I think I can
This summer, I was determined to try my hand at canning. There’s an uplifting feeling of growth when you teach your hands how to do something new. Plunging them into soft bread dough that takes shape underneath my touch, coaxing vegetables out of the dirt, squeezing plump tomatoes until the juice runs through my fingers...my hands have been busy and productive lately and it feels good.
Accomplishing canning this year required some steps. It’s something I thought of a while back, when I encountered my first obstacle: fear.
I’m going to give my family botulism.
But the antidote to fear is education. I read up on it! I watched some videos. I talked to people who have canned for years. I learned how important it is to follow the method and the recipe. I’m one to see recipes as general guidelines. I substitute freely, adjust amounts, cooking times, etc., but canning is one area where I learned this is absolutely, positively not ok. So I invested in a tried-and-true book of canning recipes, published by Ball (the Mason jar people) and did not stray. I know how to spot a seal that is broken and I made a point to read about the actual number of botulism cases that occur in the US every year...154 total. So I realized that canning is actually pretty safe and the instructions are extremely clear. But in the beginning of the summer, when the farmers markets opened, I encountered another obstacle: selection.
Grocery store organic or seasonal local?
I wanted local and organic, but I noticed that many farm stands do not carry organic produce. I learned that this is because the USDA Organic seal is extremely expensive for small-time, non-commercial farmers to manage. But most small farms use far fewer pesticides than commercial farmers. I also read a fascinating article on the microbiomes in soil and how important they are to our gut and immunity. Smaller farms that rotate their crops and preserve the integrity of the soil are truly vital to our health. So I bought organic where I could, but always farm-stand local because the nutrient density of just-picked produce is hugely beneficial (we did can some of our homegrown stuff, but did not have nearly the volume we needed to fill more than a jar or two). And speaking of jars, this brings us to obstacle #3: equipment.
I don’t have what I need to can anything.
Ok, so this one really was an obstacle because it is absolutely true that there are some non-negotiables when it comes to equipment, like jars and lids. You cannot use an old pickle jar. You must have proper canning jars and use new lids with intact rubber seals every time. But. Once they’re on your radar, jars can be easy to find. They are hugely common at yard sales and flea markets, and I even saw some as I scoured farm stands. They are sold in grocery stores, home improvement stores, Walmart, Target, etc. And of course online. And jars are an investment because you can reuse them season after season for canning or as vessels for dry ingredients, as flower vases, for shaking up salad dressings, etc. So they’ll never go to waste. The lids as I said must be new every time you can, so you will need a few boxes of those, with rings. They were in short supply this year, as lots of people are still haunted by the empty grocery store shelves of spring and want to boost their food security moving forward, pandemic or no pandemic. But I was able to find them and plan on squirreling away a few boxes for a rainy day.
I learned there are two types of canning: water-bath canning and pressure canning. Pressure canning is for the pros. You need a pressure canner, which is a piece of equipment you purchase, and it is not the same thing as a pressure cooker. I decided not to toy with this more advanced skill for the time being, but pressure canning is good for all types of food. Water-bath canning, which is the type that most people at home tinker with, is good only for high-acid foods like fruit, tomatoes and pickles. Again, if you follow a trusted, tested recipe (such as from the Ball books and not Suzy from the Internet), you can rest assured that your water-bath canning recipe will have enough acid to be safely shelf-stable for at least a year.
To water-bath can, you need a large pot and a rack to fit in the bottom so that the jars do not sit directly on the bottom of the pot. You also need tongs to lift the hot jars and a funnel to fill them. That’s pretty much it. There are special jar-lifting tongs, but you can improvise by putting rubber bands around regular tongs to create grip. If you don’t have a rack that fits the bottom of the pot, you can use wire to loop together some metal rings in a makeshift rack. I just so happened to have a large pot and rack collecting dust in my basement that worked perfectly.
The first batch of pickles I made, I was a nervous wreck. I read the recipe fifty times, I asked my mom to come over to help occupy the kids so that I could focus, and I was sweating bullets. But like so many things, after I did it once, it wasn’t so intimidating. The batches I made after that came so much more easily and I started having fun. Seeing those gleaming, colorful jars on my pantry shelf is gratifying. I know exactly what my kids are eating, from where the produce was grown to what kind of sugar is used, and they make thoughtful and useful gifts.
During this process I’ve found myself channeling my great grandmothers who knew how to preserve the bounty of summer blueberries for those chilly winter mornings when they would crack open a jar to slather over hot pancakes, warming the bellies of their kids before school. Who knew that those jars of peak Jersey tomatoes sitting on the shelf would make a Sunday spaghetti sauce extra special. Their skillful hands worked their way through challenges and uncertainties in a time when convenience was much harder to come by. Knowing how to do something that helps my family in a very concrete way gives me a greater sense of purpose and a little peace of mind.