Adventures in Canning

June 16, 2011

by Margaret Cabaniss

Canning is one of those domestic arts that has always had a distinct old-timey association in my brain — something your grandmother did in the Bad Old Days, when there were no grocery stores and no refrigeration, and everyone had to walk to school barefoot in the snow, uphill both ways…

Of course, like with so many other things, grandma had it right. If we value eating in season today, how much more valuable is the skill to preserve those seasonal fruits and veggies at the height of their freshness to enjoy year-round? What could be better than cracking open a jar of summer-ripe peaches in the dead of winter, or enjoying homemade strawberry jam long after the growing season is over?

On top of all that, there’s something incredibly satisfying and empowering about being able to provide for yourself and your family with the (literal) fruits of your labor — like you could be living off the grid in no time. When the zombie apocalypse comes, I will be well prepared with a larder stocked full of delightful homemade pickles and preserves.

So to that end, Ann and I drove to my sister Amy’s place this weekend, out in western Maryland’s farm country, so we could try our hand at canning. We were all pretty new to the process, having only vague memories of being around while other people did this stuff once; but with a little instruction and a lot of stirring, we were able to make some strawberry jam that would have done grandma proud.

Since the farmers’ markets are virtually exploding with incredible produce right now, I highly recommend getting out your stock pot and giving this a whirl. Here are some tips and tricks we learned in the process of “putting by”…

Start with a good guide.

While the canning process itself was pretty simple once we got going, there’s a specific sequence of events that has to happen in a particular order — and it’s all infinitely easier to follow with a good guide. There are plenty of canning books out there, but some of them looked to me more like encyclopedias than how-to guides for beginners.

Luckily, I started with Ashley English’s slim little volume Canning and Preserving, and it turned out to be just what we needed. Don’t let the size fool you: Ashley’s pared down the information in her book to the essentials, with detailed instructions and photos at every step — a boon for visual learners like me. When I went looking for a strawberry jam recipe, other books would offer up 5 to 10 variations — while Ashley has wisely limited her offerings to a handful of staples (plus a few delicious-looking new ideas) so as not to overwhelm beginners. In the end, we used her simple strawberry jam recipe, and it was heavenly. I really can’t recommend her book highly enough; I will definitely be keeping a copy in my kitchen for future reference.

Be prepared.

I’m one of those cooks that will start a recipe before I have all my chopping, stirring, and combining done — which can lead to some excitement in the kitchen when suddenly everything needs to happen all at once. Trust me: That approach will not work with canning.

Before you start, read through the instructions completely, start to finish. Then read them again. Then inspect, wash, and lay out all your tools and equipment before you fire up the stove. It may seem like overkill, but when you’re dealing with ripping-hot glass and pots of boiling water and jam, you want to have all your tools in the right place, ready to go when you need them.

Speaking of tools: You don’t need to spend a fortune on this stuff. Check your local Goodwill — or heck, even your mom’s attic — for old canning jars, pots, etc. And make sure you have lots of clean rags or dishtowels on hand (no, really: more than you think) that you don’t mind getting jammy. This stuff tends to spread.

Canning is better with friends.

Processing the amount of jam we did (and just learning our way around a canner) took the better part of the afternoon — but because we were doing it together, it was a lot of fun. The extra hands for slicing fruit and filling jars makes things go much more smoothly, and we didn’t mind taking our time because we were already making a day of it. Also, if you’re a terrible second-guesser like I am, having second and third opinions on whether your jam has properly gelled and passed the wrinkle test is invaluable.

Finally, it’s always good to have some impartial taste testers on hand. My nephew Thomas seemed satisfied with the result:

All in all, I’d say the experience was a roaring success. I’ve been eating this stuff on biscuits every morning this week, thinking over what else I can put up this summer: peach preserves, zucchini pickles, hot pepper jelly, spiced apples… the options are wide open.

What about you? Tried any canning before? Have any tips or recipes to share?

Images: Margaret Cabaniss

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1 Zoe Saint-Paul June 16, 2011 at 2:57 pm

I really missed out! I look forward to another canning day this summer… I’d love to do some relishes, pickles, and even tomatoes.

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Ann Waterman 2 Ann June 16, 2011 at 10:48 pm

You were missed, Zoe! Hope we can do it again soon and have you there to join in the fun.

