You’ve spotted a bushel of peaches at your favorite farm stand, your own garden is producing the kind of tomatoes you’d love to be able to enjoy in January, and your CSA (community supported agriculture) box is filled with more beans than you could eat in a month.
It’s time to get canning.
Preserving food, once on the verge of becoming a lost American art, for the last five years has been riding a comeback wave that shows no sign of slowing down.
Linnette Goard, a home food preservation specialist with the Ohio State University Extension, said she has had to add extra classes to her schedule just to keep up with the demand from those wanting to learn how to can.
Goard is the state’s canning expert and travels to teach the craft to others.
As the number of backyard gardens, community gardens, farm shares and farmers markets has increased, so has the number of folks wanting to know how they can save some of that bounty, Goard said. An increased interest in eating healthful foods free from additives and preservatives also has driven more people to the pastime, she said.
While canning isn’t difficult, it is a craft that has to be learned, and there are guidelines for preserving food to ensure that the finished product is safe to eat.
Foods that aren’t preserved properly are at risk of becoming contaminated with the bacteria that causes botulism, which can be deadly.
Goard recommends that everyone take a class before attempting it because it’s easier to learn from watching a demonstration than from reading a book, and more and more folks who are canning are newcomers to the craft.
“There are more people in my classes that have no experience. It used to be people would take classes to ask specific questions, like ‘I tried this and it and didn’t work.’ They wanted to know how to make it better. Now, the questions are more basic,” she said.
Many folks trying canning for the first time never had the chance to learn from their parents or grandparents. There are, however, several books that Goard recommends. (See sidebar for classes, guides and other help.)
Here are some of the important points to learn before attempting home canning.
• There are two methods for canning.
Boiling water canning is for high-acid foods, like tomatoes that have been acidified, pickled and fermented foods, jams and jellies.
Pressure canning is for low-acid foods, including most vegetables, corn, potatoes, meat and soup.
You can do boiling water canning in a large stock pot, provided it holds at least four quart jars and is fitted with a rack so that the jars don’t touch the bottom of the pot (they could break during canning). Some universal racks and baskets will fit into any pot, but a water canner will come with a basket insert.
Pressure canners are not the same thing as pressure cookers. Pressure cookers don’t have the proper gauge to measure the pounds of pressure appropriate for canning different items, but rather have a temperature gauge.
Both types of canners must be big enough to hold four quart jars.
• Canning takes preparation.
Jars need to be washed in a dishwasher to sanitize them beforehand. For those who don’t have a dishwasher, the jars need to be washed and rinsed thoroughly and then sanitized by being dipped into a solution of chlorinated water (1 gallon of water mixed with 1 tablespoon of unscented household bleach). Let the sanitized jars air dry.
Lids and rings need to be washed thoroughly, and lids need to be kept softened in a pan of simmering water so they will seal properly.
• Beware of old recipes.
Your grandmother’s formula for canning tomatoes may no longer be considered safe. Fruits and vegetables have changed a lot over the years and canners need to work with up-to-date recipes for safety.
“The guidelines change, because the fruits and vegetables are always changing, especially as consumers have pushed for lower-acid tomatoes. It’s not safe to can them without adding an acid to them,” Goard said. The best acid for the job is citric acid or bottled lemon juice — not fresh, because the acid value of fresh lemons is not always the same.
Use a current recipe that has been tested for food safety.
• Not everything can be canned safely at home.
“Commercial canners have processes that we just can’t duplicate in the home,” Goard explained. “People think they should be able to can anything they want and you can’t. You have to use one of the tested recipes to assure the safety.”
Also, don’t be surprised if your home-canned items don’t taste exactly like what you’d get from a commercial can.
• For those items that can’t be safely canned, Goard recommends freezing to preserve them. It’s one of the safest methods for preserving food and it’s easy. This is also a good method for folks who don’t have the time needed to devote to canning. Goard said she has noticed that many of her classes are filled with retirees who finally have the time to spend on food preservation.