Preserving Summer’s Bounty
BY Emilee Gettle
The yearly ritual of preserving the abundance from our gardens conjures many warm memories. Canning dehydrating and freezing is great for healthy eating and it really brings gardening full circle. After all the work is done and everything is sealed and labeled for the winter I sit back breathe a sweet sigh of accomplishment and reflect on all that we gained in a season.
Canning is the process of heating foods to a point where microorganisms that cause spoilage are destroyed and food is preserved with a vacuum seal. There are two main types of canning. Water bath canning is for foods with a high level of acidity (specifically a pH of 4.6 or less). Pressure canning is for starchy foods with a low acid content (pH of 4.7 or higher).
Home-canned food is just as safe as commercially canned food if processed correctly. Until experience is gained it’s important not to stray too far from a time-tested recipe in order to maintain an environment that prevents bacterial growth and reduce changes in appearance such as discoloration and texture. Follow each step in the canning process from start to finish (don’t cut corners!) to ensure a quality home-produced food product.
At first glance the process might seem complicated but don’t be intimidated. With practice the process becomes second nature like making a favorite recipe for dinner. During canning sessions at my house the kitchen is filled with bubbling pots and the sound of clinking and clanking glass jars all waiting to be filled with our own “black gold ” the veggies from our backyard.
Get your equipment ready before you begin. Here’s what is needed:
Water Bath Canner
Ball and other companies sell pots that are specifically labeled as “water bath canners ” but actually any large pot will do the trick. I prefer to work with an 8-quart pot. It’s used for two important purposes: To sterilize the jars and then process the filled jars. Canners are often available at second-hand stores. Just make sure to buy one with a tight-fitting lid.
Jars & Lids
Only use jars designed specifically for home canning. New jars come with lids and bands. The jars and bands are reusable. Do not reuse the lids.
Inspect lids and the lip of jars for dents or nicks (or on older jars there might be bubbles) before using. Discard any damaged lids or jars as even a small imperfection could prevent the jar from sealing properly. The metal can become damaged so check carefully for that as well.
A canning rack is so helpful. I’ve burned my hands many times as a result of not using a rack. If buying a new canner definitely get one with a rack. In a pinch my grandmother Nellie taught me to put a dishtowel on the bottom of the canner which is a great buffer for the glass jars and minimizes the clanking during the boiling phase.
Funnel Tongs & Magnetic Lid Lifter
These are the three musketeers for canning. The wide-mouthed funnel prevents splatters and splashes while filling the jars with produce. Tongs save hands from burns by gripping the piping-hot jars after they’ve been boiling and lids that are simmering. The magnetic lid lifter is a cool invention (I had one and always used it growing up). It’s used to remove lids from hot water after they’ve been sterilized.
Use a clean dishtowel to wipe off the rim of the jar after it’s filled. If food residue is on the rim the jar will not seal properly. After taking jars out of the canner use towels to alleviate the dramatic change in temperature while the jars rest. Place the jars on top of a towel when they’ve been removed and cover them with another towel to release heat gradually and provide for an optimal seal.
Put a timer to good use as a reminder to achieve the proper processing time.
Clean and organize equipment and read the recipe carefully. The workspace and anything that is near the food must be very clean. Wash hands thoroughly and wipe down all countertops. Gather all equipment and organize. Make sure all needed ingredients are ready. Complete advance prep for vegetables such as blanching or peeling tomatoes.
2. Sterilize jars
To sterilize the jars place the canning rack into the water bath canner. Insert jars one by one onto the canner. Fill each jar with water then fill up the canner with water until there are 2 inches of water above the rims of the jars. Cover and bring water to a boil. The jars must boil for at least 10 minutes to be sterilized.
3. Sterilize lids
While the jars are simmering put a cup of water in a skillet over medium heat. Add lids and let them simmer for 10 minutes. Important: Do not allow the water for the lids to boil. This could harm the gasket and jeopardize the seal of the jar.
4. Prep recipe
Mix the ingredients as directed by the recipe.
