Food Trend: Home Canning
With the economy in the dumps and folks more interested in growing their own foods, everyone's talking about home canning. So when my girlfriend and I heard about a canning workshop at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture near my house, we had to sign up. Canning has been around for 200 years, but I was new to the practice. What did I learn? It's pretty easy, definitely fun and a wonderful way to preserve fruits and veggies to enjoy year round.
The workshop's instructor Sherri Brooks Vinton (also the author of The Real Food Revival) was our canning maven and walked us through the basics. The first thing Sherri told us was that canning doesn't actually involve cans; instead you use glass jars. Experts have made many improvements to the preserving process since your grandmother's days -- steps to help control the growth of clostridium botulinum, a deadly bacteria that may develop in canned food. Things still do go bad sometimes, but as long as you follow the exact instructions and discard food that is questionable (i.e. foul smelling, foamy, bulging lid), you should be able to enjoy your canned goodies safely.
There are two basic canning techniques: pressure canning and the boiling water method. You use pressure canning under high heat for more alkaline foods like meats and veggies. In class, we stuck with the boiling water method; it isn’t as hot as pressure canning and is good for beginners. When opting for boiling, you need to pick foods that are more acidic because they'll naturally decrease the chance for bacteria to grow. Typically canned chutneys, jams, pickles and tomatoes use this method.
1. Make sure you choose an updated canning recipe (You may have grandma's old recipe book, but it doesn't necessarily mean it's the safest choice).
2. Go for high-acid foods (i.e., tomatoes, salsas, pickles, relish, fruit jams and jellies, etc.).
3. There’s no rushing the canning process. The boiling time listed on the recipe is the exact time needed -- no more and no less.
You can purchase a home canning kit, or you can use some of your own kitchen equipment. You’ll need the following:
- Jar lifter: Don’t use tongs -- you’re handing very hot jars and you don’t want them to slip. Look for a lifter at your local hardware store.
- Special 3-part glass jars: These include jar bottom, lid and a lid ring with rubber inside. Don’t use old mayo jars -- you need these special ones. The glass parts and lid rings are reusable; you’ll only need to purchase new lids.
- Funnel: Makes it easier to get the food into the jar.
- Lid lifter: These are magnetic to help with lifting.
- Bubble tool: This thin, long stick helps pack food into jars and eliminate air bubbles that form between the pieces of food. Chopsticks are another option.
- Large Pot: You don't want your jars to sit on the bottom of your pot; look for special canning pots or place jar rims on the bottom of your home pot to keep jars lifted.
Clean all your equipment with hot water and soap before you start. And don't forget to wash your hands! An apron will probably be helpful, too. Your empty jars will be sanitized when you place them in the water to boil. You can also dip your tools in the boiling pot to clean them. Skip the bleach; you don't need it to sterilize (and nobody likes that horrible smell).
When prepping your jar filling, there are two options: cold pack and hot pack. With the cold pack method, you don’t cook food before placing it in jars. You'll need to use an acidic ingredient or mixture to help preserve the food and protect against bacteria. I've included a pepper recipe below that's cold packed. It uses vinegar (a highly acidic ingredient) to help preserve.
The hot pack method, as the name implies, involves cooking food before you jar it. Jams are foods that are always cooked before canning.
Many how-tos tell you to pre-heat your jars in the water; this helps keep them from breaking when you introduce a hot food into them. Use the funnel to get food in the jar and then the bubble tool to help push food down and get rid of air bubbles. It’s important to buy the correct bubble tool (or use chopsticks) since you don’t want to scratch the glass in the jar or the metal lid (this causes rusting). Leave space between the liquid and the food and between the liquid and the top of jar (typically 1/4 inch for each).
Once you've packed the food, clean the rim of the jar well and use the magnet tool to put the flat lid on. Gently screw the lid ring onto the jar until it is fingertip tight (don't close it tightly). Use the jar lifters and place the jar in boiling water. Bring the water back up to a boil and start timing. When time is up, turn off the heat and leave jars to cool for 5 minutes in the water and then remove. After some time (it took us about 10 minutes), you’ll hear a pop. Put your jar aside for 24 hours and check that seal is tightly attached. You can keep the jarred food for up to one year in a cool, dry place.
Sherri kindly shared her recipe for Pickled Peppers. The sweet-and-sour brine mellows the chilies, making them perfect for a liberal sprinkling on pizza, rolled into a burrito or chopped up with your morning eggs.
In a medium saucepan, bring vinegar, water, salt and sugar to a boil. Pack peppers into clean, hot, pint-sized jars, leaving a 1/2-inch space between top of the chilis and the top of jar. Pour the hot brine over the peppers, leaving 1/4-inch headspace between top of liquid and top of jar.
For refrigerating: Cool, cover and store in the refrigerator for up to one month.
For longer-term, shelf storage: Remove air bubbles. Wipe rim. Process, using the boiling water method, for 10 minutes. Remove from water, cool and check seals. Store in a cool, dark place for up to one year.
Here are a few good resources for canning tips and recipes.