I do most of my tomato canning in August, when temps are peak. And I don’t choose to have air-conditioning in my house. That’s a personal choice, and here’s another: who says that big hot canning pot needs to be in my house heating things up? Nobody! Homesteading takes vigilance, always rethinking the norm and making logical decisions that might not be the mainstream way of doing things. Like cooking outside. And definitely, canning outside. That canner makes the house hot in a hurry, and it’s all pretty messy. Do it outside! Find a good space for your portable canning kitchen, either by the house or garden-side. I tend to set up solo canning or canning with a couple friends near the house, ideally on the covered porch. Big canning parties are set up out by the garden, because there are more tomatoes and mess and demand for space involved.
Canning on the Porch with a Friend
When I am canning in smaller batches, alone or with a couple friends, my outdoor kitchen consists of a campstove or two and propane tank and maybe a table. These are sessions I like to have near the house, so I can do other things while simmering tomatoes to thicken for hours. If it’s not a terribly hot day, I’ll simmer the tomatoes on the kitchen stove and reserve the outdoor propane campstove for the canner, just out the door nearest the kitchen. The canner creates the most heat in the house, and it heats up much faster on the campstove. Mostly, I want that canner on the back deck near the kitchen. I’ve also set the whole thing up right in front of the house or on the porch, where the mess won’t stress. The great thing about this portable setup is that you can setup wherever you like and you will figure out which is the best scenario for you, and how it changes with each project. It depends on the weather, the participants involved, the simmering time, where the kids are, and what else is going on that day.
Canning by the Garden with a Group
When I have a large group canning session, we’re set up out at the garden in the open barn. It’s covered for some shade. This could be a pop-up or tarp next to the garden, so that a team of pickers can keep bringing bins of tomatoes straight from the vine. Dump them into coolers and rinse with the hose. Drain right into the grass. Folding tables or scrap wood tables are set up with multiple cutting boards for quartering tomatoes. Juice runs down the tables and it doesn’t matter. The tables can be hosed or wiped off. The Victoria Mill churns tomatoes into skinless puree, making its own drippy mess that doesn’t matter out there. Tables hold several camp stoves for the simmering tomatoes and the canner. For one canning party, several people brought their campstoves and we were cranking out the jars. On days like this, we like to pull out the Mega Canner. It’s a half whiskey barrel and it holds 19 jars, compared with seven jars in a standard canning pot.
The optimal outdoor kitchen has four table spaces. Keep in mind that when I am canning by myself, I work in my house or on the porch, with the canner on a portable campstove just outside the house. It can be that simple. But here I will share how I set up an outdoor canning kitchen for a crowd of helpers. The first table is a prep table—set up with cutting boards and knives, bowls and maybe a food mill like the Victoria Mill. The second table is for the stove tops. These are propane camp stoves. A single burner one is good for the canner, because it hogs the other burner anyway. A double-burner is good for two pots of simmering tomatoes. Having one of each is ideal, so there can be two pots of tomatoes going, maybe at different stages of puree, and the canner pot. Or make yourself a Mega Canner! The third table is a filling station, for filling the jars. This is a clean space with a ladle, a pouring funnel, a clean rage to wipe jar rims, a chopstick or such for running along the edges of each to release bubbles, boiled lids and rings, and tongs for transporting the jars to the canner. A jar of lemon juice and a measured tablespoon should be on this table--add a tablespoon to each pint jar of tomatoes to add some acidity for protection from botulism. The fourth table is the cooling table--for setting out hot jars to cool. Hopefully this table can be protected by cover and shade. Ideally this has some towels on it, to cushion the hot jars coming out of the boiling canner. If possible, leave hot jars here for 24 hours to cool before transporting elsewhere. Always consult a canning guide for safety guidelines and instructions on canning. Ball has always been the guide for canning.
If you are done with tomatoes, you can still incorporate these ideas for applesauce making. The heat in the house might not matter as much, but you might really appreciate the extra space with an outdoor setup and keeping the mess outside. Imagine if canning day didn’t take over the family kitchen space! Make the outdoor canning kitchen of your dreams, or keep it as simple as a propane campstove.
Ilene White Freedman operates House in the Woods organic CSA farm with her husband, Phil, in Frederick, Maryland. They will be making a presentation about weeds and bugs in your organic garden at Mother Earth News Fair Sunday September 12. The Freedmans are one of six 2013 Mother Earth News Homesteaders of the Year. Ilene blogs about making things from scratch, putting up the harvest, gardening and farm life at Mother Earth News and blog.houseinthewoods.com, easy to follow from our Facebook Page. For more about the farm, go to HouseInTheWoods.com.