When thinking about canning, I have to resist my first impulse to think of it as a grandmotherly-type activity. Even seeing things in Mason jars makes me think “old lady.” Yet, canning, like knitting and making your own cheese, is what all the hip young people are doing these days. Right? Seriously, though, with the renewed interest in food provenance, and keeping things local (and “weird,” in these parts), I would expect canning to be experiencing a resurgence. I even put it on my list of skills to acquire, way back in 2008. What could be cooler and hipper than growing your own organic vegetables and preserving them within a few hours of picking them off the vines? How could you get more locavore than that? Let me tell you right now, the idea of canning is way more glamorous than the act itself.
I did a little intro-course with my father this past weekend, but, when we returned home with three grocery bags filled to the brim with yellow squash, I became determined to make my canning dreams come true. I hopped on Amazon.com and picked out a monster pressure-canner with a 7-quart capacity, figuring it would be all I would ever need — visions of canning chicken broth and cranberry jelly for holiday gifts were taking up residence in my head.
Little did I know that yellow squash are the subject of quite a controversy in the canning world. Many authorities contend that there is no safe way to can yellow squash — something about the consistency, and the irregularity, etc. But I did enough research, and found a recipe in Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving, which I trust, to encourage me to go ahead. Make your own decisions, of course, but I suspect most resources on canning to be especially conservative — which is understandable, given the risks of botulism. (Most sources recommend freezing yellow squash, but we are running out of freezer space.)
There are basically two ways to can. Water bath canning is the most simple, in that it can be done in any large pot — it has to be large enough to fit all your jars, and a “bath” of water one or two inches higher than the jars. This works well for anything with sufficient acid content to keep bacteria from growing — things like pickles or tomatoes. Things with less acid content (vegetables, meat) need to be pressure canned in a special device that uses pressure to get to a very high heat, killing the nasty bacteria. One other little tidbit is that the reason you don’t want to pressure can things that can be water bath canned is flavor. Processing at a higher heat could compromise quality, so go with water bath when your item is high enough in acid content.
The ground rules of canning state to never use a recipe from prior to 1990, and to follow recipes exactly, as the directions have been developed to ensure that they’re safe. Needless to say, on the Internet, make sure that your recipe is from a reliable source.
All that said, I didn’t exactly follow my own advice. Rather than follow the picking recipe in the Ball book, I used the ready-made dill seasoning mix that Ball sells in grocery stores, but I followed the processing directions stated in the book to ensure yellow-squash-specific safety. So far, we have lived to tell but we haven’t actually eaten anything yet, so do as I say, not as I do!
Generally speaking, canning begins with preparing the thing-to-be-preserved. With picking, this means chopping up vegetables and preparing pickling spices. I chose to do spears of yellow squash, thinking it might get less mushy if it was spears rather than coins.
Then, the squash went in the already-boiling pickling mixture for 10 minutes for a little softening.
After I was satisfied with the texture, the pickles-to-be went into the quart-sized jars I’d picked up this week. They were still hot, but I was able to arrange them with a little maneuvering. Once I had the vegetables in place, I filled the jar with pickling juice. leaving 1/2 inch of “headroom” to the top of the jar. I shook the jar a little and poked around to get any possible air bubbles released; wiped the rim of the jar; and put on the two-part top. I filled a total of 6 jars — I had to do two rounds of cooking because my pot wasn’t big enough. This is actually pretty strenuous work. Between the chopping and the stirring and the jar-stuffing, you’re lifting pounds and pounds of vegetables. It’s surprisingly intense and tiring. (Can I claim Weight Watchers activity points for canning?)
The filled cans go into the mondo-giganto (23 quart) canner, which I had to modify (according to instructions in the packaging) to do water bath canning, since it’s set up by default for pressure canning. Note the little rack under the jars — this keeps them off the bottom of the canner to ensure even heating all around the jar.
Then, I filled the canner up with water to about 2 inches above the tops of the jars, and set it on the highest heat possible. Even then, it took a long time to come to a boil. Once it did, I started timing 10 minutes. Then, I took the top off the canner, let it cool for 5 minutes, and used my fancy new jar lifter to take the jars out of the recently-boiling water.
Now, as I write this, I’m listening. As the jars cool, they seal. When they do, they make a distinctive “pop” noise. It’s such a satisfying sound after all the hard work! Tomorrow morning, I’ll press down on the centers of the jar tops. If they flex up and down, the seal hasn’t occurred. If it just stays solid, we’re golden. Anything that didn’t seal properly could be processed again (with new jar lids), or I could just put them in the refrigerator for eating more quickly.
Next up: maybe tomato sauce. I love the idea of opening a jar of my tomato sauce for pasta, rather than something I picked up at Costco. (This does not mean I do not love Costco. Costco, I love you so!). But my next adventure can wait a few days. For now, I’ll revel in the “pop”s and rest.
Have you ever canned anything? What are your favorite recipes?