I’ve always put canning in this category of “things really meticulous people who have time on their hands do.” Something that used to be done out of necessity, that is now essentially a foodie hobby.
So, when Ryan decided we should try canning, I had reasonable questions, like, “Why?” And, “Do we really have time for this?”
But my enthusiastic husband, an awesome canning blog, and something Michael Pollen said have won me over.
Both in this New York Times Magazine piece, and (I think) somewhere in the 4 part series Cooked (streaming on Netflix), Pollen referenced this idea, espoused by a disillusioned food marketing researcher:
“… You want Americans to eat less? I have the diet for you. It’s short, and it’s simple. Here’s my diet plan: Cook it yourself. That’s it. Eat anything you want — just as long as you’re willing to cook it yourself.”
This has really influenced my point of view on scratch cooking, preserving, and how/when we enjoy “treats” or less-than-healthy foods. Something like jam has loads of sugar – it’s not (or shouldn’t be) a significant part of our diet – but if you’re expending your own time and energy to make it, it’s available in limited supply. It’s special. You don’t eat it mindlessly or with abandon.
Still… “Do we really have time for this?”
I think my assumption that busy people can’t make their own preserves had more to do with the fact that canning is a dying art. Most people don’t have the tools anymore. Few people, at least in my generation, have ever witnessed jam being made at home.
So, I had this romantic idea of a stay-at-home mom in an apron whiling away a slow afternoon over the stove, “putting up” jams and jellies for the winter. Very Blueberries for Sal. Totally not my life.
But after a few years of canning with Ryan – first borrowing tools, then getting our own, trying new recipes, canning jams, compotes, tomato sauce – I’ve found that assumption to be false.
You don’t need a ton of time. Often just two hours will do the trick. You DO need to pay attention, but anyone who can read and follow directions can have a perfectly successful canning experience.
Here’s the secret: small batch canning.
Preparing a small batch (usually about 2 pounds of fruit) is surprisingly easy, in most cases. You follow a recipe – sometimes it comes out a bit thicker or thinner than other times – but it’s likely a one-pot, cook-it-down-on-the-stove, under-an-hour situation.
The water bath canning is the more tedious part. Not hard, mind you, just very specific, and if you don’t get it right, your delicious jam will not be safe to consume.
But, with a small batch, you’re able to can all of it in one go, eliminating multiple rounds of sterilization and processing.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Sterilization? Processing?
If, like me, you didn’t grow up around canning, there’s a learning curve. If you’re curious, invest a little time to read up – the blog Food in Jars is one of the best resources we’ve found. The links below offer an incredible compilation of instructions, definitions, and general canning wisdom. Food in Jars is almost always our first stop for everything from technical questions to recipe hunting. (Thanks, Marisa!)
Start here with the Boiling Water Bath Canning process.
Then, move on to Canning 101.
We’ve also had the benefit of Ryan’s mom and a couple other friends who are experienced canners and have answered questions along the way. Actually, I think the first time we tried canning, it was an intimidatingly giant batch of tomatoes, and a couple of those friends came by to help out.
Take my advice: do not begin with 40 pounds of tomatoes.
I’m linking to what we use (or equivalent) here:
Canning Pot with Rack
Canning Tool Set
Full Silicone Oven Mitts
Ball Mason 4oz Jelly Jars (Note: your recipe should tell you how many of which sizes you need; you can also just grab these at most grocery stores.)
I hope you give it a go! If you’re a cherry-lover like I am, you may want to start with a small batch of this Sweet Cherry Compote we canned last Friday evening. (Romantic, right?) Side benefit: the extra compote makes magnificent gin cocktails.
Cherry-pitting hack here, in case you don’t have a cherry pitter.