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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