Canning and preserving food is no longer the necessity that it used to be before the age of grocery stores and pre-packaged convenience foods. In fact, there are plenty of people who look down on the art of canning and preserving as being unnecessary, time consuming and pointless. However, for those families who understand the cost and health benefits of preparing your own foods; learning to can and preserve can go a long ways towards cutting costs and keeping your family eating healthy, even during the winter when fresh foods aren’t available. Food preservation is especially important for families that like to keep it green by eating local.
What Exactly IS Canning?
The concept of canning food is simple enough; you put food in jars and then subject the filled jars to very high temperatures for a long period of time. This process kills all sorts of nasty microorganisms and puts a halt on a whole host of enzymes that can cause your food to spoil. During the heating of the jars also drives the air out of the jar causing a vacuum seal as the food in the jars cools, keeping the food inside as fresh as when it was processed.
There are dozens of websites and books that provide excellent directions and recipes for canning different kinds of foods, but there are a few things to keep in mind before starting any sort of canning or preserving project. For further reference I happen to like The Art of Preserving and Preserving Nature’s Bounty.
Canning and Preserving Tips
Choose Your Foods. Just about any kind of food can be subjected to canning or preserving, but your best bet for both cost effectiveness as well as health benefits is to preserve the foods fresh (both fruits and vegetables) when they are in season, so that you can benefit from having 100% natural foods year round.
Know Your Process. Be aware of what sort of method you are going to want to use when canning or preserving your produce. Do you want to preserve the produce in its uncooked or raw state? There are preserving processes specifically designed for ‘raw packing’ your foods. If you want to hot pack your foods (heat your food before it is put into jars) then you will find that there is a whole different set of steps you will need to follow.
Make Sure You Have the Right Equipment. Canning requires some specialized equipment. First off, you will need a canner (The kind of canner you need will depend on what foods you will be canning so be sure to check which sort of canner is recommended for which kind of food), canning jars, new lids and rings, a jar lifter, a funnel (preferably stainless steel).
Start Small. If you are just starting out with canning and preserving, don’t get over-ambitious to start with. Begin small; simple vegetable or fruit canning can be an excellent (and easy) way to start and will give you much needed practice. As you become more comfortable you can move on to more complicated methods. Make as much as you can your first year without feeling overwhelmed and keep track of how long it took you to eat those items. Then the next year if you went through all 10 jars of jam by October then you know that you need to double the amount you preserve the following year.
Other Preservation Methods
Ice is Nice. If you have a large freezer or even a dedicated stand alone freezer then you have the perfect opportunity to freeze your seasonal fruits and veggies as you buy them for later use. Look for tips online specific to eat type of produce. That way you will know how to freeze strawberries and blueberries for instance, without having them stick to each other in one frozen lump. Once again make a checklist so that you know you started the year with 3 bags of green beans and see how long they lasted so you know how many you will need next year. Freezing is probably the easiest preservation method but sadly it relies quite a bit on plastic bags. I have frozen food in glass ball jars though with much success.
Vacuum Pack. I have never tried this myself but I know many moms who swear by their FoodSavers. I imagine though that most of what they seal still ends up in the freezer, as above.
Salt Preservation – I have a copy of the book Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning and it highlights ways to preserve meats with salt in lieu of nitrates and nitrites. I love this book but have never tried that particular method. My husband, however, would love to try preserving fish with salt.
Cold Storage – Some produce can be preserved simply by keeping it in your root cellar or another suitable place for cold storage. Some things that do well with this method are potatoes, carrots, turnips, beets, apples, and onions. Some need to be stored in specific ways though. I know some put carrots in barrels full of sand and apples are often individually wrapped in newspaper.
Dry Your Foods. Using a dehydrator to preserve food is actually pretty simple if you have a good dehydrator. I recommend the Excalibur with its is nifty trays and temperature controls. It allows me to dehydrate foods at low temperatures so that technically they are still living, raw foods. You can dry lots of fresh fruits and veggies and put them in jars for snacking all year long. Healthy school lunches are MUCH easier to pack when you have dehydrated goodies on hand. You can also dehydrate goodies for camping and backbacking trips. Whole meals can be made for this purpose so that you only need to add water at the camp site.
What is YOUR favorite thing to preserve?