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Preserving summer just a little while longer

Sept./Oct. 2008 California Country magazine

Canning, a process often associated with cooking experts or doting grandmothers, just might be occurring in an unlikely kitchen near you.



Ron Mansfield, owner of Goldbud Farms in Apple Hill, shows off his crop of Elegant Lady peaches that are not only good for canning, but can be frozen for winter enjoyment as well.
Ron Mansfield, owner of Goldbud Farms in Apple Hill, shows off his crop of Elegant Lady peaches that are not only good for canning, but can be frozen for winter enjoyment as well.

In an age of thriving farmers markets and flourishing home gardens, food lovers everywhere are preserving the fresh fruits and vegetables of summer through what many consider a lost art. Canning, a process often associated with cooking experts or doting grandmothers, just might be occurring in an unlikely kitchen near you. Ranging from "homemade chic" gifts of jams and chutneys to the more traditional tomatoes and pickles, people of all ages and backgrounds are getting creative with canning.

Lillian Smith, a University of California Cooperative Extension certified master food preserver, draws on her decades of canning experience to pass the tradition down to her daughter, Alicia, a nutrition and food science major at California State University, Chico.

"It's something my mother taught me as a girl," she said. "And as soon as Alicia was big enough, she was pulling a stool up to the kitchen counter right next to me."

Smith, herself a Chico State alumna and nutrition major, logged countless hours of canning to become a master food preserver. And much to Smith's delight, her daughter is set to continue down a similar career path. The young woman currently works in the dietary department of a long-term care facility and plans to become a registered dietitian.

Lillian Smith of Rio Linda has passed down her love of canning to daughter Alicia. While they grow most of their own produce, they also buy fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers.
Lillian Smith of Rio Linda has passed down her love of canning to daughter Alicia. While they grow most of their own produce, they also buy fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers.

Others are brand-new to the process of canning.

"In the past couple of years, I have really seen a resurgence in the popularity of canning among younger families," said Janie Williams, owner of a Northern California boutique kitchen shop called Home and Farm Kitchen Store. The small Amador County store sells canning supplies not only to locals, but to customers as far away as Canada, through their online store, www.biggestlittlekitchenstore.com.

Williams credits the popularity of farmers markets and the rising awareness of healthy eating to the recent peak in interest in home canning.

"I think the buzz of home gardening and buying fresh produce at farmers markets is resulting in young families wanting to learn more about the process," said Williams. "It's just a healthy way to eat."

Speaking of the health-conscious, recent research has revealed that items like tomatoes can offer more health benefits when canned. In fact, studies have shown that canned tomatoes contain more lycopene, a cancer-fighting substance, than fresh tomatoes.

Ron Mansfield, owner of El Dorado County's Goldbud Farms, has a steady following of canners who make special trips to his farm to purchase peaches, plums and nectarines, perfect for summer jams.

"Our retail facility is open all summer long, and folks know they're going to get ripe, ready fruit here," said Mansfield. "We grow a lot of older varieties that have really superior flavor, which is what canners are looking for."

Although the process may seem complicated to most people, the best part about home canning is that you don't have to be an expert to do it. Multiple resources are available for the aspiring canner, including books, Web sites and community centers that offer hands-on courses on food preservation, such as the canning classes offered by UC Cooperative Extension's master food preservers.

"We're seeing people of all ages and backgrounds come to our canning classes," said Smith. "I recently met a young mother who had seen her grandmother can when she was a girl. Her mother didn't carry on the tradition, so she wanted to learn how so she could teach her children."

Smith points out that, to safely preserve the flavors of summer, there are some guidelines canners must follow. When canning most fruits, the water bath method is usually used. When canning items like meats or low-acid vegetables such as asparagus, carrots or peas, a pressure canner should be used. The recipe should clearly specify which method to use.

"UC master food preservers stress that only recipes coming from a credible source utilizing modern standards should be used," Smith said. "This way we can ensure absolute safety."

Still feeling a little unclear about the process? Then follow Travis Williams' rule of thumb. As the son and employee of Home and Farm Kitchen Store owner Janie Williams, he often shares the insight he learned from his grandmother, a canning expert, with his customers.

"If it comes from a tree or vine, it will probably require the water bath method. If it comes from the ground, you'll most likely need to use a pressure canner," he said. He also adds that newer canning tools like steam canners are becoming readily available and can be used in place of water bath canners for jams and jellies.

"I think it's wonderful to see all of the different people who are canning today," said Smith. "Whether it's men or women, young or old, there's definitely still a passion for canning out there. And it brings the family together."

To learn more about the canning process or for tips and recipes, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation's Web site at www.uga.edu/nchfp or check out the Ball Blue Book of Preserving, a UC master food preserver go-to guide. Visit ucanr.org/ce.cfm to see if your county's UC Cooperative Extension offers food preservation classes.

Tips from the pros

Although you don't have to be a canning expert to preserve your favorite summer edibles, there is a science to the process. Here are some useful tips courtesy of Sacramento-area UC master food preservers.