5. Fill jars
This is the fun part — filling the jars! Remove them from the canner with tongs pour any water out of them and place on a saucer with a washcloth on it. This prevents temperature shock as the hot jar is transferred to a surface in preparation for filling. Put the funnel in the sterilized jar and fill it up by the spoonful or just pour it in there depending on what it is.
6. Leave some headspace
The contents of the jar will expand during the canning process so leave some headspace between the lid and the food. The rule is 1/2 inch headspace for whole vegetables and sauces and 1/4 inch headspace for spreads and juices. This step is very important because if too little headspace is left food will seep through the lid and destroy the seal. Likewise if there’s too much headspace too much oxygen is left in the jar which might lead to bacterial growth or an insufficient vacuum.
7. Eliminate air bubbles
When working with pickles or whole vegetables there are often air bubbles after pouring the hot brine into the jar. To pop them poke the handle of a wooden spoon or something similar into the jar all the way to the base several times. This will cause the liquid to flow down. More liquid might be needed to maintain adequate headspace.
8. Put a lid on it
Using a clean damp cloth clean the rim of the jar of any food residue before securing the jar with a lid. Place each jar back into the hot water canner. Continue until all the jars are back in the canner.
Add water to the canner as needed cover and bring to a boil. Maintain a rolling boil for the recipe’s specified time to ensure a proper seal. Start the time as soon as a rolling boil is reached. More hot water might be needed through the process so keep an eye on the pot as the water evaporates.
10. Seal it
Once the timer goes off turn off the burner and let the pot rest lid removed for about five minutes. Using jar-lifting tongs remove each jar place on a washcloth-covered saucer and transport to the towel-covered counter or table. Allow a little space between jars for airflow and cover with a bath towel. Don’t be tempted to fiddle with the bands as this can disturb the seal. As tempting as it is to touch them let the jars rest for about 12 hours. As the metal jars seal each one will make a pinging noise as it snaps into a slightly concave position.
Pressure canners can seem intimidating but they are quite useful not to mention safe and essential to people who seriously want to preserve their own food.
1. Follow the same process for sterilizing the jars and lids as instructed in the water bath section.
2. Add 2-3 inches of water to the pressure canner. The water in the canner should achieve 140 degrees Fahrenheit for jars filled with raw produce or 180 degrees Fahrenheit for pre-heated produce until all the jars are filled with the recipe and placed in the pressure canner. Follow instructions in the pressure canner manual carefully because each canner works differently.
3. Wash and prepare the recipe as instructed. Fill jars in the same manner as the waterbath instructions.
4. Place jars into the pressure canner and double-check the water level and temperature. Remember to maintain 2-3 inches of water in the canner at all times or the specifications listed in the manual.
5. Lock the lid securely on the canner but do not cover the vent. The air must be released from within the pot first. Allow the canner to boil for about 10 minutes before attaching the weight.
6. Check processing time and recommended pressure level. Keep an eye on the pressure gauge and adjust the heat as the needle slowly creeps to and stays at the necessary pressure. Set the timer and keep an eye on the pressure gauge.
7. Once the canning time is completed remove the canner from the burner and allow it to rest as the pressure slowly falls to zero. Do not remove the weight or open the canner until the pressure gauge indicates zero pounds. Even when the gauge read zero my Mom and I always tilted the weight with a wooden spoon handle until all the steam had escaped. Follow your manual for instructions on how to open the canner. Be careful of the hot steam as the canner is opened; it can cause serious burns!
8. Remove the jars from the canner and place on a towel as mentioned in the water bath process and cover with another towel. Allow the jars to rest undisturbed for about 12 hours.
Freezing is a quick and easy way to preserve summer’s bounty. My kitchen freezers are stocked year-round with frozen peppers green beans blueberries peaches zucchini freezer pickles tomatoes (to make tomato juice) and other goodies.
It takes some time to put it all together but what a blessing it is to find neatly labeled bags in the freezer waiting to be prepared into a favorite dish in the dead of winter. There are some drawbacks like power outages to freezing versus canning. However freezing does seem to maintain the crispness and texture that canning sometimes lacks.
Produce can be frozen in plastic freezer bags reusable plastic freezer boxes or specially made freezer jars (the latter are available at hardware stores).
