It’s harvest time, and that means it’s time to put up vegetables and fruits! I went to the expert for some advice for both the novice, and the seasoned canning veteran, Sherri Brooks Vinton who has written “Put ‘em Up!,” “Put ‘em Up – Fruit,” and now “Put ‘em Up – The Answer Book.”
Tricia: Where does one begin?
Sherri: I think if you’ve never preserved food before, sometimes it can be a little bit daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a straight forward process. The key to successful canning is really to follow a modern tested recipe. You can’t riff on recipes, because that’s where people get into trouble. Canning is like baking. You have kind of follow the bouncing ball if you want things to come out right. And if you want to start out not even canning food to preserve it, you can make something like refrigerator pickles. A great way to preserve chili peppers is to just make a simple brine of 2 cups of water with a little salt and sugar to your taste and an equal part of vinegar. So that will make a quart of brine, which is a fair amount. You can slice up chili peppers and pour the hot brine over the top of them in a bowl or a canning jar and let it cool, and put that in your fridge. And that will pickle the chili’s, and it makes an automatic hot sauce that you can sprinkle on things as well.
Tricia: How long until they’re considered pickled and what’s the shelf life?
Sherri: Well, you can do the same thing with cucumbers or carrots. I would give them maybe a day or two in the refrigerator to develop some flavor. And they’re good in the refrigerator for technically up to 3 weeks. It’s a much shorter shelf life, but it’s a very simple process. It’s one that I use when I’m going out of town and I have things in the crisper drawer that might expire in the amount of time I’ll be gone. I’ll just throw a brine over the top of cucumbers or carrots or even hunks of cabbage, and then they’re pickled instead of garbage!
Tricia: What sort of equipment do I need?
Sherri: If you want to start canning, you really don’t need a lot of extra equipment. The only two pieces of specialized equipment that you must have, that you might not already, are the special canning jars. They’re 3-piece jars. You need canning jars because they have an extra thick glass that can withstand the temperature changes of going in and out of the boiling water of the canner. The 2-piece lid creates an air tight vacuum that keeps your food safe on the shelf. The other is canning tongs to put them in and take them out of the boiling water. You can’t use just regular tongs. They’re just too slippery. Other than that, you can kind of make do with what you already have.
Tricia: So, the ‘boiling water method.’
Sherri: You need a big pot. Something with a lid. But that can be a pasta pot or a lobster pot. Anything that’s at least 3 inches taller than your tallest jar because you need to have water circulating under and over the jar. Everything else, you can simply use what you have on hand. As long as you have those canning jars and canning tongs, you can get started right away.
Tricia: You need to keep things clean.
Sherri: Anytime you’re preparing food, you need to have a nice clean space, but contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to have a sanitary base. You don’t need to swab down your kitchen with rubbing alcohol or anything. You’re never going to have a sterile home kitchen. And you don’t have to sterilize any of your equipment if your filled jars are going to be down in the boiling water for 10 minutes or more. That open kettle method that our grandmothers did, where they sterilize everything and poured the hot recipe in their jars and called it a day…we don’t do that anymore. It leaves a window of opportunity for bacteria to get into the jars. So everything is just washed down with hot, soapy water and you prepare your recipe, fill your jars, put them down in the boiling water and as long as they’re submerged for 10 minutes or more, that pre-sterilization is unnecessary.
Tricia: Are there different salts to make different brines?
Sherri: You wouldn’t want to use any highly mineralized salts. The flavored salts that are on the market now, like pink salts, Hawaiian salts, rock salts. Those can fog your brine. You just need a really clean, basic salt. I use kosher salt. In the store, you’ll see they have a pickling salt. All that is, is a salt that has no additives. It’s been ground to a finer grain so it dissolves more readily. Kosher salts or just a plain sea salt without any iodine in it is going to be fine.
Tricia: Is there a difference between canning vegetables and making jam?
