Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Yes You Can!

Before I get started on this post, I just want to point out that for the next couple weeks, I'm going to smile inwardly every time I use the word 'can' because I'll feel like I'm making a pun or something. So, yes, read the title of this post and imagine me feeling all clever.

That said, I'm announcing that the next couple weeks of posts will be devoted to all things canning (now you get the whole canning pun from the previous paragraph. Okay, really, I'm moving on...). I first learned how to can from my mother-in-law when I was very newly married and ever since, I've been trying to spread the word and get people interested in this generations-old practice. It's really rewarding and, believe it or not, I think it's kind of fun.

Once upon a time, canning was a way of life. It was a way of making it through the cold winter months and making the fall harvest stretch until the next one. Now, it's not nearly the necessity it once was, but I maintain that it still has its place in our modern-day households. Here's my reasons why you should can (if you don't already):

1. I wouldn't really be writing about it on this blog if it weren't economical. There is some expense at first when you have to get the equipment - jars, lids, rings, and a canner (plus anything extra, like a food mill for applesauce). Even so, your investment is still under $100 (even under $50 if you shop around). My next post will be all about buying these things and what I use. After your initial investment, each year you do canning, all you need is the ingredients (hopefully, some of the produce is home-grown!) and new lids (these cost like $1.50 for 12 lids - or less if you shop for sales).
The key to making canning economical is to either grow your own produce or to find a good price on produce by shopping locally. I suggest farmers' markets, roadside stands, u-pick berry farms, and visiting the actual farms/orchards. Not only can you get a great price this way, but it tastes better than the supermarket stuff and it supports the local economy.

This year, for example, I'm making salsa from tomatoes and tomatillos I grew (I didn't get on top of growing my own jalapenos, cilantro, and onions this year, but I have done it in the past). I'm also making apple pie filling and applesauce from apples I bought at an orchard near my husband's hometown. I can buy a huge box of apples (easily twenty-something pounds) for $18 - then I split it with my mom (she uses them for juicing). That's another tip: find someone to split the cost of produce with so you can buy in bulk. I'm also considering doing peaches (I can buy a bushel for $16 from that same orchard) - I've never done peaches before. I'm making pluot jam from pluots we picked in my in-laws' backyard (by the way, keep an eye out for a giveaway on this blog next week...). I may also be making raspberry jam from the raspberries I picked back in June-July and froze. Note: everyone should have at least a couple berry bushes if you have the room; they are huge money-savers!

One more nugget of how economical growing your own produce can be: according to Burpee Seed Company, $50 worth of seeds can yield $1250 worth of produce. How's that for food for thought?

2. Canning is a great way to regulate what goes into your food (and what doesn't). More and more I've become very conscious of all the additives and preservatives that go into processed, store-bought food. I read a really interesting book called In Defense of Food that is all about how much of the food in the stores isn't really food at all - it's all weird chemicals and concoctions put together to resemble food. When you preserve your own food, you know exactly what is going in. Sure, jam and apple pie filling aren't health food (I'm astonished every year how much sugar I use making jam), but this way you don't get the processed high-fructose corn syrup goo in it.

3. There is an awesome feeling of self-reliance and industriousness that comes along with canning. I can't really explain it, but there's something so rewarding about seeing the final product of all your labor lining your pantry shelves. Plus, it can look really nice. Sometimes, I'll just open my pantry for the self-esteem boost.

4. It's surprisingly easy. Time consuming, yes, but easy. Lots of people are nervous about it, especially about doing it wrong, worrying about killing their whole family with a case of botulism. But really, it's hard to do wrong. Let me rephrase that: if you do it wrong, you'll know. A bulging, stinky jar of fruit isn't so appetizing. Anyway, once you've learned how to can, you'll be surprised at how easy it really is. Last year, I taught my friend from Japan how to do it (according to her, no one in Japan cans food) and when we were finished, she said, "That's it?"

. This is both a reason and a warning: it just tastes better when you do it yourself. How is this a warning? As one friend put it on her blog, I have become a "jam snob". I haven't used store-bought jam in over five years. When I do have it at other people's houses or on vacation, it just doesn't come close to how good homemade jam is. And homemade salsa - well, let's just say jars of that don't last long.

6. I don't know if my final reason will resonate with everyone, but one of the reasons I simply enjoy canning is for the feeling of connectedness with women of generations past. Really, canning is a dying art. I can still remember going to the county fair in my small hometown and seeing women's entries of canned peaches and pickles with big blue ribbons attached to the prettiest ones. Whenever I can a bottle of apples or jam, I can't help but feel like the women of the 40s with their victory gardens or like one of the early pioneers on the frontier. What can I say? I'm a sentimental history geek.
So now that you've been introduced (and hopefully convinced) to the canning process, what next? Everyone interested in canning needs to buy the Ball Blue Book of Preserving. It's a great, comprehensive guide to canning, along with a bunch of recipes. I use it all the time. The best part - you can buy it for like five bucks at a grocery store. I've included the link to Amazon.com so you can read about it (I always like to read reviews of books before I buy them), but, seriously, you can find it really cheap elsewhere. Get it. Read it. We'll be starting soon.

Have you done any canning? If so, what are you planning to can this season? If not, what's your biggest obstacle when it comes to canning?

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