  • Use approved and accredited canning recipes.
  • When canning items like strawberries, rather than soaking them in water, brush or wipe them clean so they don't absorb too much water, which can affect the finished product.
  • Always wash jars and lids and keep hot. In addition, sterilize jars if the processing time is less than 10 minutes.
  • Make sure the rims of the jars are chip-free to ensure proper sealing.
  • Heat lids in hot water before canning to soften the sealing compound.
  • Wipe the rim of the jar with a wet paper towel before securing the lid and band onto the jar and placing in the water.
  • When using a water bath canner, do not begin timing until the water has reached the processing temperature, as specified in the recipe.
  • Be careful to not tip the jar when removing it from the water so the liquid doesn't get underneath the lid and interfere with the sealing process.
  • Wait 24 hours to test that your lid has sealed properly. Simply push the lid up with your thumbs to make sure it's secure. If the lid has been sealed properly, it will be concave. If it has not been sealed properly, refrigerate and eat within the next week or so.
  • Once the jar is properly sealed, store the jar without the screw band. You may, however, place the band back on the jar if you're giving it as a gift.
  • You can reuse bands, but never reuse lids.
  • Clearly label what you've canned and enjoy within a year for best quality.

Tools

Water bath canner: Most large kitchen pots can double as a water bath canner. Before purchasing one, check if a pot in your kitchen is large enough to use. A special pressure canner is needed only when canning non-acidified vegetables (such as asparagus, carrots and peas), meat, poultry or fish.

Canning rack: Racks are designed to place inside the pot so there is enough room below the jar for the water to circulate. Jars should not directly touch the bottom of the pot.

Canning thermometer: This tool is required to ensure the water has reached the required temperature.

Jar lifter: You'll need this to place jars in the hot water and remove them.

Lid lifter: Essentially a magnet, this tool helps lift lids out of the hot water.

Canning funnel: This provides the ability to place items in the jar without spillage.

Canning jars, lids and screw bands: Glass canning jars (also known as mason jars) are the only canning containers recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition, you'll need flat metal lids that contain a sealing compound and metal screw bands that fasten to the jar.

Stirring stick: Any suitable nonmetal utensil--even chopsticks--will remove air bubbles from the food you've placed in the jar before sealing.

Yes, you can

Tomato-apple chutney

Makes about 6 pints

2 1/2 quarts (10 cups) chopped, peeled and cored tomatoes
1 quart (4 cups) chopped, peeled and cored apples
3 cups brown sugar
3 cups vinegar
2 cups chopped cucumbers
1 1/2 cups chopped onions
1 cup raisins
1 hot red pepper, finely chopped (remove seeds for milder chutney)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp. ginger
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cinnamon

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepot. Simmer until thick, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. Ladle hot chutney into hot pint jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles with stirring stick and adjust 2-piece caps. Process for 10 minutes in boiling water in a water bath canner.

Adapted from Ball Blue Book of Preserving.

Basic canned peaches

2 to 3 lb. peaches per quart (use cling peaches for a firmer end result)
Light to medium simple syrup (see note)

Wash peaches; drain. Peel, cut, pit and halve. Make simple syrup. Cook peaches one layer at a time in syrup until peaches are hot throughout. Pack hot peaches into hot jars, cavity side down, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Ladle hot syrup over peaches, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles with stirring stick and adjust 2-piece caps. Process pints for 20 minutes or quarts for 25 minutes in 190-degree water in a water bath canner.

Note: For a medium syrup, use 3 1/4 cups sugar and 5 cups water. For a light syrup, use 2 1/4 cups sugar and 5 1/4 cups water. This is enough for approximately 6 quarts.

Adapted from Ball Blue Book of Preserving.

Quick dill pickles

Makes 3 quarts

4 lb. cucumbers
2 cups vinegar (see note)
2 cups water
3 tbsp. dill seed or 9 heads fresh or dried dill weed
18 whole black peppercorns or 3 small dried red peppers
2 tbsp. salt

For whole cucumbers, small sizes up to 4 inches long are preferred. Larger sizes may be packed whole provided they are processed for a longer time. Wash cucumbers thoroughly and cut off blossom end. If using larger cucumbers, slice, quarter or halve lengthwise before pickling. Combine vinegar and water in a saucepan and heat to a simmer. Pack cucumbers into hot jars. For each quart jar, add 1 tbsp. dill seed, 6 whole black peppercorns and 2 tsp. salt. Fill jars with hot vinegar-water solution to 1/2 inch of the top. Remove air bubbles with stirring stick and adjust 2-piece caps. Process for 15 minutes in 170- to 180-degree water in a water bath canner. If large whole pickles are used, add 5 minutes to simmering time.

Note: If more tart pickles are desired, use 3 cups vinegar and 1 cup water, total.

Adapted from the University of California Cooperative Extension Division of Agriculture & Nutrition Publication #4080.

Lauren Shoda is a writer in Sacramento. She can be reached at info@californiacountry.org.


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