Preserving the Harvest: Freezing and Canning 101


The first time I tried canning, I had a huge garden out in the country with hoards of Roma tomatoes that I wanted to preserve. So I bought a pressure cooker, read the directions, and followed the procedure, placing my finished product in their Ball jars on a shelf in the pantry.

I don’t know how long it took,  but eventually I saw mold on top of the tomatoes and had to throw them all out. After that, I was discouraged–let’s even say afraid–to ever try canning again.

So when my friend Tammy asked me if I wanted to go to a canning and freezing workshop at Lubbers Farm in September, I thought this was the time to conquer my fear. Get back on the horse. After all, I’m the one writing a food blog about how to make the most of using what you grow yourself or procure locally. And one of the best ways to preserve the harvest, especially if you live in a climate that gets sub-zero temps like Michigan does, is to can.

Lubbers Farm is where Bill and I buy all our pastured meat. We just picked up a mixed quarter of beef in October, and our pork and lamb are at the butcher as I write this post. Lubbers is the perfect example of a farm with a philosophy toward happy food. (Check out my blog post from September, 2009, when we went to their open house.) Not only are they advocates of the humane treatment of animals and a sustainable environment, but they also make an effort to educate people and create awareness about food by hosting workshops right at the farm.

In mid-September, Tammy and I attended “Preserving the Harvest Naturally: Freezing and Canning 101,” which was led by Kathy Rafter, a Natural Health Practitioner and a founding member of Nourishing Ways of West Michigan.

The workshop was held on a Saturday, and it was both a demo as well as hands-on participation.

First Kathy talked about the history of food preservation in general, and then covered some basic processes for canning and freezing, as well as which fruits and vegetables are appropriate for each method.

For example, freezing–for which most of the equipment you need can be found in your kitchen–is best used for vegetables such as: beans, greens, broccoli, peppers, celery, cauliflower, zucchini, scallions, peas, corn, eggplant, and tomato sauce.

Fruits that freeze well include: berries, cherries, peaches, applesauce, rhubarb, mash, and jams.

Canning, as I learned when I tried those Roma tomatoes many years ago, requires more specific equipment. Although many people use the water bath method, I was happy to learn from Kathy that it’s safe to use  a steam canner. (And she used to be a civil engineer specializing in hydraulics, so I know she knows what she’s talking about!)

Here’s the steam canner she brought, by Back to Basics, which you can get on Amazon for about $45.

Vegetables and fruits appropriate for canning include: all fruits (applesauce, plums, peaches, pears, apricots, jams), tomatoes, and sometimes veggies with vinegar, such as salsa. These are considered acidic, and therefore canning works well.

You can also can low-acid vegetables, meats, poultry, and seafood.

Here’s some of the equipment you’ll need for canning:

A few volunteers helped during the workshop as Kathy demonstrated how to make raspberry jam in the steam canner.

It’s important to sterilize the jars and lids first.

Raspberry jam is one of the easiest jams to can.

After creating a mixture of (washed) raspberries, sugar, and Pomona’s Universal Pectin, it goes into the jars, which are arranged in the steamer.

Acid-based foods need to be heated to 212 degrees F to kill bacteria and form a vacuum in the jar. When using a steam canner, you need to maintain an 8-inch plume during the steaming period. (Refer to a Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving for recipes and canning times.)

Here are the steamed jars with condensation on top. They pop as they cool–that’s how you know they’re sealed and that the food is safe to eat.

After the jam was done, Kathy showed us how to freeze green beans by blanching first and then cooling them in an ice bath.

You can store vegetables for freezing in either freezer bags or freezer jars. For bags, freeze them flat, then you can easily store them upright like books to save space. For jars, make sure to leave room at the top for expansion so the jar doesn’t break.

No blanching is needed for veggies such as peppers, green onions, celery, or leeks–anything you might use for flavoring. Just wash, dry, slice, and freeze. Because freezing doesn’t kill bacteria (just makes it dormant), it’s important to cook these vegetables when you use them.

You can also freeze herbs by chopping them and putting them in an ice cube tray with water or oil. Then you have “herb cubes” to use as needed. Store them in a freezer bag once the frozen cubes are ready.

Here are a few other tips, as well as references:

  • Canning jars come in 1 cup, 1 pint, 1 quart, and 1/2 gallon sizes.
  • Wash produce first before canning or freezing.
  • Fruits and tomatoes need to be stored in a liquid, either blanching water or a light syrup.
  • Muffin pans are a great way to freeze 1/2 cup quantities. (Just like with the herb cubes, remove from muffin pan when the produce is frozen and place in freezer bags.)
  • Keep good records of the canning or freezing date, contents, etc.
  • Don’t reuse seals for canning.
  • Store jars without the bands on the lids, especially if kept in a humid place such as the basement, to prevent rust forming.
  • If a seal is broken, don’t eat the food.
  • Use your nose when you open a jar for the first time; if it doesn’t smell good, don’t use it.
  • Assess what food you want to preserve and the best method for preserving it.

References:

At the end of the demo, we got to sample a variety of Kathy’s delicious preserved fruits and vegetables.

Although your garden produce is probably finished by now if you live in the North, there’s still time to make the most of the harvest by canning and freezing produce from your local farmers market!

Thanks to Lubbers Farm for hosting this wonderful learning experience, and to Kathy Rafter for giving me the confidence to try canning again!

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