(Originally published in Palo Alto Weekly)
The thought of canning, or preserving fruits and vegetables in glass jars, may bring to mind a bygone era of life on the family farm and women cooking over a hot stove all day long. But in a modern Palo Alto kitchen simmering with the sights and smells of pickled beets, it’s clear that canning is not quite a lost culinary art.
“Beets are something people don’t enjoy at all if they’re plain,” says lifetime home canner Rosalie Shepherd as she prepares the reddish-purple vegetable for canning. “You can pack them in water, but pickling adds flavor.”
Shepherd is part of a dedicated community of canners, made up of home cooks, gardeners, foodies and people who think it’s just plain fun to preserve their favorite fruits and vegetables as jams, jellies and sauces. For those who prefer their food to be of the least-processed variety, canning offers the enticing option to prepare even staple items such as green beans and applesauce at home.
Canning has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years, as baby boomers and young families have shown an increasing interest in the homemade foods of their parents’ and grandparents’ times. Jill Rakestraw of Mountain View, who makes jams and jelly, and cans tomatoes, said that she is no longer alone in her love of canning.
“I started canning five years ago. I would just do it on my own, but now all my girlfriends want to learn how to can — one had her mom mailing cans from Texas,” Rakestraw said. “People’s moms did it and now they want to go back to it.”
Recipes instruct cooks to boil jars and lids to sterilize them, then combine their fruit or vegetable on the stove with other ingredients, such as spices, pectin for jellies, pickling salt or sugar. The mixture is then poured carefully into the jars and the lids twisted on. The jars are submerged in more boiling water or a pressure canner to ensure that they are completely sealed. Preserves can then be stored for anywhere from several months to a year.
Though canning has been done for generations, it’s often stuck with a reputation for being a long, laborious process that only an experienced cook, or one with a lot of time on his or her hands, could perform. Canning recipes found in cookbooks and blogs warn cooks of the risks of botulism from unsterilized jars, lids not sealed properly, using water that hasn’t reached the correct temperature and a host of other potential problems.
“If you’ve never seen it done it can be scary to take it on. There’s hot steam involved and it can seem dangerous,” said Mark Delman of Palo Alto, who writes a canning and gardening blog called “Planter Tomato.” “I always put canning off to the side because I had no experience, but I decided last June I needed to try it. It is so easy it’s ridiculous.”
Foster City resident Jennifer Wong agreed that canning is not as labor-intensive as it is often made out to be.
“It’s become a lot simpler. You don’t have to have fancy equipment,” she said. “You can just make small batches and it doesn’t have to take two days.”
Experts recommend that new canners start out conservatively, with fruits and vegetables that most everyone likes.
“I always tell people to grow and can the thing they like to eat the most,” Delman said. “Tomatoes are usually a good choice. Everyone loves them, they preserve beautifully, and you have a lot of flexibility — you can make chili, pasta and more.”
Sue Cannon of Santa Cruz, who cans artichokes, pickles and jam, said berries are good for beginners because they already contain pectin, which creates the thick texture characteristic of jams and jellies. She said it’s important to be organized throughout the process.
“Try to come up with an assembly line so that everything remains hot,” Cannon advised.
The canning process invariably includes sharing one’s goods with others. Many canners say that one of the aspects they enjoy most about their craft is connecting with families, friends and communities through food.
“My grandma had always given us jars of jelly every year when we would come to visit her. Every one of our holiday meals included canned green beans with bacon in it and she always made her own pickles,” Cannon said. “I thought (canning) connected me with my family.”
Steve Rasmussen, owner of the Milk Pail Market in Mountain View, said he enjoyed making applesauce once with his family.
“We peeled the apples and cored them, put it on the stove, added cinnamon and mashed it up. As a home-grown experience it was great, and the kids loved it,” Rasmussen said.
Santa Clara County’s Village Harvest, which harvests unwanted fruit and donates it to charitable food organizations and hunger programs, makes preserves for fundraising. Canning groups also host exchanges so friends can share each other’s creations.
In the end, it’s all about the food. Canners say grocery-store produce simply can’t compare with the taste of freshly preserved fruits and vegetables. Delman said the lack of fresh garden produce in supermarkets is a major reason why many have turned to canning at home.
“Even tomatoes at a good grocery market don’t taste like tomatoes out of a garden because they’re bred for longevity and ability to be transported, not flavor,” he said. “People are frustrated that they can’t get good-quality food.”
For those willing to learn and experiment with canning, the literal fruits of their labor seem well worth the effort. Wong said the best part of the process for her is admiring the pleasing aesthetic of her work.
“The fruit tastes fresher and the texture is more intense,” she said. “I love putting the finished jars in a line on the counter and seeing how pretty they are. The colors are incredible.”
Info: Websites with more information on canning include:
* http://www.plantertomato.com: Mark Delman’s blog, with product reviews and tips for canning and gardening
* http://www.freshpreserving.com: The website for Ball, which sells canning supplies
* http://www.pickyourown.org: Lists of you-pick farms, along with canning directions and crop calendars