Food Preservation 101

Canning and fermenting at Arocha Farm, Surrey, BC
Canning and fermenting at Arocha Farm, Surrey, BC

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
~ J.R.R. Tolkien

Today I had a wonderful day at a local sustainable farm (Arocha): I attended the last of a series of workshops on what they call “Backyard farming” and today’s one was on preserving food with hands-on on canning and fermentation.

I have done canning before and canned as crazy this year, but wanted to see another perspective as I’m planning a few food preservation workshops myself. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being among (mostly) immigrants from China and their children and a few elders: children and elders were involved in all the steps (as it needs to be) and we have a lot of fun.

As I promised I would also post about “practical” Permaculture, and food preservation is definitely an integral part of it, here I go with no more preambles:

Food Safety first:

When you are preparing food for your family or to share with others, there are some basic steps you need to follow to avoid intoxications:

  • Wash your hands with soup and water and dry well. Do this each time you need to touch a new food type, surface or tool.
  • If touching food that will be consumed by others, try using gloves
  • Put on a mesh if you have long hair or beard
  • Wear clean clothes and make sure none touches the food (sleeves, etc)
  • Clean all surfaces and tools with water and vinegar
  • Avoid cluttering as clutter may attract accidents
  • Supervise children all the time
  • Eating when you are preparing food for others is not a good idea, as you are using your hands and touching your mouth
  • Try to avoid cooking for others if you are sick
  • Wash vegetables and fruits with water and vinegar
  • Use different cutting boards and knives for meat, dairy and vegetables or fruits

Tip: For canning: use trusted books’ recipes as some “old” recipes may not be completely food safe…

Saving money with canning:

Canning (and many other ways of food preservation) save money and prevent food waste as food is stored safely for times when it may not be available due to season production or food shortages.

When you buy food all year long, you are usually paying more for certain foods when they come to you from far away or greenhouses.

Out of season food is not only more expensive: it may be full of artificial preservatives and tends to taste bland or different because it doesn’t grow locally or naturally.

The best way to save money on food is to:

  • Learn when the vegetables and fruits you like are in season
  • Learn what your local farmers produce
  • Buy seasonal vegetables and fruits only
  • Buy in bulk from local farmers (and then can or preserve the surplus using other methods such as root cellaring, dehydrating, freezing, fermenting, pickling, salting, etc.)
  • Exchange the surplus with family, friends and community members: for example, you may like to can marmalades, fruits and sauces (as I do) and somebody else may like to pickle or ferment, smoke or dehydrate other stuff

Types of canning:

There are two types of canning: boiling and pressure canning. Boiling is using for foods high on acid, while pressure canning is used for the rest.

The main reason for this is botulism: this bacteria doesn’t do well in acidic foods but may develop in low acid ones. The boiling process doesn’t reach the necessary temperature for this to be killed, therefore pressure canning is needed.

Safe foods for boiling canning are:

  • Fruits
  • Tomatoes
  • Pickles (because of the vinegar)

Foods for the pressure canning:

  • Veggies
  • Corn
  • Beans
  • Meats (including fish)

Canning: what you need:

Canning pot
Canning pot

As canning tends to happen only a couple of times a year (around mid/end summer and fall harvests), you don’t need to buy all the equipment: you can share it with family, friends or neighbours. If you do can a lot (as I do) you may want to invest in some equipment:

  • Canning jars: these are already tempered so their glass resist many uses. They are also known as “mason jars” and can be bought at any supermarket, hardware store or even camping stores…you only have to invest in this once, as they last for years. Better to buy at least a box (12 jars) per each size: 250 ml, 500 ml and 1 l
  • Canning pot: you can use any cooking pot big enough, but canning pots are not expensive and they boil faster. They are also designed to accommodate racks.
  • Canning rack: this helps to prevent that the jars touch each other and crack and make the process easier and safer for you to put them in and get them out
  • Canning rings: they usually come with the jars and can be reused many times until you find rust, in which case you need to replace them for new ones
  • Canning snap lids: these cannot be reused as they won’t seal well after the first time. You can still reuse them for other purposes such as pickling, fermenting or storing food that goes in the fridge. You can also use them (along with the jars and rings) to store dried food such as pasta, grains or seeds…or you can paint them and use only the lids as glass supporters, decoration, games, etc
  • Canning funnel: important to avoid spilling food outside the jars
  • Jar lifter and magnetic lid lifter: great to prevent burns and help the process
  • If you are canning low acid foods you may also need a pressure canning pot. These are expensive so you may want to share with somebody else or ask around and see who has one

