It's time to gear up for canning season
Last week, as I began to gear up for preserving the spring and summer harvests, it occurred to me that a person can get so overwrought with the technicalities and science of the task that it's easy to lose sight of the process and what it does for you.
Deep down in your soul, I mean.
When you step into a kitchen to wrestle a bushel of produce into shimmering little jars, it focuses your concentration. And, at the end of an activity that leaves no room for mulling extracurricular woes, you come away gloriously refreshed.
Plus, even though canning isn't an essential form of survival these days, your meals will be lovelier, and your gifts more cherished. And if by demonstrating the age-old process of putting food by helps your children make the inescapable connection we have with the land, then the future becomes a more hopeful place to look.
Your opportunity to capture that harvest is almost upon us. Northwest rhubarb and asparagus are being harvested right now. And then it's on to berries, cherries, peaches, apples and pears. An amazing journey that won't slow down until the fields of corn are spent, tomato bushes are finally too tuckered and chilled to fruit, and our filbert trees have yielded their nutty treasure.
So while the pace is still leisurely, it's a good time to gear up for the season. Like any other form of cooking, there are a few tools that you'll need to have on hand. Then — and this is a very important part — set aside a few square feet of kitchen or garage space for these supplies. Experience has taught me that at those rare moments when time, energy and inclination are aligned, you don't want to undermine your enthusiasm by having to assemble all of the gear.
Processing pot/boiling-water canner — Most of my canning recipes provide two choices for storage (which influences how you finish a recipe): refrigeration or room temperature. Refrigeration (or in some cases, freezing) is the easiest approach. Simply ladle your prepared jam (or relish, or jelly) into clean containers, add a lid, and place them in your refrigerator up to a specified amount of time.
Because most of us have limited refrigerator space, I'm starting with the premise that at some point this summer, you'll want to take the extra steps to can a batch of your jam, fruits, pickles and relishes so they can be stored at room temperature. To do so, they need to be processed in a boiling-water canner. These pots don't need to be expensive and heavy-duty. In fact, they're typically made from lightweight aluminum or enameled metal.
But they do need to be large enough to hold at least six canning jars and enough water to cover the jars by at least one inch.
Canning jars — They're made from sturdy, tempered glass designed to withstand the heat and jostling of a boiling-water canner. It's a false economy to substitute recycled mayonnaise or commercially made jam jars, because they may break during processing, and then all your efforts will be for nothing.
Canning lids — If you've bought new canning jars, you will also get your very first supply of two-piece canning lids, because they will be included. They're composed of a flat, round lid or "insert" that comes with a rubberized "sealing compound" around its edges. The second part is called the "ring" or "metal screw-band," designed to hold the lid in place. The flat, round lid is a one-time-only piece of gear, because the rubberized sealing compound needs to be fresh. The rings, however, are reusable, as long as they aren't rusted or dented.
Jar funnel — You need one, trust me. It's designed to nest on top of an empty canning jar and direct a ladle-full of preserves down into the jar without leaving messy glops on the jar rim or counter.
Jar lifter — Again, you need one. I consider it the manually operated fork-lift of the canning world. Designed to grip a filled-and-capped jar securely around its neck for placing in and removing from a boiling-water canner, you really have no alternative method that doesn't put your fingers and precious jars of preserves in jeopardy.
Lid lifter — What could be more simple and elegant in design? A 6-inch long wand with a magnet embedded into the business end, used to fish the lids from hot water. In the early phase of a canning project, you sterilize your two-piece lids by bringing them to a boil in a pot of water. You leave them in the boiling water until you're ready to cap a filled jar. At this point, the magnet end of the lid lifter will attract a metal lid or screw-band from the water.
Jar rack — Keeps jars off the bottom of the boiling-water canner during processing. Also eliminates jostling among the jars, which helps eliminate breakage.
Thermometer — For determining when your batch of boiling jams and jellies have reached the gel point. Although a candy thermometer, clamped to the inside upper rim of the pot will work just fine, I prefer using an "instant read" thermometer to monitor the progress, which eliminates a dangling piece of equipment when you're trying to give the preserves a good stir.
Canning book — Arrange to have at least one basic guide on hand that offers basic and reliable information and conforms to all of the wishes and recommendations of the United States Department of Agriculture. Many such books come in multiple editions. In order to make sure your information is up to date, do not purchase any edition that's been published earlier than 1988, which is when major changes in recommendations for canning tomatoes were made. My favorite is "Ball Blue Book — Guide to Home Canning, Freezing & Dehydration" by the Altrista Corporation.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a cookbook author and columnist in Corvallis. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.