Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Comment on Canning

By buying our canned goods in the supermarket year-round we forget three things. We forget how to make tasty sauces and jellies that last. We forget to take pride in the individuality, provenance and history of our recipes. (Indeed, some people enjoy admiring their shelves of neat, color-filled jars more than they enjoy eating their contents; the authors of my 1972 Joy of Cooking comment, “you will find their inspectionoften surreptitiousand the pleasure of serving the fruits of your labor comparable only to a clear conscience or a very becoming hat.”)

Finally, we forget the urgency of fall: to preserve as much food as possible for the coming winter. Canning 20 pints of food took me 5.5 hours (because I had to learn the process; done again, with a single, simpler sauce, it would take no more than 2.5); preserving enough food for four bleak, cold months must take weeks. This is a season of great beauty, of pausing at the descending stillness and starkness of the dying land, but it is also a season of furious preparation. To have a mind of autumn one must mind winter.

The Recipes

Pears:

I used Bosc pears picked during a trip to Rose’s Berry Farm in Glastonbury, CT. We washed and cored several dozen of these “aristocrats of pears,” and boiled them down for 60-90 minutes, making sure to put water at the bottom of the pot and stir regularly so they wouldn’t burn (which they still did, a little bit). We spiced them with plenty of cinnamon and a tiny bit of nutmeg and nothing else; then they were poured three one-quart jars. I would estimate that a dozen pears reduce to a quart.

Salsa Verde:

The salsa verde was far more complicated. I was trying to use up the Farm’s green tomatoes, of which there were an abundance after we took down the tomato plants. I also had tomatillos from a conventional grower, so I washed and husked those and used them interchangeably with the tomatoes. I used this recipe, quadrupling in order to make 24 pints, but some notes:

            -8 cupts of onions = 3-4 large onions, not 8

            -A decent head of garlic has 12-16 cloves

            -2 large bunches of cilantro yields about 4 cups

The hot peppers we used (jalapeños) were from the Farm, but the onions, cilantro, garlic, and lime and lemon juice were from Stop & Shop. It’s important to use bottled lemon juice when canning rather than squeezing your own: recipes are only shelf-stable with a certain amount of acid in them, and they are written with the controlled acidity of bottled products in mind. This is also why it’s important to use tested, verified recipes for canning—not every preparation will keep, even when the canning itself is done properly. Stop & Shop’s onions were fine, their cilantro was crumpled but usable, and most of the garlic heads I bought from them were rotten.

When properly boiled down, this recipe did not yield 6 pints! After quadrupling and boiling for 60-90 minutes (which still left plenty of liquid), I only had 14 pints of fairly water salsa. The solution: separate out the chunky stuff into some jars and watery stuff into others; use the chunky as normal salsa and the watery ones for flavoring black beans.

The Canning Itself

We used a pressure canner, which is easier time-wise but more finicky than a hot water bath; some recipes also require the pressure canner, which can reach much high temperatures than hot water baths can. Whether or not you need a pressure canner—and how long it will be on for—are also part of any good canning recipe. Make sure to follow those instructions, too, since a carelessly canned product can sicken or kill whoever you serve it to. The only other things you need are jars (which can be reused), lids (which cannot— and which, unless manufactured outside the US, contain BPA), and tongs.

Some tips—not an exhaustive guide—for canning with a pressure cooker:

  • Put your pressure cooker on the stove & put 1.5 inches of water at the bottom.
  • Fill your clean jars with what you want to can. Here a funnel helps.
  • Wipe off necks of jars so that there’s no gunk clinging to where the seal is made.
  • Heat the lids by dipping them in clean hot water; this will help the seal set properly and sterilize them. Water should not be boiling—you want to loosen but not warp the lids.
  • Screw the lids on each jar, getting them only just slightly more than finger-tight. Too tight and the air won’t be able to escape for the seal to set.
  • Put the jars in the cooker upright; they can be touching. To stack, use a metal divider between layers that should have come with the cooker.
  • Put the cooker’s lid on & screw it in tightly, rotating from screw to screw so that is adheres evenly.
  • Light the stove. When a steady stream of steam starts coming out of the air hole at the top, put the pressure weight on top, set to the right pressure. (We used 10 lbs. but your recipe may be different.)
  • When the weight starts jiggling at least 4 times a minute and the pressure gauge reads the amount you need, turn the heat down to the lowest possible while still on, and wait for the required amount of time in your recipe. (We used 15 minutes for both, but again, check.)
  • After the set time has passed, turn off the heat. Don’t remove the weight until the guage falls back down to 0! (This may take another 5-10 minutes.) Once it has, remove the weight and the lid, and take out your jars with a rubber jar holder; they will be super hot and probably still bubbling. Move them as little as possible (until the next day), keep them upright and level, and wait for the seal to audibly pop into place. There is no more satisfying sound in the mad rush of autumn.

Yasha Magarik is a senior English major in Calhoun College. He was a Lazarus Summer intern in 2010 and currently works for the YSFP as a Student Farm Manager.