Why wait until next year to enjoy the Valley’s sensational seasonal produce? Canning isn’t as hard as you think—this beginner’s guide will help you get started.
We’re lucky to live in an area that produces wonderful fruits and veggies. But it feels like just as soon as the edible rainbow appears—everything from rosy peaches to crimson beets and hunter-green cucumbers—it fades. By late fall, offerings at farmers markets have dwindled, home gardens have given way to brown stalks and withered leaves, and fruit trees are bare.
Don’t worry: There’s a loophole—canning and preserving. Sure, it sounds like something only the pioneers did, yet pioneering chefs are also embracing this genius food hack. It’s a great way to avoid a long winter with a crisper full of meh-tasting supermarket stuff. Expert canners are happy to explain why the old-school techniques are catching on, and how to ride that syrupy, jammy, and briny wave.
If there’s any doubt about canning and preserving’s growing popularity, Rock Tavern-based chef Nicholas Leiss can set the record straight. He runs Farm2ChefsTable, an enterprise that includes dining events focused on Hudson Valley ingredients, and a website that shines a spotlight on local farmers and producers. Recently, he attended a fermentation festival at Twin Star Orchards in New Paltz. “I was talking to the owner and said I didn’t realize that fermentation and canning were such a big thing. Thousands of people showed up,” he says. In his view, a major reason for the resurgence is because “people are starting to reconnect with their roots. We want to know what’s going on with our food—what’s going into the ingredients and how much salt was added,” he explains.
Becky Polmateer, program director for the Cornell Cooperative Extension for Columbia and Greene Counties, teaches canning classes. “It’s very popular right now,” she says, adding that the number of students a session attracts depends on the food being preserved. Jams and jellies generate more interest than pickles, she observes. “Some people don’t realize they’re just learning a technique,” she adds. “I try to make it so that when somebody leaves my class, they’re probably not coming back. They feel confident in doing it on their own.”
Not all preserved food has to be cooked inside a jar. Some are cooked and then jarred, like the chutney Leiss shares on the next page. The basic principle of canning—which is when foods are indeed cooked in jars made airtight during the process—is pretty straightforward. “It’s the technique to make a product shelf stable. It removes the air [from filled canning jars] to stop the spoilage process, and cook what’s inside, killing anything that would make you sick,” explains Polmateer. Although there are several methods of canning (including pressure canning, which heats water beyond the boiling point), she suggests that beginners start with simpler, boiled water canning. As the name suggests, the procedure uses boiling-hot water to create airtight seals within jars. It’s safest to use with acidic produce, such as tomatoes, most other fruits, and pickled vegetables, all of which have natural acid that discourages bacteria.
A nice thing about boiled water canning is that the equipment is minimal. You’ll need jars designed for canning, such as Mason Jars, plus canning lids, which consist of a flat metal disk and a screw band. Together, the disk and band will create a vacuum seal while the jars boil. And of course, you need a canner. “It’s a big pot for boiling the filled jars,” says Polmateer. Your last must-have is a rack to rest at the bottom of the pot to arrange the jars upright so they won’t bump into one another.
People are starting to reconnect to their roots. We want to know what’s going on with our food, what’s going into the ingredients.
Play It Safe
How long each batch of jarred preserves should boil depends on what’s inside. With safety at stake—improperly canned preserves can harbor dangerous bacteria—it’s best to find reliable canning recipes. They’ll explain how to clean and ready lids and jars, prep fresh foods, and gauge if preserves are acidic enough to be jarred (if not, you’ll need to add ingredients such as lemon or vinegar). Polmateer recommends the recipes on the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s website (nchfp.uga.edu). Leiss’s blog is a great resource, too (farm2chefstable.com/blog). If you prefer a book, “The biggest one is the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving,” says Leiss. As for how preserved foods taste, “there will always be a flavor change from the fresh food, since you have to add vinegar, salt and sugar,” says Polmateer. But, she says, the same thing happens when you cook fresh foods using other methods.
One primary rule is that after you boil the filled and closed jars, you should listen for each lid to make a popping noise while they’re resting. It means the vacuum seal has occurred, and the preserves will then last in your pantry for up to a year or more. And as you remove the jars from the water, don’t tilt them, which can ruin the seal. If you’ve done everything right, but a jar doesn’t seal, you can use a new lid and try again. (Clean jars can be reused, lids can’t.) Otherwise, just refrigerate the would-be preserves and enjoy them fresh.
Either way, you’ll have made the most of amazing seasonal produce. Leiss is all for it. “It’s imperative we have a conversation about canning,” he says. “We have to start preserving [annual harvests] so we can enjoy them all year, as opposed to buying strawberries in the winter. Our ancestors preserved food out of necessity. We don’t always do it for that reason, but it’s kind of cool to see it come back full circle.”
One primary rule is that as you boil the filled and closed jars, you should listen for each lid to make a popping sound at some point. It means the vacuum seal has occurred, and the preserves will last in your pantry for up to a year or more.