Vegetables require blanching which means washed vegetables are plunged into boiling water or steamed for a few minutes and then transferred to ice water to stop the cooking process. This technique enhances the color and ensures a great-tasting not to mention attractive finished product. Blanching times vary according to the vegetable to be frozen. Make sure to follow the specified blanching timeline to a T for perfection.
Bag or box the blanched vegetables and label with the date and what’s inside. To ensure that your veggies don’t clump together in the freezer bag them in plastic freezer bags then lay flat on a cookie sheet before packing labeling and storing in containers. All veggies will clump together in the freezer if not laid flat first.
To freeze herbs such as basil rosemary thyme and oregano wash and dry them then mince them up and fill the compartments of an ice cube tray halfway. Fill the tray with water and freeze. Once frozen pop the cubes into a plastic freezer bag so you can use them in winter recipes such as homemade Italian dishes.
Fresh fruits and vegetables can be dried using a dehydrator a tool that uses constant low heat and air circulation to evenly remove moisture.
Growing up I loved using our dehydrator with my mother. It was so fun and made the house smell great. One year my parents and I grew a huge okra patch and after exhausting every recipe for cooking canning and freezing we still had a basket left. My innovative mother decided to slice and dehydrate it. We added it to soups and as a crunchy topping to Caesar salads. We also used it instead of bacon bits or in place of shredded cheese.
The process of dehydrating food has existed for thousands of years. Before refrigeration people salted meats and dried veggies to remove moisture that would break it down. Food was also dried in the sun.
Early American homesteaders strung bean pods to hang them from the rafters and bundled garlands of peppers and herbs as reminders of the harvest and a reassurance that there was always one more meal available to serve.
Vegetables grown in the garden such as peppers tomatoes (I love whole cherry-type tomatoes) beans pumpkin okra beets carrots broccoli cauliflower peas corn and others can be dehydrated. Be sure to choose produce free of blemishes and bruises for an optimal product. The key to properly drying food is to reduce the moisture content to a point where the produce will not mold or become an inviting abode for bacteria. Properly dried vegetables are quite brittle.
Blanching vegetables prior to dehydrating is recommended. This inhibits enzyme growth that could cause spoilage and as a bonus it speeds up the drying time.
Always slice the vegetables the same size and place on dehydrator trays in a single layer being careful not to touch any other vegetables on the tray.
I love the thermostatically controlled dehydrators that eliminate guesswork as to drying time. Simply dehydrate the vegetables at the temperature and time recommended in the manual. To be on the safe side I like to do my own quality control by removing a few dehydrated vegetables from the tray and allowing them to cool completely. If the dried vegetable is brittle and there are no beads of moisture escaping from it when snapped and if it feels dry then it is.
Dried vegetables can be stored for up to a year by using this method. But more than likely you’ll have empty jars before the year is up. If you have kids in the household they will not only love the process they will devour the dried vegetables. Don’t forget that you can also dry your favorite herbs for the winter.
Here are a few of my dried favorites:
Beets: Wash beets and place in a large saucepan; cook in boiling water until tender. Slip the skin off with a paring knife. Cut into 1/4-inch pieces and dehydrate for 3-10 hours.
Carrots: Wash peel and blanch for 3 minutes. Cut into thin slices. Dehydrate for 6-12 hours until brittle.
Sweet Peppers: Wash core and slice peppers into 1/4-inch pieces. Dehydrate 12-18 hours or until brittle. Once they are dry add as a crunchy addition to salads or throw into soups.
Potatoes: Wash potatoes and blanch in boiling water for 8 minutes. Then let cool and slice thinly. Dehydrate for 6-12 hours or until brittle.
Tomatoes: Wash tomatoes. Cherry tomatoes can be dried whole while larger varieties should be sliced before placing on the tray. Dehydrate for 8-9 hours.
Herbs: Gather herbs into a bundle tie with a pretty ribbon and hang to dry and use later.
Freelance writer Emilee Gettle is the wife of Jere the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company founder and has been canning all her life. The Gettles have published two books about heirloom vegetables and their work with seeds and food: The Heirloom Life Gardener and The Baker Creek Vegan Cookbook.