Canning tips from my kitchen.
“The pleasure of serving the fruits of home canned food is comparable only to a clear conscience or a very becoming hat!” Joy of Cooking
(Photograph from Geek in the Garden’s flickrstream. Squashes from his amazing permaculture project down south)
A comment from someone on a previous post reminded me that I had intended to provide some recipes here following my last post on home canning, recipes which of course I don’t have with me at the moment – in particular the apple chutney that I make a batch of every two years or so (which simply must be shared!) But a conversation around the union meeting I was at last night has inspired me to share a few canning tips that I have realized after years of boiling water canning escapades. For those of you who are pros, you might not find much here you don’t know, but as a beginner I would have considered these things:
- Canning tools: I know, it seems like you don’t need the tongs and the lid magnet and the jar opening gadget – and for a few years I canned without such implements because I didn’t want to spend the fifteen (or whatever) dollars. I was a broke student after all! But really, get the tool kit plus an extra food funnel – it really does make a big difference and you burn yourself a lot less often! (I will also note that until my grandfather died I did not even own a proper canning kettle and used a soup pot instead – this is another thing I wouldn’t recommend even though I did it for years).
- Canning rack: This is the one tool I have never owned and don’t see the need for. If you are really nervous about putting your jars on the canner bottom, then use extra screw-bands and line your pot. I’ve only ever broken one jar in all the canning I’ve done, and I suspect it was a faulty jar, not because it crashed into another one during the canning process.
- Sterilizing your jars: Ever since I moved into a place with a dishwasher I simply do mine on an extra heat setting – newer dishwashers have a sterilize function. If you are doing a couple dozen jars or more this is probably the easiest option though it takes some time (the sterilize option on mine adds another 20 minutes to the cycle). I really like not having to time putting jars in and out of boiling water, not to mention being able to walk away when my whole batch of jars is sterilizing.
- Sealing your jars: Tempting as it is, do not tighten your screw-lids on more than fingertip tight before you put them in your boiling water bath. More than that and the stem generated in the canning process doesn’t have a way to get out of the jar. Don’t retighten them when they come out of the canner either, as this can break your seal.
- Labeling: I stopped using those stick-on labels years ago because some of them are a real pain in the ass to get off when you are re-using the jar. Instead, I wait until the jars are cool and write on the snap-lid with a sharpie (marker). It does mean that you have to look at jar tops in order to determine what’s in the jar – but I’m not putting by hundreds of cans a year so I’m pretty clear on what each thing is anyway.
- Countertops: I just discovered this year the only thing I like about granite countertops is that you can put super-hot stuff on them without any padding or protection. This is great when you are canning and have dozens of hot jars not to mention bubbling pots going on all over the place. If you are a canner, and designing a new kitchen, this is something you might want to consider.
- Supplies in general: Don’t buy stuff new if you can help it. Type “canning” into your local Craigslist and delight in the cheap jars, canning kettles and other supplies. This is best done in the spring or winter, when people are cleaning out their closets. Also check thrift stores which often have cheap jars on the shelves. Do not use jars that aren’t meant for canning – many of them will break when boiled for any length of time. If you are buying new, don’t go to Safeway or any of the chain groceries. Your best bet in Vancouver is either a small Italian grocer or local hardware store in terms of cost.
- Economy of canning: I read this really stupid article earlier this summer about canning $17 jars of fig jam once the writer had bought organic figs and fancy jars etc. etc. Basically premise being that canning was interesting in the slow-food-movement sense but not economical – to which I say bullshit. Check out Craigslist in season for local growers who are advertising $1 per pound tomatoes, apples, pears, plums etc. Reuse your jars year after year. Don’t get into recipes that involve lots of fancy ingredients…. a little sage and thyme in your garden go a long way and cost nothing! Basil as well! Think early in the year about what you might want to can and plant the herbs/spices for your recipes (basil, oregano, cilantro – all can be grown on an apartment balcony). If you are buying from local growers find out why they aren’t certified organic…. there are lots of “almost-organic” growers out there who don’t get certified for some reason or other but are not using horrible stuff on their fields either. Canning is as cheap or as expensive as you want to make it, so don’t get caught up in needing to spend a lot of money to get started.
- Applesauce: There is no need to peel apples for applesauce as long as you process the sauce well in a food mill or processor. Adding vanilla to your unsweetened applesauce – about half a tsp. per jar – makes for a pretty incredible treat.
- Cherries: I neither pit nor prick my cherries before canning and have never had a problem with them turning out or being tasty. Adding a tsp of alcohol (brandy, rum, etc) to each 250 ml jar makes for a decadent bite! Just warn people that the cherries have pits when you serve them.
- Peaches: Lemon juice in the bottom of the jar helps to keep the colour fast in peaches. Try dropping a sprig of sage or thyme – or a half stick in cinammon in each jar before you add the peaches and the packing liquid.
- Tomatoes: These always separate in the canning process, so don’t be surprised when your jars come out. Best fix for this is packing the tomato in super tight or squeezing excess liquid out of your tomatoes before packing them, but really it’s more of an aesthetic problem than anything.
- All fruits: Leftover liquid from cooking the fruits (whether you use a syrup or just straight water) can be stored in the fridge afterwards and make nice additions to mixed drinks, lemonades etc.
As with cooking generally, everyone has their own style and canning comfort level which means that these tips may or may not work for your kitchen aesthetic. As long as you understand the basic principles of food safety when canning, and for that I would recommend the Joy of Cooking, the Blue Ball Book of Canning or any number of sites on the Internet, there is lots of room for experimentation. As stressed in my earlier canning post – it really is fun and easy once you figure the basics out – and definitely as satisfying as a really becoming hat!