Canning isn’t just for housewives and hippies anymore. Long thought of as the domain of grey-haired grandmas in flowered aprons, the art of canning and preserving has moved into the 21st century—and it’s a perfect way to save money and eat healthier. It’s a lot easier than you think, too. We promise!
Canning and preserving has become popular with the hip, earth-conscious, foodie set. After all, if you preserve those peak-of-perfection ripe tomatoes and peaches from your local farmer’s market, you’ll be able to eat local all year long. Dave Flagle, a college student in Baltimore, preserves his food to save money:
As a college student, my main goal is always to reduce my costs. I buy what looks good and what’s cheap. Don’t view preservation as a daunting dangerous task; view it as many easy steps that, if done right, produce amazing results.
He even smokes and cures duck, pork, and other meats so he can eat them year round…badass! And he’s not the only young person finding joy (and a thicker wallet) in the world of preserving; the trend has spread from Brooklyn hipsters to Minneapolis bike nerds.
Marisa McClellan is the internet’s resident canning expert. Her popular blog, Food in Jars, has since spawned a popular cookbook (also titled Food in Jars). I talked to Marisa about canning as a form of frugality, the real risk of scary bacteria, and why people want to know what’s in their food.
I’ve never tried canning or preserving, but I think it would be an awesome way to eat local produce throughout the fall and winter. What does a beginning canner need to know?
The most important thing for beginning canners to know is that when you’re first starting out, it’s best not to improvise. To be safe for boiling water bath canning, recipes need to contain a certain amount of acid. In the beginning, you need to follow tested, reliable recipes so that you can get a feel for what goes and what doesn’t as far as acidity.
What do you say to people who think canning is complicated and time intensive, aka not for them?
If you want can enough to survive the winter, it will be time consuming. But if you’re more interested in tucking away just a bit of summer produce for winter, it becomes insanely accessible. You can be in and out of a small batch of jam within an hour or so. As far as the issue of complexity goes, it’s true that any new skill take a little time and mental energy. However, once you get the steps down, I think you’ll find that canning is really a breeze.
What about health concerns like botulism? Also, I know some people are used to the super sugary and/or salty preserves their grandmothers used to make. Are there healthier alternatives?
You only run the risk of botulism with low acid foods. Provided you follow a tested recipe, the chance of botulism is essentially zero. And your products don’t have to be teeth-achingly sweet to be safe. Sugar acts as a preservative and helps with the set of jam, but doesn’t do anything to ensure safety. You can actually can homemade applesauce and apple butter without any added sugar at all.
Do you save a lot of money by preserving your food? It seems like the growing popularity of canning is tied in some ways to our current economic situation, a trend towards frugality.
If you’re starting canning from scratch, without any jars or equipment, it’s not going to save you a ton of money in the first year or two. However, if you stick with it, and can seasonal food while they’re at their lowest prices, the investment in supplies will begin to pay off.
Do you think this canning “trend” will continue?
I think that the recent resurgence in canning is fueled by a number of issues. Chief among them is a desire to know what we’re eating. I don’t think that’s going to go away. So unless food producers eliminate chemicals in commercially preserved foods and tell you exactly where the food was grown, I don’t think canning is going away.
What’s your absolute favorite thing you’ve ever canned?
Anything else you’d like our readers to know about canning and preserving?
If you’re at all curious about canning, get yourself a good book (the Ball Blue Book is a good starting place, as is Put ‘Em Up by Sherri Brooks Vinton. And of course, there’s always my book).
If you’d like to try canning, you don’t have to start with anything too complicated, either. Elena Rosemond-Hoerr, the blogger behind Southern food blog Biscuits and Such, would suggest starting fool proof, with:
“vinegar-based pickles where the vinegar nullifies all chance of bacterial wonkiness. Not to mention all the amazing and delicious things you can pickle, like peaches! Also, experiment with naturally pectin free and sugar free jams and sauces- a lot of fruits have enough natural thickening agents and sugar in their skin and fruit to make a delicious jam- just add acidity and heat!”
And if you want to start really simple, Jen, a frugal PhD candidate, shares the ridiculously easy jam she makes when fruit is about to go bad:
Last weekend, for example, I bought a huge bag of cherries at the grocery store, and some of them started to get brown spots a few days later. I knew I couldn’t finish them all in time, so I pitted and chopped up the salvageable ones. For my cherry jam, I had about a cup of chopped cherries, the juice from 1/2 lemon, 2/3 c sugar (I use less than the instructions on the pectin label suggest, and it always turns out fine), and about 3 tsp of pectin. Just follow the instructions on the [pectin] jar, stick it in a container, put it in the fridge, and use within 3 weeks or so.
Go and get yourself some jars, some pectin, and some fresh, late summer fruits and veggies, and start putting food in jars!
All photos courtesy Marisa McClellan