Home canning is sitting pretty in the middle of a perfect storm. • Yes, home canning. You know, putting up for the winter. Making your own pickles. Turning local strawberries into sweet, sticky jam. • The seemingly arcane art of amateur food preservation is making a comeback thanks to the lousy economy, the growth of farmers markets and concerns about food safety. Add to that the locavore movement, devotion to organics and a renaissance of artisanal foods, and the climate is even more conducive to handcrafted preservation.
Several canning cookbooks have just been published, including Well-Preserved by Eugenia Bone (Clarkson Potter, $24.95), an engaging guide on small-batch canning suitable for novices. Others include The Complete Book of Pickling by Jennifer MacKenzie (Robert Rose, $24.95) and Jam It, Pickle It and Cure It by Karen Solomon (Ten Speed Press, $24.95).
Ball, a primary manufacturer of mason canning jars, saw sales jump 30 percent last year, and that spike has continued this year, says spokeswoman Stephanie Shih. Sales of other canning supplies are up, too.
"The same thing happened during the 1974 recession," Shih says.
Ball, celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, is also enjoying a bump in business from home gardeners. Shih says their numbers are growing along with their carrots and peas, thanks in part to first lady Michelle Obama and the White House vegetable garden. (Still, canning supplies are not ubiquitous. Not all big box stores that stock housewares carry them. Most grocery stores sell various sizes of canning jars, but not specialized utensils. Everything is available online; see accompanying box for details.)
Flossie Raines of the Hernando County Little Rock Cannery says she hasn't seen such interest in food preservation in her 16 years there. And it's not just from older folks who learned canning from their mamas.
"I am seeing teens, up to 20s and 30s," says the cannery supervisor at the cooperative extension program.
They come to the community cannery near Brooksville loaded with tomatoes, carrots, green beans and potatoes they have grown, harvested at U-pick farms or purchased from outdoor markets. They juggle jars and lids, pickling spices and salt, and lots of vinegar.
The cannery provides the equipment, stainless work stations and lots of advice. The annual membership fee is just $10, and Raines prefers users to call ahead for an appointment.
"It's not a very big facility," she says. "But we get a lot done."
Recently, 12 families squeezed in for an entire day of preserving. Ironically, at what is likely the height of the cannery's popularity, there's talk of closing it to make up for county budget shortfalls. Raines has heard that before.
The way it used to be
For most of America's existence, we ate food in season. Nectarines and plums were at their juicy best in late summer; asparagus was a tender treat in spring; and oranges dripped ample vitamin C in winter. Florida has always had a different growing season than the rest of the country, with the state's watermelon crop coming to market in spring and strawberries in winter.
Preserving the harvest through canning — at home or commercially — was the only way these fruits could be enjoyed in the off-season. Then came enormous supermarkets and global suppliers who brought us grapes in February and artichokes in November. We came to expect to eat what we wanted, when we wanted, the heck with the local growing season. Canning became the purview of farm folk and women competing for blue ribbons.
The tide is rolling back out it seems, and not just because the backyard tomato vines are heavy with fruit.
Increasingly, people are questioning contemporary food manufacturing practices and their effects on the environment. Food safety is a hot topic, fueled by regular reports of contamination in produce and meat. Flavor is also a factor in looking for better ways to feed the family. Produce picked rock hard and shipped thousands of miles just doesn't taste as good as the peach that's ripened on the tree.
Putting up what they grow
Courtney Boettcher is no canner-come-lately. At 36, she has been putting up home-grown veggies since she was a girl, first in her mother's Wisconsin kitchen, and now in her own place in New Port Richey. Husband, Eric, 37, helps with the canning and the gardening.
On a recent Friday, the couple made pickles, dilled green beans and jars of mixed vegetables (onions, cauliflower, carrots and green peppers) to add to the pantry. Everything came from their garden that morning except the cauliflower. Boettcher even barters old-school, trading pickles for compost to make her garden grow.
Boettcher, who works in the marketing and public relations department of Pasco-Hernando Community College, is the sort of co-worker everyone loves. She brings in surplus produce from her considerable garden, and occasionally shares her own canned goods.
Lately, she says, the women she lunches with have had questions about canning. They are interested in trying it. It's pretty simple, she tells, them. Just make sure the jars aren't cracked and that you've got a good seal. Don't want to make anyone sick, you know.
"People wonder how I find time to do it," she says. "But it's all about priorities. It's what's important to you."
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8586. She provides daily recipes on Stir Crazy at www.blogs.tampabay.com/food. Follow her on Twitter, too (@keelerstircrazy).
Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving by Judy Kingry and Lauren Devine (Rose, 2006) is the modern bible for home canners. It leads readers step-by-step through the two processes: water-bath and pressure canning. It also includes many recipes.
The boiling-water method is the easiest to learn. It is used for high-acid foods such as pickled vegetables, salsas, relishes and other sauces that include vinegar and sugar. Most new canners use this method.
Bacteria is killed by acid and heat, which is why the jars are sealed by submerging them in boiling water. It is important that all the food has been washed and that jars and two-piece tops (rubberized lids and bands) are sterilized. Jars can be sterilized in the dishwasher and the lids in hot water. There are other methods of sterilization, too. Jars should be hot when filled.
Pressurized canning is for low-acid foods such as meat, fish and chicken. It is more complicated and requires additional equipment and expertise.
For boiling-water canning you'll need at the minimum:
• Canning jars with rubberized two-piece lids.
• Large canning kettle deep enough to submerge jars.
• Rack that fits into the kettle and keeps glass jars off the bottom of the pot.
• Specialized lifter to grasp the jars and remove them from water. You can use tongs in a pinch, but they won't hold larger jars safely.
• A funnel to fill jars with pickling or other preserving liquid.
Farm supply stores and some hardware stores carry canning equipment, and most grocery stores stock mason jars and lids. You can buy a beginner's canning kit online at Canningpantry.com for $49.99 plus tax and shipping. It includes an enameled steel, 21.5-quart capacity water-bath canner, a rack that holds seven quart jars, lifter, funnel, tongs and canning lid sterilizer. Target.com also sells canning equipment, including a starter kit of utensils for $49.99. The canning kettle is extra.
Your county's cooperative extension office can answer questions and may have literature about how to get started. Inquire there about classes, too.
The Hernando County Little Rock Cannery is at U.S. 98 and County Road 491 north of Brooksville. The facility is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. Appointments to use the facility are recommended. To make an appointment or for information, call (352) 540-4306.
Janet K. Keeler