As I speak to more and more gardening groups, and especially to younger gardeners just beginning their adventures with growing and preserving their own food, I see the greatest reluctance about trying to can foods.
It turns out that a lot of new gardeners are unnecessarily frightened about a deadly toxin — botulism — that used to be associated with canning. But I will make a plea for rationality and reasonableness, and show you how easy and rewarding it is to get hooked on canning, and how out of date that fear is today.
It's OK. Just admit that you might have worried about food poisoning … and be willing to take my word that home canning is safe. If you can read a recipe and boil water, that's practically all there is to it; folks all over the country make canning an economical lifestyle. Jams and jellies, sauces and juice, vegetables and fruits.
There's no end to what a home gardener can put up by way of canning — that is, processing jars of food to store over the winter. Like any other domestic art, canning is extremely rewarding and produces a real, useful result. Try canning with friends or with teenage children as you get started, and make a party out of it.
My favorite beginner's project is the classic dill pickle, although I enjoy canning things like herb-rich tomato sauce, spiced pears, and grape juice.
Before I share my tips on making dill pickles for the first time, here's some updated information about botulism and other food-related pathogens, in hopes you will put any fear of canning behind you.
The real killers
Botulism is not a killer today, as it had been a century or more ago. Better sanitation and processing methods have practically eliminated canning-related incidents. This soil-borne nerve toxin can only thrive in an air-free, low-acid environment; thus, commercially canned mushroom soup occasionally caused problems in the olden days. Canning high-acid foods like fruits and pickles is safe, as long as you carefully follow both your recipes and the instructions that come with the canning jars.
Far more deadly than botulism, if you read the news headlines, are the outbreaks of salmonella, E. coli, and listeria that kill hundreds every year in the United States and are often tracked to factory farming or large processing plants. A form of infant botulism picked up from honey is also a threat, so be sure not to feed honey to babies under 18 months, when their digestive systems mature sufficiently.
Canning uses tempered glass jars that can be re-washed and re-sterilized, and used again and again; the vacuum-sealing lids are only used once and replaced. By using a method called the boiling water bath, you both sterilize the jars' contents and create a vacuum seal that prevents spoilage.
The National Center for HomeFood Preservation is a good place to get all the basics. A final note: pay attention to added processing times at altitudes over 1,000 feet.
About those pickles
When it comes to making pickles, I abandon my usual all-scratch-cooking approach and go with packaged pickle mixes from the grocery store; they come in dill or sweet choices, and contain the right proportion of spices and pickling agents. The most common in my area are Mrs. Wages and Ball brands.
And here's something cool: you can order everything for canning projects online and have it delivered to your door, instead of chasing from grocery store to grocery store to piece together the right supplies (I'm particular about having wide-mouth half pint jars for some projects, quart or even quarter-cup sizes for others, and jumbo tongs are a must).
Once I have jars, lids, "pickle powder," and vinegar on hand I set out half a day to get the freshest cucumbers possible and do the assembly. I don't really play it straight with the pickle mix: I add a fresh clove of garlic from the garden to each jar, and a sprinkling of dill seeds I dried, and a pinch of dried hot peppers. Those additions customize my pickles as "spicy dill."
In the next batch I plan to try a bit of folk wisdom I heard recently, that putting a grape leaf in the bottom of each jar keeps the pickles crunchy.
Unless you have an amazing cucumber patch, look to buy either 5 pounds or 10 pounds at one time. Ten pounds makes about 7 or 8 quarts of pickles. My family tore through last year's batch of 10 quarts, so this year I will make twice as much, over a couple of weeks.
Now just follow the instructions printed on the pickle mix, and process the jars according to the instructions provided.
For best results:
- If possible, buy small pickling cucumbers at a farmers market, where you can see how recently the cukes were picked. Each one should be entirely firm and cool to the touch, with no shrinkage, and they will pack better if they are all of uniform size and shape.
- Float the cukes in a sink filled with cold water to clean them, and rub gently. Pick out any that have soft spots or nicks.
- Make a variety by packing some jars with whole cukes, others with quarter spears, slices, or chunks.
- For safety, use distilled vinegar that states "5 % acidity."
Nan K. Chase gardens and pickles a peck of peppers — and other homegrown produce — in Asheville, North Carolina. She is the author of Eat Your Yard! Edible trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and flowers for your landscape and has won a blue ribbon at the Mountain State Fair for her crabapple jelly.
Top photo by Rebecca D'Angelo, bottom photo by Saul Chase, all others by Nan K. Chase