Canning, the Neurotic First-Timer Way

This post comes from Megan, neurotic first-time canner turned pro!

A few weeks ago I inadvertently volunteered to do a preserving demonstration at the Maritime Fall Fair. Inadvertently because I’d thought I was volunteering to man a booth, standing by while folks look at a display or pamphlets, and maybe answering some questions. Having never preserved anything in my life, I likely would not have volunteered had I understood I’d be demonstrating lacto-fermentation and canning to a seated audience. On a kitchen platform. With a microphone headset. Eep!

(This misunderstanding was no fault of the requester; I need to read my emails more closely and make fewer assumptions).

Realizing what I got myself into I figured I’d better learn in a hurry. Mixing up sauerkraut was easy – chop, salt, pound, wait. I texted a friend who’d taken the sauerkraut workshop: could it be that easy? I was forgetting something, right? But as with many of the foods that we’re used to harvesting from grocery shelves, it really isn’t complicated; we’ve just gotten out of the habit of doing things for ourselves. Lacto-fermentation, check.

Next: canning. Much more intimidating. In preparation I borrowed a book on canning and bought myself a canner and the appropriate utensils (all for less than ~$40 new). I got home and set out all of my equipment, along with my jars and a bag of valley apples I’d picked up, and got busy reading through all the steps. After going through it four times I felt ready to give’r.

After an hour of peeling and chopping I had a pot of apples and spices simmering into applesauce on the stove and I began heating water in my canner with the jars and lids. This was the first important safety step in the manual: making sure that your jars are hot enough that they don’t break when you add your hot food. Check. Within little time my apples were turning to frothy, foaming, pillowy goodness. I carefully removed a jar from the canner, filled it with applesauce, removed air bubbles and checked the “headspace” as directed, placed a lid and sealing ring, making it “fingertip tight” (another important safety step), and put it back in the canner. Ditto the second and third jar, add enough water to completely surround them, and they were on their way. Voila!

At this point I grew skeptical; this was too easy. So I started worrying about whether they would actually seal – did I get the headspace right? What exactly is “fingertip tight”? Did I get out all the air bubbles? And if I got any of these steps even minutely wrong, could it work?

As I pondered this something startling began to happen – boiling water began shooting from the canner and cascading down its sides, creating an alarming sizzling and popping noise akin to a tiny fireworks display. I leapt into action with tea towels, trying to avoid the boiling water droplets flying through the air while attempting to stop the water from running down between the stove and wall to areas unreachable – already late in the evening, I didn’t fancy ending my night by having to pull the stove into the middle of the kitchen to mop, knowing that such an endeavor might uncover a much scarier mess. Standing as far from the stove as possible, arm out-stretched and oven-mitt protected, a quick assessment told me that while my canner was tall enough for the jars I’d chosen, with the steamer insert (used to keep the jars off the direct heat source – another important safety step) there wasn’t enough room to completely cover them with water, and once boiled it had boiled over.

Okay. Time for a quick decision. Remove enough water to stop the overflow (but then the jars wouldn’t be completely surrounded!), turn the jars on their side so they could remain completely immersed (but the directions said not to tilt the jars!), or completely abandon the process? I went for option two, thinking it was probably the wrong choice but going for it anyway. I tipped them on their sides, took out a bit of water; the effluence stopped. As I waited for them to process I lamented that my instructions hadn’t told me which steps are fudge-able and which aren’t. Not being science-minded, I figured the process was probably pretty picky. Twenty minutes later I removed the jars from the canner half-heartedly and stood them back up on the counter, believing that they wouldn’t seal and my foray into canning would be a failure.

As the final step was to check the seal 24 hours later, I put the venture to rest for the night. All the following day at work my mind would return to the jars of applesauce on my counter, waiting for me to come home and do my check, mocking me as the lids would lift easily from the jars. I’m not sure if I would have been so wrapped up in their success or failure if I hadn’t been aware that in one week I’d be doing it in front of a group of folks who would probably know better and I would be revealed as a preserving fraud. The ego is a powerful thing.

But sometimes miracles happen. They sealed! I’d googled “seal test” earlier in the day and tried four methods, just to be sure. I was elated! It worked! I’d canned something! I celebrated by promptly opening one and diving in.

Over the next week I stoked my confidence by preparing jars of lacto-fermented kimchi and dill pickles, and pickling and canning the last of my summer carrots. The satisfaction of chopping and mixing, bubbling and boiling, setting aside and tasting, is addictive. Part science experiment, part artisan craft, and results that celebrate our local harvest well into the winter.

And I avoided appearing as a complete novice at the demonstration. I was paired with someone with plenty of experience – a whiz with preserving – who took the lead while I played the role of assistant / beginner, demonstrating that you don’t need to be a kitchen or harvesting expert to make the most of our local produce – you don’t! It was fun – and I added pickled beets and salsa to my list of Things I’ve Preserved. What will be next?

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