I’ve been getting a good number of questions on the subject of canning and pickling here lately. I don’t claim to be an expert, but admittedly, I engage in that activity on average a few times a week most of the year and find that along the way I’ve learned much through trial and error.
Certain rules you must abide by – the whole idea of acid contents determining processing styles and times still intimidates me, so I don’t play around with that one nor do I skip sterilizing steps, although I might not always hold fast to the 10 minute boiling rule anymore for sterilizing my jars. Should one of us get botulism this year, I’ll revisit that, definitely.
I have never pressure canned, so I can’t really answer questions on that process. I struggled for a long time with making successful jams, but was finally (!) successful with it this summer – thanks to the Food in Jars Cookbook, I learned the temperature at which jam sets (220 degrees F) and since then have successfully made several small batches, including a cantaloupe jam. I’m definitely feeling more comfortable with jams these days than I was even 6 weeks ago. After years of massive failures because I was attempting to jam 20 pounds of fruit at a time, I’ve come to embrace small batches and with that, I have finally found success.
It’s so much easier to get a feel for what you’re doing when you do it in small batches. My first successful jam ever was a small batch of stone fruit jam inspired by new favorite cookbook mentioned in the above paragraph – I had a handful of cherries and two small peaches that needed to go, so I threw them in a pot and gave it a go. I yielded exactly one half pint jar that I didn’t bother to process but just stuck it straight in the fridge. It gave me the confidence to try more. Like the cantaloupe jam.
I have two chest freezers in my basement and consequently, freeze quite a bit of food as well, like corn, green beans, tomatillos and peppers. I keep a spreadsheet of what’s in each freezer so that I know what’s where (I have my Type A- moments). I have experimented with drying foods (like tomatoes) and am starting to read about fermenting, because I want to try that out as well. Preserving the harvest by canning, pickling, jamming, freezing, drying and fermenting are really an extension of cooking as I see it. I don’t like to waste food, and so over the years I’ve learned that when my green beans are tough because of hot, dry weather, they make fantastic pickles. Bolting arugula not only cooks well as a green, it makes an excellent pesto. And then there are Watermelon Rind Pickles, in which someone once upon a time thought to use every last part of that watermelon.
I’ve started a page on here that lists my favorite resources for food preservation, with the first link being an article from the Virginia Cooperative Extension that I was given when I took my first canning class. I keep a printed copy in a binder along with the rest of my food preservation cookbooks. The websites I have linked to are listed in the handout I give my canning students and these are the links I tend to reference when searching for an answer to a question I receive. I know canning can sound intimidating, but if you approach it one little bit at a time, it’s really quite easy. And I assure you, there is nothing better than opening up a jar of something you put up one hot afternoon in August to eat when you are snowed in again come January and February.