Canning: the process (boiling only, stay tuned for pressure canning)

  1. Make sure you have all the equipment and the ingredients before you start
  2. Read the timings as you may be doing more than one thing at once: for example, you may start boiling your jars (10 minutes) while you are cutting the ingredients if the recipe is fast. However, if the recipe will take some time (more than 20 minutes), you don’t want to start boiling the jars yet, or you may leave them inside the pot so they don’t cool down.
  3. Wash and check the jars: discard any that have cracks in the glass or border
  4. Wash and check the lids and rings and discard any that has rust or is bended
  5. You may start boiling the jars (only) for ten minutes in the canning pot
  6. Start preparing your recipe, fruits or vegetables you plan to can
  7. After 10 minutes boiling, turn pot off and leave jars inside. Add lids to this hot water during the last five minutes before using the jars
  8. Once the recipe or food is ready, take the jars out of the canning pot and put them on a towel, facing up
  9. Using the funnel, fill up the jars, usually to ½ inch from the top (too full it may not seal well and too little may keep air, which impacts safety and flavour)
  10. With a spoon or knife, stir jars content, making sure all the air bubbles are out
  11. With a clean towel, clean the outer area of the top of the jar (the ring) of any food spills
  12. Using the lid lifter, pick the lids and put them on the top of the jars
  13. Close the jars with the rings, avoid tighten them too much: you want to leave some small space for air to come out once the process starts
  14. Using the jar lifter (or a kitchen glove), put the jars back into the rack and down into the hot water
  15. Put the lid to the canning pot and boil jars according to recipe specifications
  16. Once the jars have boiled, leave them for 5 minutes and take them out using the jar lifter or a kitchen glove
  17. The jar lids will start “snapping”, indicating the processing was good. Leave them in a safe surface overnight or for 24 hours
  18. In 24 hours, check your jars: take the rings off and check if the lid is tight and the jar closed: you can try pushing the center of the lid and see whether it snaps: if it snaps, the processing wasn’t good and you need to consume the food within a week (in this case, put the jar in the fridge).
  19. Another way to check the lids is to put the jars upside-down and lift them: if the food comes out, the processing wasn’t right. Do this on a plate or bowl to avoid wasting food.
  20. Once the jars are cold and you have checked, label them and store them in dark shelf at room temperature or slightly cooler
  21. Consume the content of the jars within a year
Canning peaches, September 2014
Canning peaches, September 2014

Canning do’s and don’ts:

Do’s:

  • Keep the jars and rings to reuse for many years
  • Label the jars with: content, month and year it was canned
  • Rotate them as you consume them to avoid storing them for more than a year
  • Make only the food you and your family will consume within a year. If you are making more, consider exchanging, selling or donating to family, friends or community groups
  • Start with the basics and easiest: marmalades, jams, fruits, tomatoes
  • Start with small batches until you get used to the process

Don’ts:

  • Do not use store jars or bottles for canning as they are not safe and can break. Their seals are also not food safe and may carry food borne diseases
  • Do not reuse snap lids as they may not seal well
  • Do not use lids or rings with rust
  • Do not use jars with cracks
  • Do not change the recipes (for example, do not change the quantity or type of basic food for the recipe)

 

Store jars uses:

Store jars (the ones that come with sauces, pickles, etc you buy in stores) are not safe for canning, but may be good for other uses such as:

  • Some pickling that does not require canning
  • Storing left-overs in the fridge if only for a few days
  • Storing dry food, grains, pastas, etc in your pantry
  • Storing almost anything around the home: nails, buttons, clips, pens and pencils, etc
  • For decoration around the house (painting them, covering them with decorated labels or yarn, etc)
  • As gift wrappers: if your gift is small enough, you can fit in one of this and give a double gift if the jar is decorated

Note: the above works for mason (canning) jars as well.

Resources:

Storage of canned foods: http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/store/store_home_canned.html

How to mini-guides (for food preservation): http://nchfp.uga.edu/index.html

Food storage times: http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/store/UGA_foodstorage_2011.pdf

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