by Cyrus D. Harding
By preserving the harvest I do not mean that you need to rush out and purchase a tiller or hire a local farmer to plow your well manicured lawn under and start planting turnips. Your harvest may consist of a really good deal on carrots at a local produce stand or farmer’s market. Or, as is the case with my family, it may be the result of harvesting wild (Cutthroat) grapes growing along a country road. It might be making jelly from wild dewberries, blueberries, blackberries, muscadines, asparagus or even poke salad. And, once you become more confident in your abilities you can graduate to preserving venison, wild hog, other game and even fish.
Preserving the harvest for us is not something done once a year to supplement our food supply. It is something we do every month of the year to build our basic food supply and we go to the local grocery store to supplement our needs, i.e. coffee, sugar, flour and spices. We use between 1,000 and 2,000 Mason jars a year. Primarily we use pressure canning to put up our staples. We produce pickles of various kinds using mostly acidity, i.e. vinegar, and preserves using sugar, i.e. jams, jellies and chutneys.
I know what you are thinking, “Pressure canning is dangerous.” My response is that in almost 50 years of canning I have been burned more times by hot coffee than I have pressure canning. Pressure canning is safe, when done properly, just like operating a vehicle, and it can be a source of pride and enjoyment. When you point to a few hundred jars of freshly “canned” foods and say, “we did that”, you will know what I mean.
The first rule of preserving your harvest is; cleanliness. No matter which method of preserving you use you should make sure that everything you use in the preserving operation is clean and sterile. Clean all utensils just before you begin you processing. Even clean utensils sitting in a drawer can accumulate bacteria and bacteria is our enemy. Place all clean utensils in a boiling water bath prior to using to kill remaining bacteria. All your Mason jars, funnels, spoons, etc. should be washed in hot, soapy water and then rinsed in a mild Clorox (unscented sodium hypochlorite bleach) solution as a precaution. Add bleach to the water until the water feels slippery on an item or about ¼ cup to five gallons of water. If you spend the time and money to purchase plants and/or seeds, plant them, cultivate them, pick them and then can them, the last thing you want to have happen is lose all that time and money invested because of spoilage. Think clean.
The second rule of preserving is; freshness. Use your home grown, store bought or wild harvested produce as quickly as possible to preserve, not only freshness, but also as many vitamins, amino acids and enzymes as possible. The faster you convert you prize strawberries, blueberries, apples or plums into wonderful jams, jellies and chutneys the better tasting and longer lasting these items will be. Use the freshest produce possible. If it doesn’t look inviting before you preserve it, it won’t look inviting after you preserve it.
The third and final rule is; take your time. Don’t try to hurry or take shortcuts. Follow all the steps outlined in the recipes.
Recipes? What recipes? Good question and I refer you to the Bible of the home canner Ball Blue Book which has been around since 1909. It is absolutely indispensable. I have actively canned produce for almost 50 years and use the Blue Book each and every time. Going by memory is no substitute for safety. You can access the Ball website at www.FreshPreserving.com and find numerous tips, recipes and ideas. You can purchase a printed copy of the Blue Book online or pick one up at Walmart and other discount retailers or call the Ball Corporation at 1-800-240-3340.
Another great source of information about home canning is your county/parish agricultural extension agent. The USDA is the department of the U.S. government responsible for assuring safety in agriculture and they place at your disposal numerous pamphlets and information sheets so that you can can food safely. Also, try your local Land Grant university. They, by law, perform the same function in each state. Use only the USDA approved canning schedules which are expressed in pounds pressure per minutes per volume, i.e. 10 p.s.i. for 40 minutes for pints. I normally add a ten percent fudge factor and make this into 11 pounds per square inch for 44 minutes for pints. It is overkill but I am still eating corn from 2008 and it is as good as the day I put it up.
The most common question I am asked about canning is “what do you can?” Go to you grocery store and look at all the preserved foods in jars and cans and I have at one time or another put them in jars and processed them in a pressure canner.
The second most common question I am asked is, “what type of canner should I buy?” That is like asking what kind of car you should buy. Here is my answer, “buy the best equipment that you can afford on your budget and make sure that it has a good reputation. This is applicable for any tool, automobile or major appliance you may purchase.
Here is a safety tip that is often overlooked. When you remove the lid of a pressure canner, always, always raise the side of the lid that is in the opposite direction of your face. A face full of hot steam can hurt. Please remember this. I forgot only once!
Here are my recommendations and they are based upon my preferences. Number one in the canner industry, in my opinion, is the All American canner (http://www.allamericanpressurecooker.net). My favorite is the Model 915 but I am hoping to purchase a Model 930. It is a quality piece of equipment that will easily outlive you and be of service to your children and grandchildren. I have two and hope to purchase another soon. It has the advantage of not needing a rubber gasket to form the airtight seal between the lid and the bottom.
Number two in the canner industry, once again, my opinion, is Presto (http://www.gopresto.com). You would call me a liar if I told you how many of these that I have but let me explain that they are of various sizes and ages. I have two given to me by my grandmother that she used in a canning kitchen during the First Great Depression in America in the 1930’s. They will probably be serving me and my family in the coming Second Great Depression which is soon to strike our great country. I have total confidence in the Presto name and quality. Their website is very helpful with recipes and canning schedules plus tips, tricks and also manuals for every model of Presto canner there is.
The number three name is Mirro(http://www.wearever.com/mirro/Pages/pressure-cookers-accessories.aspx) and like Presto, you would not believe how many of these I have. Some of these were given to me as wedding gifts 40 years ago. I still use them today with complete confidence.
There are several “new” brands available and I have very little experience with them so I cannot offer much advise. But, let me say this, if you are going to use a pressure canner to cook with, buy a new stainless steel model not an older aluminum design. A pressure cooker can cut your cooing time for most items by 75%. Less cooking time, smaller utility bill. It’s that simple. The problem is that since the early 20th century Alzheimer’s disease has been linked to the use of aluminum cookware. You can use an aluminum canner with confidence but if the food is in physical contact with the appliance use stainless steel. This is not my opinion, it is medical fact.
If you are a beginner at canning I personally recommend that you use only “new” equipment and supplies. Many of the older generation canners have complex safety valves and they should be replaced before use. Most manufacturers make these safety replacements available on their websites for nominal fees. Purchasing used canning jars, which is what I do on a large scale, takes a trained eye to spot small cracks and chips on the sealing surface of the jar. I rarely pay more than fifty cents per jar and then only after I have inspected each and every jar. It is possible to use jars with small chips on the sealing surface for jams and jellies, where canning under pressure is not necessary. But to avoid confusion start with new jars and a new canner. Jars will usually last you many seasons. I am still using some I bought new in 1976 and I occasionally use one of the cobalt blue ones my grandmothers gave me. When you have a couple of seasons behind you, knowing how to evaluate jars and even canners will be much easier for you and probably even desirable if you put up more than 100 jars a year.
My dad taught me to always buy the best tools you can afford and that if you take care of your tools they will take care of you. This is very applicable to canning. Buy the best you can afford and take good care of you canner, jars and accessories and they will feed you and your family for many years to come.
I hope you become as hopelessly addicted to providing your family with the freshest food possible as I am. When you grow food without chemicals, no herbicides, no pesticides and use only organic fertilizers you can feed your family with confidence. Good luck and stay prepared.