An insider's guide to preserving summer's freshest produce.
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Steam rises from an enormous pot as jars jiggle inside. Cucumber skins cascade from the trashcan. Coriander seeds spill off the counter and bounce on the hardwood floors. Pungent vinegar wafts through the kitchen and lingers in the sticky air. Strawberry juice stains the ruffles on our aprons.
We're first-time canners. And no, we look nothing like your grandma -- although we're probably using some of her recipes. Canning and pickling might seem an unlikely hobby for two girls in their twenties. However, as more individuals embrace the idea of local and sustainable produce, a renewed interest in food preservation has surfaced throughout 812. And we're not the only ones who've noticed.
The National Center for Home Food Preservation reports that one in five U.S. households has tried canning. That's a lot of Ball jars.
Annie Corrigan, producer for the WFIU Public Radio segment "Earth Eats," has documented the trend in interviews with local canning and pickling experts. She believes the shift toward local and homegrown produce has sparked the interest in home-canning. "People are growing their own food, which means they're getting more cucumbers than they know what to do with. So instead of throwing food away, they're canning."
Processing your own produce can seem daunting. So we at 812 have researched the science of canning, interviewed the experts and tested the recipes to compile an insider's guide to preserving your Indiana produce this summer.
- Market research
- Grocery list
- Know your spreads
- A step-by-step guide to canning high-acid foods
- Canning chemistry
- A tale of two canners
So maybe you don't have a backyard garden. You can still incorporate canning into your life. Before you stumble aimlessly around the produce section, listen to Megan Hutchison, manager of the Local Growers Guild, and her recommendations on how to find and choose the best local fruits and vegetables to preserve.
What to get:
Green beans peak in May and can be enjoyed all summer. Small, tender beans are best in recipes like Hutchison's pickled beans. "I've been feasting on dilly beans, made with green beans that I canned at the end of the summer."
Indiana tomatoes ripen in July and often last through early fall. Look for ripe and firm varieties. "You can make sauces, salsas, juice, chutneys, and can whole tomatoes with them."
Avoid sour berries by canning them at their ripest in July and August. Thornless strains make for easier jellies and spreads. "The whole house smells of sweet fruit and jams. They serve as great gifts, too."
Apples enjoy a long growing season throughout the Midwest, lasting from July to October. Use firm, sweet apples to make perfect applesauce. "You can't go back to store-bought after you've made your own."
Where to get it:
If growing your own isn't an option, Hutchison suggests staying local. She recommends frequenting your local farmer's market for the freshest and cheapest finds. Bustling markets in Jeffersonville, New Albany and Bloomington open seasonally and offer tasty ingredients, music, entertainment and a chance for fellow canners to exchange recipes and their latest creations.
Dedicated foodies also have the option of farm-to-table produce with a Community Supported Agriculture subscription. Subscribers receive a predetermined volume of fresh produce directly from the farmer each season. Visits to the farm are also included, as well as a chance to experiment with a wide variety of local selections.
But for the more relaxed food enthusiast, Hutchison suggests befriending your neighborhood produce manager in order to snag the freshest option at the grocery. "They can help you choose the ripest vegetables and fruits in the pile."
You're equipped with the freshest local produce. Before the steam starts rising, you'll need a few gadgets and gizmos to turn your home-canning experience into a professional endeavor. Canning aficionada Sara Minard walks you through what you need to get started.
These specialized clamps help you handle hot jars. They're inexpensive and can be purchased at local hardware stores. Minard swears by hers.
Avoid excess mess with a funnel to spoon ingredients into the jars.
Canning bath or heavy pan with rack
"You don't want cheap pots. Your stuff will scorch, especially if you're working with sugar," she says.
Since pickling requires large amounts of vinegar, Minard recommends buying in bulk. Check online or at local restaurant supply stores.
"Plenty of sugar, just white sugar, especially with jams. When you start messing with other sugars, such as honey, it gets expensive."
Minard forages throughout Bloomington for Notting Field Garlic Seed Heads for recipes. She encourages others to riff on their own with unexpected spices and herbs.
She suggests using the same salts for fear of over-salting. Good canning recipes detail the type used, but pickling salt is a safe option.
"You can pretty much go to the market and say, 'Oh, these are in season right now. Today I can go home and make something.'"
Rubber kitchen gloves
"The cauldron steams, and if you have on a rubber glove it protects your hands from the hot temperatures. You can also momentarily dip your hand in if you need to."
Keep a journal close by to document changes or additions to recipes. "You think you're going to remember things, and then you don't."
Minard's best recommendation? Canning with a friend. "Having someone there to help you prep and talk to is really fun. It's a good way to just be social with your friends, and if you can get a group, it's a great way to trade."
