I've been canning and preserving this summer, just as I did last summer, but I haven't mentioned much about it. I think there is a danger in the abundance of recipes for preserves, pickles, and sauces that have been somewhat haphazardly posted onto some food blogs as these recipes may not necessarily be proven safe. It's especially a red flag if I see that the recipe was passed down to them by a great-grandmother or super-ancient-relative because family-taught preservers are not always up to date with the latest guidelines for food safety from the FDA, and this blogger can be a danger to their readers if they are sharing recipes that do not meet those guidelines.
I participate, as often as I can, in a canning chat on Twitter and a recent topic was food safety. Questions such as, "How do I know if I need to acid to my tomatoes for canning?" and "What ingredients in a jam are safe to change for recipe personalization?" came up immediately. The overwhelming consensus from our moderators and experts was not to change anything, especially if you're a rookie in food preserving. The secondary opinion, for those who understand the basics of canning, is you can change the herbs and spices, but you should not change any ingredients that will affect the acidity in the jar.
For example, let's say you want to can jam--maybe something like the Blackberry Jam with Lemon Zest that I made a few weeks ago. If you don't have the main ingredient on hand, you can't just swap the blackberries for peaches. The recipe is written with the natural acidity of blackberries in mind and that is a crucial component for keeping bacteria (the scariest of all being botulism) out of your jars. But, if you felt the urge to add a little ground ginger or thyme to the recipe, while maintaining the rest of the ingredients as it is written, that would be unlikely to affect your food safety.
Another important fact that can often be confusing is if food inherently does not have high acidity and you do not add acid to it, it is not safe to can in a water bath. If you want to can green beans (and do not want them to be in a vinegar brine like a dilly bean), then you must use a pressure canner. I have not explored the world of pressure canning so I can't speak on that topic--but maybe next summer? We'll see.
Of course your nose and your eyes should be your guide: if you open that jar six months later and it smells funky or there is something strange growing inside the lid--TOSS IT. If it looks and smells as perfect as it did when you put it in the jar, then you can feel confident that your food is safe.
While the canning demonstration at Findlay Market this past Sunday was more for beginners than kind-of-know-what-I'm-doing-people like me, I did learn a few things. If you find mason jars at a garage sale or thrift store, they may be reusable for canning. Just check to make sure there are no chips or cracks, especially around the lip of the jar, and use a new lid every time. And you don't absolutely need a canning rack; you can line the bottom of your water-bath pot with extra rings to keep the jars elevated from direct heat. Essentially all you need as a beginning food preserver is some jars with unused lids, a big pot of water to process the jars in, a rack or extra rings to set the filled jars on in the water bath, a jar lifter or tongs to transfer the hot jars in and out of the water bath, and a safe recipe. A few clean towels, a funnel, some open counter-space, and a friend to help go a long way, too.
And of course, the most common question from eager future-canners is, "Where do I start?" While I don't consider myself an expert, I do have a few tips:
1. Start simple.
Quick pickling and refrigerator pickling, which don't require water-bath or pressure processing and must be kept in the refrigerator, will give a newbie near-instant gratification and confidence. Some great recipes I'd recommend are my own Refrigerator Dill Pickles, Wine Me Dine Me's Red Onion Pickles, Zuni Cafe's Zucchini Pickles (as seen on The Wednesday Chef's site), and even Pickled Carrots from Smitten Kitchen.
2. Ask around for advice from friends and family, but be wary of the information you receive.
Food preservation traditions are often passed down. As Tea of Tea & Cookies so eloquently put it, the kitchen is a place that people have always come together, especially for projects like preserving the harvest. But as I said earlier--just because no one has died from doing things an "un-safe" way, like not processing for correct times or canning foods that don't naturally have enough acid, doesn't mean that it's okay and doesn't ensure that it won't eventually make someone sick. You don't want to be the cause of another's (or your own) illness, especially when safe recipes are accessible! You can find a few safe, FREE recipes like those on the Ball website. I'd also recommend investing in some canning books (always try to find the most recent edition).
3. Try a recipe for something you buy often.
My sister looooooooves pickles. I'd suggest she try her hand at canning kosher dills. My stepdaughter looooooooves berries. So we made blackberry jam together. Do you love salsa? How about apple butter? Tomato sauce? The list of possibilities goes on and on. If you can't wait to eat what you've made, the entire experience is more fun.
4. Have a little patience.
This is not a virtue of mine. I am a toe tapper and a rush-a-rounder and a now-now-now kind of person, but it's good to wait for the food in your jars to mature. You allow the ingredients to get to know one another, meld their flavors together, and your patience will be worth it. Most recipes suggest waiting two weeks or more before eating what you've made. I like to hold off a little longer; I wait until the weather turns chilly and I really, really miss fresh, vine-ripened tomatoes before I pop the lid on our salsa. The shelf life of food in jars varies, but if kept in a cool, dark place most can last up to a year, some even up to two.
Most recipes are written for making several pints or quarts of a product. The Ball recipe for Zesty Salsa, that I've made two years in a row because we loved it so much the first time, makes six pints. We really love our chips and salsa around here, but it's fun to give a few of those pints away so others can enjoy it too! Home-canned goods make wonderful gifts for house-warmings, congratulations-on-the-new-such-and-such, and even holiday gifts.
Hopefully by now I've convinced you that canning is easy and accessible, and you are thinking about what you want to do to get started. I'd like to help you out with that!
I'm doing a Canning Giveaway that starts today, September 16 and ends on Thursday, September 22 at 11:59pm. I will announce a winner on Friday, September 23. You could win:
Canning for New Generation
Ball Blue Book
Ball Utensil Set (jar lifter, jar funnel, lid lifter, bubble remover & headspace tool)
2 Coupons for $1.50 off Ball Jars
Prizes are all provided by me and will be new/unused.
A few rules:
1. One entry per person. I will ship via USPS anywhere in the continental U.S.A.
2. To enter: Leave a comment answering this question: I'm interested in canning because...
3. Winner will be chosen randomly. A number will be randomly generated and the commenter's who number matches the random number will be the winner.
4. I will ship the products directly to you so on Friday I will need to be able to contact you for a shipping address. If I can't figure out who you are by your commenter name or because I know you inside or outside the blog world, then you may forfeit your prize. I will give the winner 24 hours to claim the prize by asking the winner to contact me. If I there is no contact made, I will choose another random number and have a new winner.
I will not respond to questions or inquiries in the comments section until the giveaway is over so that I don't affect the "numbers" until after the giveaway ends. If you do you have a question, you are always welcome to find me on twitter or email me (contact information is on my About page).
UPDATE: The winner is...(drumroll)...comment #9 Jaida! Congrats Jaida! I'm sending you an email to get your shipping information! Thanks everyone for entering!