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Marvelous Mucilage: Okra for All Seasons

For devoted fans of the mucilaginous vegetable, canned and pickled okra brings summer to the table all year.

| August/September 2020


Canned food is often seen as the epitome of our industrial food system, so canned okra may be the lowest of the low. This is unfortunate, because a can of locally grown organic okra in December is vastly preferable to fresh okra trucked or flown in from Honduras. Nothing stops us from canning our own food. As long as we follow well-established food safety guidelines, canning is a safe method of food preservation.

Canning Alkaline Vegetables

The two methods of home canning are water bath and pressure canning, and the acidity of the food being preserved determines the method to use. Water bath canning only heats the insides of the jars to the temperature of boiling water, 212 degrees Fahrenheit, which isn’t enough to ensure the death of botulism-causing bacteria. Botulism doesn’t form in acidic environments, so water bath canning is only advised for high-acid foods.

A pressure canner is the tool you’ll need to can alkaline foods, such as okra. The pressure canner has a tightly sealed lid to trap steam from the boiling water, which increases the pressure, which increases the boiling point of the water. The food in pressure canners reaches 250 degrees, which is high enough to kill botulism. Follow pressure and time guidelines to the letter when pressure canning, as these are proven methods to safely preserve food.

Pressure canning can be a bit intimidating for beginner food preservers. I must admit that I’d never used a pressure canner before growing a huge amount of okra. I borrowed my friend’s canner, and the process turned out to be as easy as water bath canning, with the added step of maintaining the correct pressure for the required amount of time. Boil whole or cut pods for a few minutes to bring them up to temperature. About 7 pounds of okra are needed to fill nine pint-sized canning jars. I top the jars with the water I’ve boiled the okra in, although some sources recommend using fresh boiled water to cut down on the mucilage. I leave 1 inch of headspace and skip the optional 1 teaspoon of salt per quart.

Sour Success

“The pickle plate is making a comeback,” chef Vivian Howard wrote in Deep Run Roots. She was referring to a slow cooker full of fermented summer vegetables that would be served on a plate when guests came over. Her pickle plate recipe contains whole okra, 2-inch chunks of corn on the cob, hot peppers, and garlic, with salt and pepper, and it tastes delicious. Howard uses the term “pickle plate” to refer to a plate of fermented vegetables, which is totally correct, even though today most people think of pickling and fermenting as two separate things. Today, most items referred to as “pickles” are pickled in acetic acid (vinegar), but pickling in lactic acid is an age-old method of food preservation that’s commonly called “fermenting.” Fermentation creates a live, active culture with the natural lactic acid present in all vegetables, whereas vinegar pickling creates a sterile environment with added acetic acid. Both methods are great ways to preserve okra.

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