You know you love it on your croissant in the morning, but are you sure it's a jam? Maybe it's really marmalade. Or a conserve. Some of the greatest canning triumphs come in spreadable form. Learn how to tell what's what.
Crush fruits for a jam and then mix with sugar to form a spreadable gel. Be creative and use multiple fruits for modern twists on the classic strawberry or blackberry favorites.
Cook up a jelly by combining fruit juice and sugar. The high water content in grapes makes them ideal for smooth, delicious jellies.
Prepare relishes by dicing fruits or vegetables and cooking them in spices and vinegar. For an extra kick, add some hot peppers or sweeten things up with a dash of sugar.
Whip up a preserve by keeping fruit in larger pieces so that the chunks retain their shape when cooked down with sugar.
Go heavy on the spices if you're craving chutney. These combinations of fruits and vegetables cook for long periods of time with sweet and sour spices for a hearty taste.
Take a jam and mix in nuts or raisins to create a tasty conserve. But don't add nuts until the last five minutes to avoid soggy, slimy textures.
Save your peels and rinds for marmalades, which are similar to jam in their gel-like texture. Citrus-fruit rinds make tangy and balanced marmalades.
Ready for the real thing? Here's our step-by-step guide to canning high-acid foods like jams, jellies and pickles. We talked with Kayte Young, a canning expert and nutrition education coordinator at Mother Hubbard's Cupboard in Bloomington. Young teaches canning classes in hopes of spreading the can-do attitude to others. Here are her tips to avoid self-proclaimed "cantastrophes."
- Wash your jars (and your hands!) in hot, soapy water before beginning the canning process. Check for nicks, cracks or uneven rims, which could prevent correct sealing or cause breaking.
- Sterilize your jars by fully dunking them in water and boiling for 10 minutes. Keep the jars in warm, simmering water until you're ready to fill them.
- Read your recipe carefully, and follow instructions as directed.
- Although rims and lids can be simmered in a small saucepan, Young suggests pouring boiling water over the lids while in a large bowl or pan. Don't ever bring lids or rims to a full boil.
- Now you're ready to fill your jars. Using the funnel, fill each warmed jar one at a time with your recipe. Make sure to allow the proper head space -- do whatever your recipe suggests.
- Remove air bubbles by sliding a nonmetallic spatula around the sides of the jar. Special tools come in most canning kits, but Young says a plastic or wooden spoon works just fine, too.
- Wipe the rim of the jar with a damp cloth. Young uses an old clean T-shirt to avoid threads or cloth fuzz mixing with the food.
- Place your lid on the jar and screw on your rim. The rim should be tight by fingertip standards, so no need to work up a sweat.
- Place the jar in the canner and repeat the previous steps for all your jars.
- Once all the cans have entered the warm bath, crank up the heat. Begin counting your processing time after the water reaches a full, roiling boil.
- When your timer dings, turn off the heat and carefully remove the jars with your jar-lifter. Place them on a towel or cooling rack to avoid cracking.
- As badly as you want to sample, let the jars rest undisturbed for 24 hours.
- Make sure lids have a seal that does not flex and cannot be easily removed. Quick -- immediately refrigerate or reprocess any unsealed jars for food safety.
- Stock your pantry and enjoy your preserved creation within one year.
Looking for some perfect beginner recipes? Young recommends The Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving Recipes and Putting Food, both by Ruth Hertzberg. Check them out at your local library before someone else does.
You're finished. You did it. You think you're done but you're left wondering, "Is this food really safe to eat?" In order to understand why your food sits safely on your shelves, we'll take a look into the science behind the steam.
The heating process of canning ensures the safety of preserved foods. The high heat kills molds, yeasts and enzymes, and the vacuum seal keeps microorganisms out.
High-acid foods should be processed in a boiling-water canner. These include preserves, jellies, pickles, fruits and tomatoes. According to Denise Schroeder of the Purdue Extension, low-acid foods process at a temperature higher than boiling water, which means they require a pressure canner. Vegetables, meat, soups, seafood and poultry generally have low acid levels.
Once you fill the jars and submerge them in hot water, the contents expand and gases are expelled. When you lift the cans out of the water, the atmospheric pressure outside of the jar is greater than the pressure inside the jar. This change in pressure creates the satisfying "pop" that signals a canning success.
Schroeder emphasizes that canning recipes must be followed precisely to ensure safety. If done incorrectly, the results can be fatal. Botulism, a protein produced under anaerobic conditions caused by bacterium Clostridium botulinum, can develop if the acidity level drops below a safe level or the jar does not reach a high enough temperature to eliminate all of the spores.
