In the past, preserving was an essential complement to gardening. To avoid wasting valuable garden produce and to stock up for the winter months, the frugal housewife would spend many hours in the kitchen canning, pickling and preserving.
Nowadays, modern conveniences such as an electric or gas stove and a dishwasher have simplified the canning process, and there is now the additional modern option of freezing. However, there are several things to consider before choosing the best method to preserve the bounty of the garden. Freezing is a simple process that works well for small amounts of fruits or vegetables. Canning is more time-consuming and requires special equipment, but is the best method for large amounts of produce when freezer space is limited. Also, while frozen food only keeps for a year, canned food keeps for several years.
For whole berries such as raspberries, strawberries or blueberries, or for chopped rhubarb, simply wash the fruit and remove any that has spoiled, pack in serving-sized Ziploc bags, seal and place in the freezer.
Vegetables need to be blanched before freezing. Clean and cut them as you would for cooking, partially cook them in boiling water to destroy bacteria, drain, and cool in a sink of cold water. Then pack into serving-sized Ziploc bags and freeze. Blanching times vary depending on the vegetable.
Sealable containers such as yogurt pots or ice cream buckets also work well and can be stacked conveniently. If using a large container such as a one gallon ice cream bucket, freeze berries or cut vegetables individually so that they do not clump together as they freeze. To do this, arrange washed berries or cut vegetables on cookie sheets so they do not touch each other and freeze overnight before packing in the container.
Fresh herbs have many health benefits and also freeze well. Wash and chop herbs, place small amounts in ice cube trays, cover with water and freeze overnight, and then store the frozen ice cubes in Ziploc bags.
Home canning requires special equipment: a canner (a large pot, usually measuring a foot in diameter and about 18 inches in height); a jar lifter for gripping hot jars and lifting them out of the canner; canning jars, rings and lids; and a pair of tongs for handling hot lids and rings.
Home canning also requires awareness of an important food safety issue. An open canner is suitable for processing acid fruit (including tomatoes), but for vegetables, meat or fish, a pressure cooker must be used to heat the contents of the jars to a high enough temperature to destroy toxic botulin bacteria.
Pickling is a safe alternative to pressure canning. The acidic content of the vinegar used in pickling makes it safe to use an open canner for processing. Cucumbers, of course, are always pickled and can then be safely stored in the fridge, frozen or bottled by processing in an open canner. Many other vegetables such as carrots, beans, zucchini, cucumbers, or beets can also be pickled, and there are lots of great pickle recipes available on the Internet.
Canning jars are made of heavy glass which will withstand the heating process, and come in two standard sizes: narrow mouth (2 ½ inches in diameter across the top opening) for small fruit such as cherries, or wide mouth (3 ¼ inches in diameter), for large fruit such as peaches and pears. Wide mouth jars are best as they are suitable for both large and small fruit.
Canning jars can be purchased at the supermarket in cases of twelve, along with rings and lids to fit the jars. You will be able to re-use the rings, so buy the same number of rings as jars. However, you will not be able to re-use the lids, so it is always a good idea to stock up on these.
The frugally-minded might consider checking out garage sales, but should check that the jars have a standard neck size, and that they are not chipped or cracked. Jars with chipped rims will not seal properly, and cracked jars can shatter in boiling water during processing.
Before you begin the canning project, jars should be washed thoroughly in hot, soapy water, using a bottle brush to clean the inside, and then sterilized. The most convenient method of sterilization is in the dishwasher, using the “sure temp” and “heat dry” settings. Otherwise jars can be boiled for five minutes in a large pot of boiling water, with a tea towel in the bottom to protect the jars from possible damage, then place upside down on a clean tea towel on the counter, handy to the stove.
Lids and rings should also be sterilized in boiling water and kept hot until ready to use.
For fruit, prepare fruit syrup according to your recipe, pack the fruit in jars, and pour in the syrup. For tomatoes, put a teaspoon of salt in the bottom of each jar before packing the tomatoes, then cover with water or commercial canned tomato juice. Cover the fruit with liquid, but leave about an inch of “head space” at the top of the jar. Wipe the neck of each jar before you put a hot lid on top. Finally, retrieve a ring and screw it on to hold the lid in place.
To reduce heating time, fill the canner with several kettlefuls of boiling water. Place your filled jars in the canner, bring the water back to the boil, and boil for the appropriate processing time for the fruit and jar size.
After processing, take the jars out of the hot water bath using a jar lifter and place them to cool on a tea towel on the counter. As the jars cool, a vacuum forms inside the jar which sucks the lid down and forms a seal. As it does, there will be a sharp snapping sound which is a little frightening the first time you hear it, but for a veteran canner there is nothing more satisfying than the snap of a sealing lid. When the jars are cool, remove the rings. Write the date on the lid with an indelible marker, and store jars in the cupboard.
No matter whether you decide to can or freeze, you will not only save money, but you will also have tasty and nutritious summer fruits and vegetables conveniently available year round.