Curious Nature: Canning food preserves summer’s bounty, and it’s simpler than you think (column)
Fall provides the chance for one last bountiful harvest of food just as we start to experience frost and snow. Many of our animal friends take advantage of this time to eat as much food as possible before hibernating for the winter. Rather than consuming all of this ripe food at once, people have developed options for extending the life of these foods and preserving them through the colder, dormant months.
Human strategies for preserving food over time including canning, smoking, pickling, salting and drying. These methods have allowed people to maintain near-fresh foods all year round. Canning, in particular, is one form of food preservation that has been around for hundreds of years; yet, many people not familiar with the process mistakenly think it is terribly time consuming and complicated. In reality, it is easier than you might think, and this fall might be the perfect opportunity for you to try canning your favorite produce.
Potential local produce for canning includes peaches, chokecherries, strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb, tomatoes and even wild asparagus. Whether you are foraging for native produce, harvesting from your garden or purchasing from your local store, there are many possibilities.
Once you have decided what foods to preserve, the next step is to choose what type of canning you will use: the hot water bath method or the pressure canning method. Each of these methods works specifically for different types of foods, so it is extremely important to choose the right method for the specific food you are preserving.
The first canning method, the hot water bath, is appropriate for highly acidic foods such as tomatoes, fruits, jams, jellies and pickled vegetables. This is a fairly easy form of canning because it requires minimal materials. To use the hot water method, make sure your jars are fully sealed and completely submerge them in boiling water for around 10 minutes, depending on the type of food. This action forces air out of the jar and creates a vacuum tight environment where bacteria cannot survive.
It also is important to note that certain foods, such as tomatoes, are not acidic enough to prevent bacteria from growing on their own. They require an additional touch of acidity, such as lemon juice, in order to keep out bacteria for the months to come.
If you want to preserve foods with less acid, such as most vegetables, soups, meats, seafood or stews, and have a pressure canning cooker available to you, the pressure canning method is a better option for you.
Using this method, jars should be placed in 2 to 3 inches of water in a special pressure cooker. (Do not use a regular pressure cooker; it can be very dangerous.) This specialized pressure cooker has the ability to heat up to at least 240 degrees (the temperature needed to kill bacteria in a non-acidic environment). Preparing your jars for this method is very similar to the previous method. After the jars of food have been cooked, let them cool off for a few hours. You will know they are done when the lids are indented downwards, signifying a vacuum seal that will preserve all that summery goodness.
Whatever form of canning you choose to explore, you will find that it can really be an almost magical form of food preservation and a great way to enjoy the fall season. Thanks to canning, you might be able to enjoy your favorite foods all winter long.
Andrew Braker is a naturalist and sustainability intern at Walking Mountains Science Center. He is looking forward to enjoying canned tomatoes and pickles this winter.