I haven’t been writing much lately. That’s because I’ve been up to my you-know-what in alligators in the kitchen, learning how to can.
I don’t come from a family tradition of canning. The only story I ever heard of my mum trying her hand at canning involved an untested batch of crab apples that turned out to be some pretty terrible Christmas gifts. The grandmother I grew up around was a war bride from Manchester, and although she made a mean strawberry-rhubarb pie, most of my memories of time with Nana involve being bribed with sugar cubes not to tell my Pa that we’d spent the afternoon at the beauty parlor. I’m sure the steam from the canner would have been detrimental to those curls.
And so, this year, I have been making my way through canning bootcamp.
Before I met my fiance canning seemed to me the realm of magic. I mean – how the heck does it work? And all you hear are horror stories of how hard it is and how hot and how if you’re not careful we’ll all die of some weird bacteria that we can’t even pronounce.
They’re right about it being hot – but other than that canning is less magic than it is lots of chopping and peeling and boiling and pouring. None of which require a magic wand, just some patience and an ability to take the heat! Apparently canning is enjoying a renaissance right now – thanks to girls like me who somehow find the hip in all things geeky.
It makes sense though – buy things when they’re cheap and in season (or better yet straight out of the garden) and with a little (or a lot) of effort you have lovely, high quality food ready and waiting for the depths of February when blueberries (or peppers or corn or peaches or tomatoes or just about anything else you can think of) will cost you the earth, have travelled half-way around the world and probably taste terrible to boot. And in a time when we’re all trying to save energy (of the kilowatt variety) it’s nice to know that you’re not wasting money or space in the freezer. How green of us.
So here’s some canning basics 101.
First things first. The tools of the canning trade:
Canning Jars: You can find boxes of new canning jars usually in the supermarket or places like Canadian Tire. Here in Canada they’re about 12 bucks for a box of 12. But if you’re smart you’ll ask around – you’d be surprised how many people have canning jars collecting dust in the basement. Someone’s gramma will be pleased to know her old jars are going to a good home. Fringe benefit of doing it this way – the old jars can be beautiful. (see above comment about my love of all things geeky). If you have no luck that way, you can usually find jars at hospital thrift shops and church bazars; they’ll usually set you back about a buck a box, not a bad investment! If you’re buying used remember to make sure the rims are free of chips or cracks.
Lids: If you bought your jars new, you can probably skip this step. But it you’ve bought second hand you’ll need to get new snap lids (usually found at the grocery store). Although the rings that come with the jars can be used nearly forever (I’m certain some of mine are older than I am), you can’t reuse the snap lids. I always try to keep a couple extra boxes in the house. Nothing worse to have a full jar of hot salsa and suddenly realize – no lid.
Random goodies: At the same place you get your lids, you should be able to get a starter canning set, including a plastic wide mouth funnel and a jar lifter (essential to avoid scalding your fingers, trust me on that one.) We got ours for about 12 bucks. If you think you’re going to get into it, go down to Lee Valley and invest in some stainless steel tools, they’ll be well worth the investment. Find yourself a long handled spoon, some tongs and a bunch of lint-free tea towels.
A canning pot: This will be for your water bath, where you process your full cans. You don’t need anything special. It should be big and deep enough to cover your biggest jars with an inch of room or so. The “proper” pots have a rack in the bottom, but if you’re in a pinch you can fashion a rack out of a set of rings or a cooling rack. This is one area to spend some money. We got a basic canning one this year and regretted not getting something more professional grade. Already the welds are rusting. So keep that in mind.
A great big pot: I mean great big. The biggest one you can find at a regular kitchen shop should be just right. Big. Very big. This is very important. The last thing you want is boiling sugar and berries spewing all over you and your kitchen.
You’re working on the principle that less air + heat + a vacuum seal = food preservation & long storage life. So regular food safety applies and you want to make sure you’re hard-to-pronounce bacteria free before you start, which means you have to sanitize your jars. DON’T do this in a hot oven as so many blogs tell you to. The jars are not made for the dry heat of the oven and they’re more likely to crack over time. What you want to do is sterilize them in boiling water. 10 minutes at least, and do all your tools as well.
Keep your jars in the hot water, removing them one-by-one as you’re ready. A general rule of thumb is hot-food, hot-jars and you’re good to go. This is the first step in every canning recipe and one of the most important.
You now already know how to get through the first half of your canning process! See, wasn’t that easy!
Watch for canning bootcamp part two!