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3 Courtney D June 17, 2011 at 2:04 pm

Can I tag along also next time?! I love getting food from our co-op since it’s all fresh and mostly organic, but I’d love to learn how to make it last longer throughout the year – especially the summer fruits. I LOVE peaches!

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Ann Waterman 4 Ann Waterman June 19, 2011 at 8:47 am

Courtney, J is the jammer in our house. Maybe we could have our own little party over in VA!

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5 Karen June 16, 2011 at 3:50 pm

My favorites are bread and butter pickles and chunky spiced applesauce. Cucumbers and onions really are the perfect combination and can be eaten numerous way. The applesauce is something my kids love and I use in all my fall and winter baking recipes to substitute for oil. I like to gift them for the holidays, too.

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Margaret Cabaniss 6 M.C. Cabaniss June 17, 2011 at 10:17 am

Love your spiced applesauce, Karen! Another great thing about Ashley’s book is that she has recipes for fruits and veggies that are in season throughout the year — not just summer. Looking forward to some fall and wintertime canning, too…

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7 Alissa June 16, 2011 at 6:56 pm

This looks amazing. I like the idea of hot pepper jelly. That stuff always blows my mind.

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Margaret Cabaniss 8 M.C. Cabaniss June 17, 2011 at 10:38 am

I’m a big fan of savory spreads. I had a bacon tomato jam the other day that I am determined to recreate at home…

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9 Eleonora June 16, 2011 at 7:01 pm

Sounds like a fun activity! I’ve never done canning and (don’t laugh) I found out that people actually did this after I moved to Canada. It’s not the type of thing you do when you live in a place where the season never changes… the kids love a good jam though, so I won’t totally dismiss the idea.

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Margaret Cabaniss 10 M.C. Cabaniss June 17, 2011 at 10:21 am

If you’re not ready to tackle the canning part just yet, Eleonora, you can always just make the jam to enjoy right away and store in the fridge! It couldn’t have been easier — just fruit, sugar, and lemon juice, cooked down on the stove. I highly recommend it!

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11 Amy June 16, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Y’all come back anytime. Thomas and his brother had a houseful of little friends over yesterday; they all went nuts over the jam too. Good stuff! Good times! I only wish we’d made more.

But blueberry season is coming up…

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Margaret Cabaniss 12 M.C. Cabaniss June 17, 2011 at 10:27 am

Oh, as soon as those first blueberries appear, I’m there.

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13 Sarah D June 16, 2011 at 10:21 pm

I helped my mother can things for years when I was a child. As an adult homemaker, I haven’t tried it because until recently, the prices on even the local, in-season, farmer’s market stuff positively shocked me. I was used to getting scads of berries for “free”, so the idea of PAYING for fruit to can offended me. Also, until recently I was living in a place where food prices were high. Now, I’m living in a place where they’re lower, and where there’s at least the possibility of u-picking your own fruit. I’m not canning anything this year (well, possibly freezer jam), but next year, perhaps!

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Margaret Cabaniss 14 M.C. Cabaniss June 17, 2011 at 10:24 am

I hear you, Sarah. In fact, out in our area, we had a pretty poor strawberry season this year — we had planned to pick the berries ourselves and save some extra money, but the season had already ended early. Strawberries were a little pricier at the local fruit stand, but I was willing to pay a little extra to have the homemade jam…

Good luck next year!

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Ann Waterman 15 Ann June 17, 2011 at 7:03 am

My mom gave up on jam because it would never gel for her. After Saturday, I’m convinced she just didn’t give it enough time. She definitely could have benefited from a canning party like ours! She did pickle everything under the sun. Her specialty was pickled carrots. I used to adore them until I got sick after having some. It was likely unrelated, but I could never shake it and haven’t had them since.

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Margaret Cabaniss 16 M.C. Cabaniss June 17, 2011 at 10:26 am

I would have been in the same boat as your mom if it hadn’t been for you and Amy making me be patient! Definitely a plus of working as a team.

I also have plans to make some pickles this summer — I’ve been wanting to try pickled okra, as well as pickled garlic; I had the latter at a tapas restaurant here in Baltimore, and it blew. my. mind.

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