As a little girl I made several trips to basements retrieving glass, sometimes dusty, jars of preserved food. Both sets of grandparents lived on farms in southeast Nebraska and grew a lot of their own food. “Jaime, run downstairs and get me 2 quarts of green beans.” “Jaime, can you go to the basement and pick out a jar of dill pickles?” “Jaime, go grab a pint of tomato juice from the basement cupboard.” I grew up with canned (jarred) food and really didn’t think too much about it. My mom and grandma would spend many summer days “putting up” sweet corn, beans, tomatoes, beets, pickles, relish, etc., and although my older sister and I would help out from time-to-time (mainly snapping beans or shucking corn), I wasn’t too interested in it nor did I understand the value or importance of it. It was just there, in the background of my childhood.
Fast-forward about 20 years; I’m a food nut, cooking freak, and constantly spout praise for local foods, fresh ingredients, and whole-foods eating. And although I’ve heard more and more about the benefits of home preserving (you control the ingredients, no whacky stuff in the lining of the can or funky preservatives and additives, less food waste, incredible flavor), I’ve still been on the fence about jumping into the world of canning. Canning can be scary. It can be time-consuming and confusing. High-acid vs. low acid food? Hot-packing vs. raw-packing? Water baths and pressure canners? If you try to wrap your head around all of it at once it can seem too intimidating and you’ll want to quit before you start. This is how I felt for years. It just seemed too complicated to mess with.
And then my parents retired. They moved to Tennessee from Iowa, grew a garden, visited farmers markets and went back to their roots and started canning…a lot. My mom showed my dad the ropes and he was immediately hooked. He would harvest the bounty from their garden and pick up box after box of veggies from local farmers to bring home to can. It’s become almost a daily routine in the morning for him when produce is at it’s peak during summer. He cans so much that each summer he builds up a year’s supply of tomato juice that allows him to drink it every single morning. (Him and I are tomato juice fanatics). Inspired by my parents impressive canning haul, and my deep desire to also have a year’s supply of tomato juice, I figured it was time I learn.
Last summer my folks came to my house in Missouri and taught me how to can. This year, still a little unsure and needing some hand-holding, I went to their place to spend a weekend canning. We spent two half-days canning green beans, pickles, tomatoes, tomato juice, stewed tomatoes and salsa. It was some work, but we had a blast! We talked about food, shared stories, learned about family history, drank beer, and ended the weekend with a wonderful store of canned veggies that came from local farmers. I felt as if I was paying homage to my grandparents, my lineage of farmers, and carrying on a tradition that’s immensely important to our food system and food culture.
My big take away from starting this new (old) food adventure is to start small, start slow. You don’t need to try to can everything all at once…which I think was my big hang up for a while. That’s just too overwhelming. Start with one canned item – say dill pickles – and just do that until you’re comfortable. Then, try something else – tomato juice – and go on from there. And don’t think you have to can such a huge quantity either. Just do one batch the first time – one canner full – then increase your production as you feel comfortable. Now that I’ve canned a couple times with my parents, I’m going to try a small batch of tomato juice on my own. Baby steps.
Here are a few helpful links for my fellow canning newbies:
Canning Definitions & Signs of Spoilage – a big help in deciphering the canning language
How to Can App – a free downloadable app from Mother Earth News
Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving – a wonderful resource with tons of great recipes
Canning Safety – really good info about safe and unsafe canning methods
Getting Started Guide with videos – canning tutorials from the Ball company
My son, Giovanni, snapping green beans:
Gio milling tomatoes for tomato juice:
We add a single basil leaf to our tomato juice for a hint of basil flavor:
Stewed tomatoes (insanely delicious and so versatile):
My grandma’s dill pickle recipe calls for one grape leaf; it helps keep the pickles crisp:
Grandma Mayfield's Dill Pickles
You will need roughly 7 pounds of crisp cucumbers.
3 cups apple cider vinegar
9 cups water
3/4 cup pickling salt
Add the vinegar, water and salt to a large pot and bring to a boil. In a different large pot or canner, fill with enough water that will cover the tallest jar by one inch and bring to a boil. You can test the water level by filling 7 empty quart jars with water and placing them in the pot. The water level needs to cover the jars by one inch. Remove test jars from pot and bring water to a boil.
To each cleaned, sterilized quart jar, add:
2 heads of dill or 2 teaspoons dill seed
1 – 2 grape leaves
2 cloves peeled garlic
pinch of whole black peppercorns (optional)
pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)
Stand your cleaned cucumbers up to the side of the jar and trim if needed (you’ll need about 1/2 an inch of headspace–the space between the top of the cucumber and the opening of the jar). Halve or quarter the cucumbers lengthwise and pack them into the jars on top of the spices, grape leaves and garlic.
Pour or ladle the boiled brine into the jars, leaving 1/2 an inch of headspace. Place the lid on top and screw the ring on just until finger tight. Carefully place the jars in the canner of boiling water (a canning rack comes in handy for this) and put the canner lid on. Boil jars for 15 minutes–this is called the hot water bath method.
After 15 minutes, carefully remove jars with a jar lifter and place on a towel or wire rack to cool completely, about 8 hours or overnight. Once cool, check the seal–the round center of the lid should have depressed; it should not pop back when you press on it. You may hear a “pop” after removing the jars from the hot water bath; that means the jar sealed, — and that, as my dad says, “is music to my ears!”
Tighten the rings fully and label the jars with contents and date. Let pickles set for 6 weeks before eating. Enjoy!