Whole Food Adventures: Canning

Continuing our series on improving self reliance and depending less on industrial foodstuffs, both for health and economic reasons, I’d like to talk a bit about canning. Catherine and I (well, mostly Catherine) spent the majority of Sunday this weekend processing the 25 pounds of fresh peaches we’d bought at the Moscow Farmer’s Market, which incidentally cost only $17.50 for the case. Farmer’s Markets are awesome.

The problem, of course, with buying 25 pounds of peaches is that you then have 25 pounds of peaches. Even if you have a large family, this is a ridiculous amount of fruit, and if you just try to eat it all, your entire family is likely to be sick of peaches by the time you’re all out. Of course, the majority of the canning process does apply to any fruit, we had peaches, so that is what I’m planning to address today.

One thing that is fairly consistent with all fruit is the need to skin them, luckily peaches, and other soft-fleshed fruits, make this pretty easy. To skin a peach, it’s best to employ that blanch. A blanch is a simple process of putting a fruit or vegetable in boiling water for a short period of time (it depends on the fruit/vegetable), and then removing it, and putting it in an ice bath. With peaches, this interval is between 20 and 30 seconds. Once in the ice bath, it’s easy to pluck the peach from the icy water, and simply wipe the skin off with a paper towel. Perfectly skinned peaches in no time at all. This is best done with two people, one handling the boiling phase, and other skinning the peaches.

Once you’ve got your skinned peaches, the time has come to process them. Generally this begins with slicing the peaches, but from there it really depends on what you’re trying to do. For the Peach Butter, we put them in the food processor and processed them until we had mostly a paste. You don’t want it completely smooth, only mostly. Then, add the peaches to a pan, with some sugar and boil for a little while. Preserves and Jam are both similar, though they involve chunkier chops, and the addition of pectin to the mix as a thickening agent.

I’d give recipes, but to be honest, I’m not 100% sure we’ve figured it out yet. Catherine used the recipes from the Ball Blue Book of Presevering, but the bit of Jam that I tasted (which was the dregs on the bottom of the pan) was insanely sweet, having added 7.5 cups of sugar to about 4 pounds of peaches. This may well be related to the freshness of the peaches we were using. Alton Brown explains in the Season 10 episode of Good Eats, “Peachy Keen”, that once a peach has been plucked from the tree, it’s sugar content is locked, but it will continue to soften. This suggests that peaches sold in your average large supermarket are picked early, so that they’re at a good level of firmness by the time they reach the store, though they’ll never be as sweet as more local peaches. Of course, I could be off-base, and the jam may be the perfect level of sweetness, but I suspect that fresh peaches from local growers should probably have less sugar added than peaches bought at the supermarket. They’re just going naturally sweeter because the time to market is so much less.

Anyway, on to the actual canning process. First, you need a collection of jars, and lids with rubber locking seals. These are inexpensively found at most hardware stores, but expensively found at most supermarkets. Buy smart. You’ll also want a canning rack for each size of jar you intend to can, and a canning pot, both of which are fairly inexpensive. Canning is a simple matter of bringing the jars to temperature, since adding hot liquid to cold glass is begging a huge mess. Plus, boiling the glass will sanitize it. Place the hot jars in the canning rack, which rests conveniently on the side of your canning pot, which should have near boiling water in it. Fill the jars, then screw the lids on, and drop the rack. Heat processing depends on the size of the jars, and your altitude, but is usually in the neighborhood of 15 minutes. Use your jar lifter to pull the jars out of the water, and set them on the counter to cool. As they cool, you should hear the sound of the rubber seals sucking shut. This is a good sign.

Needless to say, I’ve mentioned at least three pots of boiling liquid in the above description. This is a hot process, and given that yesterday was one of the hottest days in the summer, it was kind of unpleasant. But then, we were canning for close to ten hours, so as long as you don’t marathon it, and spread out the work over a few days, it should be bearable. Unfortunately, Canning is a summer/early fall activity, since that is when the food you want to preserve is available.

After twelve hours or so, the jars should be cool enough to store. One thing to note, is that you should remove the locking ring, as it can hide problems, and make sure that all the lids don’t open easily. If any do, you can still re-heat process them at this stage, but later, an unsealed jar is likely a sign of botulism, and you should stay away. Unless you like paralytic death, I guess.

So please, look into canning. With practice, it should go fairly quickly, and be reasonably easy. It takes time, but most of that time is waiting for water to boil, so other activities can be pursued while the water boils. Plus, you know exactly what’s in your food, and it can often be cheaper. It’s a matter of priorities, certainly, but it’s worth considering. In the near future, I hope to get some old recipes for canning, both from Catherine’s Great-Grandmother, and perhaps my own, so that I can provide better recipes. In the meantime, the Ball Blue Book is pretty good, and again, not terribly expensive.