jar tongs: I find it easier to use one made for this but you can do very small batches 4-5 pint jars using a rack like this (pictured below) in one of your own pots with a lid. You should have 2-3 inches of water over the tops of the jars when processing.
Jelly bag and strainer if you are making jellies.
Labels. It is a good idea to label and date your jars. I generally try to eat anything I preserve at home within 2 years.
Local purveyors and prices:
Maclendon’s Hardware Store (Renton): Complete line of jars, (12-pint jars with lids and rings $11.99) lids, equipment, as well as various sizes of water bath processors and pressure cookers. Smallest pressure cooker $99.99/16qt. Smallest water bath canner 12qt/$244.99.
Amazon: wide mouth pint jars with lids and rings: $15.78
Safeway: jars,lids and rings available seasonally.
Craigslist: used canner, jars, lids, rings and tongs $30.00
Vacuum sealer $89.99
My go-to book, probably out of print but there are many like it on used bookstore shelves:
The Complete Book of Home Preserving, by Ann Seranne. Doubleday and Co. Garden City NY, 1955.
Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, Bobbs-Merrill Co, Inc. Indianapolis/New York. 1931-1975 copyrights.
WSU King County Extension Service http://extension.wsu.edu/king/
Wondering why these very old fashioned sources and not some spanking new chef resource? Canning and preserving is something we have lost touch with in our regular lives. The extension service was established in connection with the original land grant colleges, schools established to teach the vocational arts. For many young women this was home economics, gardening, food preservation, and nutrition. Out of this also came 4-H, a youth organization, aimed at linking rural youth to concepts taught at the land grant agricultural colleges and so to higher education. In 1912, there were 23,000 girls canning clubs across America! This is all very quaint and nostalgic sounding, but the county extension service, ultimately under direction of the USDA represents the best and most trustworthy source of safety information.
Good luck canning!