It is approaching the end of the season for many farms out there and impending shortage always puts preservation on the brain. It should be noted that a responsible and serious canner would have been canning all summer, from when early crops started to be harvested. They would have felt the crisping of the air and not let it dampen their brow for one moment. Just a thought to their stockpile of jams and relishes and pickles and other less flavor enhanced preserved produce would assuage any fear of the chill sweeping through the trees. The leaves fall and the jars stack high, exuding safety, security, and the pride in a job well done.
But I am not a “real” canner. True, I am a real human, living in the real world, and I really did make those jars of pasta sauce, apple pie filling and jam that you can see on my *shameless plug* Instagram account; @alicearaptor. But I am not doing it for the nutrition and safety of my family through the winter. I am doing it to learn. In my last post I talked about how learning makes you feel green and how I struggle with my position as a novice in my chosen life. So, why now am I admitting to trumping myself up on Instagram to appear more knowledgeable, wholesome, and prepared than I actually am when I could have left well enough alone and let people think I do this every year? Because I believe that honesty is the best policy, especially in this social media age. And I also know that life imitates art far more than art imitates life (thanks, Oscar Wilde). So I am at once telling you that I am only vaguely aware of the full effort necessary to survive the winter but I am also making something beautiful to aspire to.
I do know the feeling of joy and anticipation when you find this in your driveway:
And know you can somehow turn it into these:
So I am not a fraud, simply a filthy casual yet again. I canned windfalls and discount tomatoes and it makes me happy, but not an expert. By putting things on the internet and showing the world in a cute, pre-arranged, carefully lit way what I have created, I get to not only bask in the pride of my small accomplishment (because it does take a lot of work as I will get to later) but I also get to set up the illusion of an expectation that I will do it again. I did this with the bike trip, too. Because I am so socially anxious (and I am willing to bet a lot of you are too) that once I say I am going to do something on the internet , I have to do it or face the faceless shame of anonymous followers. Its my way of psyching myself up to fulfill my dreams. If I get a taste of the positive reaction I know will come from my friends, peers, and strangers alike when I publicly announce my plans, I can’t help but follow through, if only to fulfill my “promise” to my “friends.” So my life imitates my own art as I constantly chase my own aesthetic. What a tangled web indeed.
BUT BACK TO CANNING! While I need some motivation to stay the course (hence the ambitious social media usage), I have not fully succumbed to my imposter syndrome and so I do and forever will know my real reasons for canning:
- Stopping food waste
- Controlling what I put in my body
- Supporting organic and local farmers
Because I know I can get pretty much whatever I want or need from the grocery store a couple miles into town I will never really can for survival. We live in a post-scarcity economy and I am lucky enough to be in a part of the world that gets to actually experience that bounty. So I need not fear for my belly as the autumnal breeze begins to ruffle to fur of my Pyrenewf. But knowing that we are growing so much food that never reaches the mouth of a living thing is infuriating. We waste up to 40% of the food we grow here in the US, according to the NRDC. So while we still expend all the energy necessary to grow the food, pick the food, transport the food, and in some cases process the food it is never eaten. It is impossible for a single person to stop this on a nation-wide scale, but you can stop it in your own life. I strive to not waste an ounce of food by buying only what I can eat, not letting food in my fridge fall through the cracks and by preserving what I know I will not get to. Maybe next I should start a petition to make my local grocer give near expired foods to shelters and food banks (instead of the wide and hungry mouth of the American landfill) but you know, baby steps.
Over the years, I have also become more concerned with what I eat. Not only for personal health but also for the societal and economic structures I support with my choices. No one living on a limited budget without a dedicated food garden of sizeable proportion, diversity and productivity can be in control of absolutely everything they eat. You can grow your own produce but no one I know grows their own grain to process into flour, or can grow avocados outdoors at 45° N. So we have to rely on the commercial food system for many of our staples. So when I have the choice to make my own convenience foods (canned pasta sauce for example) and to know that everything I put in it got the Alice stamp of approval is a comforting luxury. I know where it came from, how it was made, and what it contains. Then I also don’t have to worry about all those other things you need to think about when buying commercially produced food like ; working conditions, factory cleanliness, the mono-crop, round-up driven food system, the fact that bees are dying at an alarming rate, or fair treatment of the millions of undocumented immigrants who work diligently and often times go uncompensated. And so I opt to control these things myself by temporarily opting out of the system I see as the problem.
The other side of the coin is that I get to support the farmers in my area that I know and love. I got a big box of sauce tomatoes from our friends Katie and Kevin this year. These are organic, small scale farmers who have incredible diversity and productivity on their property in the Santa Clara neighborhood of Eugene. They also happen to be Dartmouth alums. Leave it to me and Joey to find the gentlemen farmers as soon as we touch down. But these are people I respect and in many ways seek to emulate. I don’t know their whole story, but it sounds to me like they hopped off that gilded bandwagon I talked about last week and right into a field of their own making. I am sure there were many intermediate steps, but only time will tell. But people who you respect deserve your business. So I buy my produce from these folks to support them and their endeavor because I want more food to come from places like that, and they grow a damn good tomato.
