As a child, I have vague memories of my mother water-bath canning tomatoes, pickles and peaches. Further along in life, the memories change to a multitude of ominous-looking jars on metal racks in the basement containing vitreous fluids, dissolving lumps of… whatever, and bulging lids threatening to detonate at the slightest touch. In other words, food canned but not consumed for many, many years. Canning gone bad. That scared me.
Many years later, as an adult, I eventually challenged the concept of grocery-store, over-processed and often times GMO preserved foods containing what I consider additional, unnecessary ingredients. Then, there was that large, navy blue-with-white-speckles porcelain canning pot from my childhood memories, figuratively staring me in the face. Being the earth spirit organic foodie gardener that I am, I just had to put my fears aside and carry my torch for healthier foods into a canning foray.
But, of course, first I had to read the book Putting Food By, which focused quite a bit on the charms of botulism poisoning and scared the bejesus out of me once again. Okay, so living in the high-altitude Rocky Mountain region, I also had to consider the challenges of high altitude with its lower boiling temperatures. Canning only high-acid foods to be safe, I limited myself to tomatoes, peaches, pickles and jams/jellies and still felt a little nervous eating them. After a couple of years of my congenital “canning-and-rarely-consuming” practices, I sold all of my canning paraphernalia and called it quits.
Fast forward to the present: A large garden, a multitude of plants and other bounties and again that need for a way to preserve and get away from processed foods.
Hence — ta daa — the pressure canner came into my life. Along with it came decades of tales of pressure canners exploding, sending boiling hot shrapnel in all directions, injuries, deaths, the putting out of eyes, and more. Once again, I set aside my fears, realizing that if I follow directions correctly, canning did not mean taking my or anyone else’s lives in my hands. After all, people have been preserving food since the beginning of time. And it gets safer and safer.
But canning is a time-consuming proposition and that really is, I think, a major consideration, aside from the fact that you do need to purchase things like the jars, the canning equipment, tools and some other accessories to make the process go smoothly. Always use the right tools for the job.
So, at the bare minimum, you will need canning jars with lids and bands. For canning, new lids are always a must as a perfect seal is of the utmost importance. Next, you’ll need either a water-bath or pressure canner. A water-bath canner (about $20) is okay if you’re on a budget and don’t want to can anything beyond high-acid foods as mentioned above.
If you get a pressure canner, which costs about 4 times as much (about $80), you can also use it as a water-bath canner, plus use it for cooking. The canners come with a canning rack (if you’re going to double-layer jars in the pressure canner, add a second rack for about $10). A kit of canning tools (funnel, tongs, lid lifter/bubble remover, jar lifters) will cost about $12. If you want to make life easier when removing, for instance, skins and seeds from tomatoes, a food mill is helpful ($35+).
So a bit of a cost in the beginning, but it should all pay for itself the first year if you have a decent garden harvest and tend to cook a lot.
Then there’s the process of cleaning, preparing and cooking the foods you’re going to can, sterilizing the jars and lids, following canning recipes very closely for safety reasons, learning how to make altitude adjustments in time and pressure settings, following the canner’s instructions implicitly, being willing to stay in a hot kitchen for hours and not take your eyes off the pressure gauge if you’re going that route — plus a big cleanup job in the end.
It’s really not a terrible amount of hassle to go through considering it’s possible to can an entire year’s worth of tomato sauce, paste, spaghetti sauce, apple sauce, juice or whatever your desire, in just a few days. Not only will you have guaranteed better quality food, but glass jars do not leach harmful chemicals into the foods like cans do and you can reuse the jars and bands over and over so there’s a smaller environmental footprint.
One of my favorite places to go for canning recipes is SB Canning. This is the third year I’ve made their Roasted Garlic Pasta Sauce — I love the stuff and use it for more than pasta. (And yes, they mean 6 bulbs (heads) of garlic and not 6 cloves!)
If this all sounds like too much work to you, no worries! There are other ways to preserve foods, which you can read about in my post on Preserving Food, More Options Than Just Canning. Plus, wide-mouth pint canning jars are freezer safe (look for that on the labels), so you can instead FREEZE your favorite sauces, soups, stews, chili, stocks etc. and they keep just as nicely. For freezing, you can re-use the canning lids as long as they aren’t nicked or rusting. You can also read about this process in my post, No More Canned Soup.
Important: For freezing, make sure you use the wide-mouth jars that are freezer-safe and leave 1 inch of space at the top for expansion so the jars don’t break.
Canning is not for everyone, but even if you’re short on time, there are still ways you can preserve foods so you’re not forced to buy canned products at the grocery store.
Deb Tejada is an urban farmer, foodie, do-it-yourselfer, graphic designer, illustrator and web developer living in sunny Colorado. When she’s not in the kitchen or garden, you can find her at The Herban Farmer.
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