Start with tomatoes. The advantage of beginning your canning and preserving career with tomatoes is that they are acidic fruits that don’t take hours of complicated processing in order to result in an array of beautiful jars of red deliciousness. From there, your preserved products can sit on a shelf in a cool basement for months on end, until you turn them into magnificent sauces or salsas or soups.
Just the sight of a row of shiny jars in your pantry will inspire you. You may be lured into all manner of food preservation. Pickling, freezing, drying, smoking, fermenting, and pressure canning await you. (The latter is a method that is absolutely mandatory for low-acid veggies, beans, fish, and meats.)
You’re suddenly in touch with the old-time necessity to preserve and store victuals for the post-harvest season ahead. You may even want to learn about replicating your great grandmother’s dry cellar, where potatoes, carrots, turnips, onions, garlic, and all manner of root veggies can be stored. The innovative options for feeding yourself through the winter months are endless.
I was indoctrinated into the craft of canning decades ago, when an older friend, Bea, called me up one morning and said, “Let’s go! That soaking rain last night is going to ruin the tomato crop if we don’t get out there and save it.” I threw on some jeans and met her at an organic you-pick farm, where we often harvested from five acres of vegetables. I even snipped pigweed, lamb’s quarters, miner’s lettuce, and other weedy greens from the rows to add to my homemade soups. These were non-crops, which the farmer did not propagate on purpose and gave me for nothing.
Bea was a master canner. We carried bushels of ripe, on-the-verge-of-splitting tomatoes back to her kitchen, where she had set up a production line of kettles and utensils and towels and hot pads. We spent the entire day par-boiling the fruits to skin them and stuff them into scalded jars, destined for the canning rig. It was a steaming hot venture, and I went home with my own stock of gleaming beauties, along with the vital knowledge of how to rescue a crop from rotting and preserve it for another day.
She trained me well. I didn’t buy commercially canned goods for years. Her repertoire included fruit jellies and butters, sauerkraut, cucumber pickles, and other delectables. She even picked local concord grapes and made her own grape juice. I still own her low-tech bottle capper, a wooden handle with a heavy metal end, with which a flat bottle cap is whammed onto a single-serving bottle by hammer to seal the juice inside. I was on my way.
I have had disastrous results on occasion. I’ve tried producing a decent jar of jelly to no great success. My gardening partner, Wendy, is the jelly queen, so I get to enjoy the fruits of her labor every now and then. My attempts at making a good kimchi that doesn’t totally put me off with its fishy smell are progressing, but slowly. I’m still leery of burying cooked poultry in vats of fat, ala a French confit—but maybe that’s just my personal trepidation.
Meanwhile, canned and frozen produce fills my kitchen and basement storage room. I grow a large garden and feel morally obligated to utilize the food I produce. Either that or give it away. Wasting food is a sin, right? Learning to preserve food may just be your ticket to culinary heaven. What’s more, we live in a veritable Garden of Eden, where numerous farmers markets offer the absolute best in produce.
In off years when my crop has been less than impressive, I have walked away from the Uptown Kingston market with 20-pound boxes of tomatoes, bound for my own kettles and jars. And the great thing about canning tomatoes is that if a single Mason jar does go bad on you, you will know it as soon as it starts stinking up your cupboard. No danger of food poisoning, because your nose will tell you: DON’T EAT THIS.
Other preserved foods-gone-bad are not always so generous with their forewarnings. Which is why you really ought to get hold of one of those more scientific instruction books and follow the recipes and procedures religiously. I recommend the classics, such as the Kerr Home Canning Book, originally published in 1950, or the updated Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, edited and published in 2006 by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine. Both offer safe, user-friendly methods and recipes to preserve everything from those easy tomatoes (including cold-packed salsas, hot-packed and stewed with basil, chutneys, jams, pasta sauces, ketchups, seafood cocktail sauces), as well as fruits, pickles of all sorts, and fish, poultry, and meat.
During non-pandemic times, the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Kingston offers hands-on, small group training in a variety of tested guidelines for home food preservation. While the program is currently on hold, you can still tap into CCE’s wealth of available information at http://ulster.cce.cornell.edu/. In the meantime, start collecting those reusable Mason jars of all sizes, and be sure to keep enough new seals and screw-top rims in stock so you can dive into a project with everything sterilized and ready. Invest in proper, inexpensive canning tools, like a simple jar lifter, a plastic funnel, oven mitts, tongs, attractive jar labels, and a thermometer for cooking down jellies and jams. And make sure you have the required amounts of vinegar, sugar, salt, pickling spices, and whatever a recipe calls for before you start.
An older, more experienced friend like Bea, who has lived long enough to know what works and what doesn’t, may be the best sort of teacher. Someone who can tell you to freeze your homemade pesto in tiny jars, because anything larger may sit in your refrigerator too long once you’ve opened it. The basil has not been heat-processed, and it molds quickly after the jar is opened. Or someone whose mother—back in New Zealand during the 1950s—knew how to pack raw green beans in a crock of salt, and nothing else, for safe consumption months later. Who knew such a thing was possible?
For more tips and recipes, check out some of the newer titles in food preservation, such as My Pantry, written by Alice Waters and Fanny Singer, and Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year Round, by Marisa McClellan. You may be tempted to branch out with Fermented: A Four-Season Approach to Paleo Probiotic Foods, by Jill Ciciarelli or Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables, by Mike and Nancy Bubel. My motto is—be careful but be daring. Get educated, follow instructions, and preserve the bounty!