So now that I have told you why I can, where I can, and how many pictures I take of my cans, let’s get down to the how:
So there is a certain amount of equipment you will need for this expedition.
- Large stock pot (doesn’t have to be canning specific but can be like this one)
- Canning rack: often comes with the pot, wire rack to set jars in below the water for easy lifting
- Can grabber/jar lifter: SO USEFUL, I have done it with and without this tool and I will never do without again. Makes it so much less likely you’ll burn yourself
- Jars and lids: pretty ubiquitous, most popular brands and Ball and Kerr, you can find these in your local supermarket in the seasonal aisle starting around late July.
So now you will need to prepare your food stuffs. Whatever that might be. You can can pretty much anything but keep in mind that there must be a liquid component. If you dry can something there is not any guarantee it will stay edible or that the seal will hold. Also you will look silly. Another word to the wise, you can’t process a half full jar. Same deal as the no liquid dilemma. It may not seal correctly and it may go bad even if it does. With those tips in mind here are my vague steps:
- Make your product (you could use my recipe for tomato sauce or you can really just ask your grandma, I guarantee she has a box of canning recipes you don’t know about)
- While product is still hot, sterilize your jars
- Fill your stock pot with the canning rack at the bottom with enough liquid to cover the jars. You can use one to measure and then fill the pot to the collar of the jar, the volume of glass from the others will displace enough water to cover.
- Bring to a rolling boil, you might want to do this while you are preparing the product, it’s a lot of water, this step will take a while.
- Add a few more cups of water if necessary to account for evaporation.
- Use jar grabber to place jars in boiling water, be careful to lower them in tilted to avoid splashing boiling water all over your arms, it sucks.
- Let boil for at least 10 minutes.
- Bring water to a boil in a smaller pot for the lids. No need to sterilize the rings, but the lids need to be sterilized and the sealant on the inside needs to be softened. You can plop the lids in and let them boil the whole time you are filling the jars too.
- Remove jars after 10 minutes and put on a cloth covered surface face down. Some recipes say a cloth covered wood surface but I left some rings on a table that doesn’t belong to me doing that so I think stone or laminate or whatever your counters are is fine. DO NOT TURN YOUR POT OFF, you need the water to keep boiling and you will regret having so much time to wait around if you turn it off and have to wait for it to re-boil.
- While jars are still hot, Fill them up!
- Follow your recipe in regards to head space. Some foods (like jam) have specific requirements for headspace based on their ingredients (for example strawberry jam needs more than most others? why? I don’t know. Strawberries are weird.) so be sure to follow the guidelines to prevent overfilling (your jars won’t seal).
- Use a wide mouth funnel if you have one. This just makes your life easier. Keeps the mess off your counters and keeps your food off the jar rim which can keep it from sealing properly.
- Wipe the rim of the jar with a lint free cloth (or do your best) to make sure nothing is stuck there that will prevent your jar from sealing during processing.
- Take lids out of their simmering pot on the stove one at a time (so the rest don’t cool) and place them over the the tops of your jars.
- Tighten rings around the top as best you can. You do not want to tighten rings after they process because you could pop the seal so make sure you get them good and tight before you put them in.
- PROCESS: This is fancy speak for put the jars in the boiling water. A lot of recipes (including my grandmother’s bread and butter pickle recipe) will just say “Process” at the end so you might have to wing it, here is a safe bet on what to do.
- Put your filled and closed jars back in the boiling water using your jar grabber. Leave ~2 inches in between jars or at least don’t let them touch. Not sure why but all the recipes say so and I don’t want to pick glass shrapnel out of my face so I listened.
- Wait the amount of time prescribed in your recipe…….or if it doesn’t say wait 20 minutes and call it good.
- Remove jars from boiling water using the jar grabber or by lifting the whole rack out of the pot. You don’t want to use the rack for removing jars during the sterilization phase because they are un-lidded and full of boiling water (aka hazardous) but in this step it is a fine way to do it.
- Set on cloth covered surface to cool. Listen for the soft *ping* as the lids suck themselves down. Most satisfying sound in the world
So there you have it, canning basics in 4 easy steps. Pretty much. The fifth and most unexpected step I found in this process was to reconnect with all your female relatives over 50. I am not the best at keeping in touch. In fact, this blog is partially an excuse for me not to call and update you on my life (woops). So when I started posting my pictures of canning experiments on social media back in August I was pleasantly surprised to hear from some of my aunts I haven’t spoken to in a while. Shout outs to Ann and Jane for coming through with the family lore. Also big ups to Joey’s grandma (HEYYY GRAMMA NANA) for making me feel like a part of that family as well and sending me some of her recipes.
Go forth my friends, because now you know for sure….
YES, YOU CAN!