Sherri: Once you prepare your recipe, the process is the same. You’re going to fill your jars and take any bubbles out. If you have a canning kit, it’s going to come with a bubble tool but you can use a chop stick and run that around the inside of the jar to release any trapped air. And then you clean off the top of the jar with a damp paper towel, put the lid on the jar, put the ring on the jar and make it just fingertip tight. You don’t want to wrench that down all the way. Then submerge your jars in the boiling water for what’s called the “processing time.” That’s the amount of time indicated in your recipe that your jar should be submerged in the boiling water. It varies. For jams and jellies it’s going to be about 10 minutes, but it can be as high as 85 minutes, say for tomatoes. That’s really the only big difference. The amount of processing time. And the head space – the distance between the top of your recipe from the top of the jar – will vary some.
Tricia: What about non-acidic recipes?
Sherri: If you have a recipe that is non-acidic, like any vegetable without any added acids like green beans in water, asparagus in water or corn, or a recipe that contains meat or fish, they have to be pressure canned. That is a bit of a different process and different equipment.
Tricia: Explain the difference between pickling and infusing?
Sherri: Infusing is transferring the flavor of some food to a neutral flavored liquid. An example would be, raspberry vinegar or strawberry vinegar or strawberry vodka for that matter. What you do is, take the fruit and wash it, sterilize a jar by submerging it in boiling water for 10 minutes and then fill a jar with fruit, which can be any highly flavored item. You can also make chili-flavored vodka, herb-flavored vinegar, it’s all the same process. You take the flavored item, pack them in your jar, cover that with a neutral base, like vodka or plain vinegar and let that sit for about a week. The flavor from the berries or whatever you’re using will transfer to the liquid and then you can use that in recipes.
Tricia: What about drying herbs?
Sherri: I just put a string around the bottom of whatever it is, rosemary, parsley, and hang it upside-down in my kitchen and those herbs will dry. Then I could leave them on the stalk or crumble them and put them in a jar, like the dried herbs you see in the market. Drying is a great way to preserve flavor. The only thing you have to be aware of when you’re drying foods is that the outside of the food dries before the inside, and it can create a source of contamination. When you’re drying really juicy things, like cherries, you have to do what we call “checking” the fruit, which means you pierce it so the skin cracks and the moisture can escape. You don’t want the outside of the fruit to harbor any bacteria that’s trapped inside.
Tricia: What about preserving something that isn’t local?
Sherri: I prefer to preserve local seasonal foods because they have more flavor and you’re supporting local agriculture, but also because they aren’t coated with the waxes and fungicides that are sprayed on by the super market to make them look pretty for a longer amount of time. Sometimes when you preserve grocery store produce, those waxes can interfere with the results. They keep the brines from penetrating. But if you are in a position for example, where the blood oranges come on the scene and you want to make marmalade out of them, you need to get that wax off. So get your sink super clean and fill that full of hot water and a little fragrance-free dish soap and scrub those up with a nice brush to get that wax off. That’s kind of the most important part of using the super market produce.
Tricia: How did you become the “queen of canning?”
Sherri: Ha! Well, when I was growing up, I had very different influences. My mother hated to cook. She hated anything to do with the kitchen. She had a full-time job. My grandmother that I spent a lot of time with, did everything from scratch. She had her own garden, she grew everything. She went to the grocery store for toilet paper and potato chips. Everything else came out of her yard. She used to preserve everything like there was nothing to it at all. Like it was just another kitchen skill. She could make a batch of pickles as easily as she could make toast. It was just something she did to preserve what she had in her garden. She never took me by the hand and showed me how to do it, but it was a common thing for her to do, so I grew up with that in the back of my mind, that it is accessible to the home cook. When I started writing about sustainability and traveling to farms and talking more about local, seasonal agriculture, the preserving became a natural extension of that. If you’re living in a place with a short season, you have to get it while you can to make it last a bit longer. As I became more in tune with seasonal eating, I missed strawberries in the winter and I wanted a nice tomato flavor in the winter, but the winter produce is wanting at best. That’s what led me to it, a desire to support local farms and to eat seasonally and preserve those seasonal flavors.