However, Schroeder says fear of botulism should never stop anyone from canning. It is incredibly rare and easily avoidable; prevent botulism by eliminating air and adding heat. The combination of high-acid levels and boiling temperatures eliminate any chances of the protein surviving, Kayte from Mother Hubbard's cupboard explains.
The sugary strawberry syrup bubbles on the stove. It slowly rises as the boil strengthens. I mix the soon-to-be jam with my wooden spoon. It creeps higher. I'm pretty sure it's thickening. That has to be the reason it's nearing the top. A little higher. There's plenty of room . . . I think. The bubbles quicken. I stir faster. The syrup skims the rim of the clad-iron pot. Maybe my stirring will calm it down. I can't turn down the heat. That's not what the recipe says. Stir. Stir. Stir. Higher. Higher. Higher.
Oh no . . . I think we messed it up.
At the grocery store the strawberries seem sweet and far less intimidating than the cucumbers and their vinegar counterparts. The strawberries just need sugar. The cucumbers require smelly vinegar and spices we've NEVER? heard of. Grandmas make jams. Who makes pickles?
We unload the groceries and tear open the Ball brand canning-accessory kit. Out flies blue plastic tools that resemble toy knives and spatulas. Let's start with the strawberries. We've heard jam is for beginners.
Strawberry stems pile up on the counter. We dig through the kitchen drawers until we find the outdated potato masher. Who knew crushing strawberries took such upper-arm strength? Sweat builds on our brows. This is harder than we thought.
We add the pectin. Then some lemon juice. We dump in what seems like a sand dune's worth of sugar. That's when it happens. The sticky syrup starts to rise slowly at first before erupting onto what seems like every surface in the kitchen. The crevices of the stove are caked in reddish-pink slime. The burnt syrup smokes and crackles on the burners. I've got strawberries in my hair.
We rush to fill the jars with the bubbling substance. The funnel helps but my hands stick together and seeds dig under my fingernails. We've got to hurry up before the jars cool. Syrup coats the granite countertop. I try to lick off the strawberry-flavored glue. My mom is going to kill us.
We finally get the jars inside the water bath. Ten minutes pass, and we safely lift them onto the cooling rack. We stare at the jars, waiting anxiously for the "pop!" everyone has told us about. It's silent.
After five minutes of waiting, we start to tackle the goo-covered kitchen. Did the overflow mess it all up? We tried so hard. As I scrub the stove vigorously with a Brillo pad, I feel defeated. I don't even want to try the pickles.
In one second it's all worth it. Screams fill the house as we jump for joy and our aprons suddenly seem cool again. We did it! This is so fun! We love canning! The success of one single pop, (ultimately followed by others) reminds us of why we canned in the first place. Sharing time with friends and making something from scratch.
Bring on the pickles.
Some of our canning contributors share their favorite recipes for you to try at home.
Spicy Peach Chutney
Recommended by Kayte Young
4 lbs. sliced peeled peaches
1 cup raisins or dried cranberries
2 cloves garlic, minced
\0xBD cup chopped onion
5 ounces chopped preserved ginger
1 \0xBD tablespoons chili powder
1 tablespoon mustard seed
1 teaspoon curry powder
4 cups packed brown sugar
4 cups apple cider vinegar
\0xBC cup pickling spice
In a large pot, combine peaches, raisins, garlic, onion, ginger, chili powder, mustard seed, curry powder, brown sugar and cider vinegar. Place pickling spice in a cheesecloth bag and add to the pot. Bring mixture to a boil; then cook over medium heat until it reaches the desired consistency. This process will take around 1 \0xBD hours for a proper, thick sauce. Stir to prevent scorching. Remove the spice bag and ladle the mixture into hot, sterilized jars. Wipe the rims and seal the jars with lids and rings. Process the jars in a barely simmering water bath for 10 minutes. Make sure the jars are completely submerged.
Sweet Watermelon Pickles
Recommended by Annie Corrigan
4 lbs. watermelon rind
2 cups white vinegar
2 cups water
4 cups sugar
3 cinnamon sticks
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon whole allspice
1 lemon, sliced thin
\0xBC cup salt
1 quart water
Pare watermelon rind and remove all pink portions. Cut rind into 1 x 2-inch pieces about 1 inch thick. Soak rind overnight in brine made by dissolving \0xBC cup salt in each quart of water. Drain rind and wash in fresh water. Combine remaining ingredients and boil together 5 minutes. Add rind a few at a time and cook until rind is clear. Simmer about 30 minutes. Pack rind in hot jars. Cover with boiling syrup and seal.