Well Preserved

Local Eating Drives New Interest In Canning Fresh Produce

July 15, 2009|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,susan.reimer@baltsun.com

Our grandmothers punctuated the summer by capturing the flavor of that month's bounty - strawberries, peaches, beans or tomatoes - in gleaming glass jars with coppery lids and seals.

They called it "putting up" or "putting by" and the basement pantry shelves would be lined with the color of fresh fruits and vegetables, to be opened and served in gray winter months.

Home canning may have skipped a generation as working wives and mothers found the process too time-consuming. But it has found a resurgence not only as a result of difficult economic times, but as the next step in a new determination to eat fresh and eat local.

"We are seeing our sales up over 30 percent year to date," said Brenda Schmidt, brand manager for Jarden Home Brands, makers of the iconic Ball Mason jars. "And that's on top of a 30 percent increase last year.

"Canning fits our lifestyles now, whether you are thinking food safety, going green or for economic reasons," she said.

There has been a stunning increase in home vegetable gardens - an estimated 43 million have been planted this year - and all that produce has to go somewhere. With online videos and illustrated instructions, much of the mystery has been taken out of home canning. (The glass Ball Mason jar is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. But the process is still called "canning" because food used to be preserved in tin cans.)

Jesse Sandlin, the 30-year-old executive chef at Baltimore's Abacrombie (who, incidentally, will be appearing on Bravo's Top Chef: Las Vegas next month) is canning fruits and tomatoes this year. She knows that the local produce she is finding at farmers' markets now will taste better next winter than anything she will find to purchase.

"I am looking for things that can be accompaniments to dishes. Canned fruit that can be turned into relishes. Tomato relishes and sauces," she said. "We are really big on using as much local stuff as we can, and it gets really difficult in the wintertime."

Jack Queen of Upper Marlboro has been canning from his garden for years - he watched his mother and grandmother do it in a wash tub over an open fire in the yard - but his own children aren't too interested in keeping the tradition going.

"I grew up with it and, like anything, it is better if you watch someone do it," said the Long and Foster divisional president, who favors the pickled corn recipe from his grandmother.

Cookbook author Jennifer MacKenzie just published The Complete Book of Pickling, which has not only 250 recipes, but careful step-by-step instructions and plenty of advice to bridge the information gap for those who don't have a grandmother to learn from.

"I have had a number of friends and colleagues say, 'Yeah. I am willing to do this,' " she said.

She is convinced the local food movement is not a passing fancy. "And it will send us back to old-fashioned preserving."

Safety steps

Testing the seal is the critical step in canning. Follow these steps:

* Let the jars cool at room temperature, without moving them, for 24 hours. Do not dry or touch the lids or jars and do not re-tighten the bands.

* While the jars and lids cool, the sealing compound in the discs cools and hardens, forming a tight seal around the rim of the jar. You will hear a "pop" or a "snap" sound as the lid forms the seal. This is a good thing.

* After 24 hours, remove the bands and check to make sure all the lids are sealed. Properly sealed lids will be slightly concave. To test, press the middle of the lid with your finger. You shouldn't feel any movement in the lid. An improperly sealed lid will flex down when pressed and then back up as you release your finger. Jars that have not sealed properly must be reprocessed immediately. Consider refrigerating or freezing contents instead.

* For properly sealed jars, do not replace the band. Wipe the jar, date and label it and store in a cool, dark, dry place for up to a year.

Tips

* Never reuse old mayonnaise jars or the like for canning. Purchase Ball or Kerr Mason jars, manufactured to handle the heat. A dozen 16-ounce jars cost about $9.

* Never reuse rims and lids. Always purchase new ones. They cost $4 or $5 a dozen.

* You will also need canning utensils, including a wide-mouthed funnel, a canning rack, a spatula for coaxing air out of the jars and tongs to remove the rack or the individual jars from a large stock pot. These can be purchased individually or in a set for about $25.

* You can safely can high-acid products, such as fruit, tomatoes or pickles, in a hot-water bath. To safely can low-acid foods, such as beans, requires a pressure canner, which costs from $80 to $100. That's because the temperature for killing bacteria in low-acid foods must reach about 240 degrees, far above the temperature of boiling water, which is 212 degrees.

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