There's a lot of worry surrounding canning, mainly regarding the "b" word. While botulism is something to be aware of while canning, it's certainly not the most likely pitfall. "Botulism is pretty rare; you are way more likely to come across spoilage," explains canning expert Kelly Geary, Tart and Sweet: 101 Canning and Pickling Recipes for the Modern Kitchen (Rodale, 2011). In her canning classes, she emphasizes basic canning practices, and eases new canners' fears with tips on recognizing commonsense signs for both botulism and spoilage.
For instance, any bulging, bent, or misshapen lid serves as a warning sign that you shouldn't eat the canned food in that container, as do brown discoloration, bad smells, or funky tastes.
Beyond that, using simple canning practices can keep you safe from harmful microorganisms and help you enjoy farm fresh food all year round.
Ready to try it? Here are canning basics that can help you get started:
Gather up the equipment. The most important pieces of equipment are a few larger pots, a small pot for your lids, mason-like jars with new lids, a ladle, and lots of clean kitchen towels or paper towels "If you have to buy everything new, it may be around $85, but if you have a pretty stocked kitchen, the cost could be more like $15," Geary notes.
Sterilize your equipment. First off, avoid using any equipment made of aluminum, copper, iron, or chipped enamel. Clean all of your equipment in hot soapy water, either by hand or in a dishwasher, and properly sterilize your jars and lids by completely submerging them in hot water and boiling them for 10 minutes. Remember, don't pour hot contents into cold jars…busted glass jars are no fun to deal with. Use jar lifters—tong-like gadgets available where canning supplies are sold—to handle hot jars.
Be serious about acidity. To kill nasty stuff in your canning recipes, always make sure your recipe allows for enough acid. (You can buy pH test strips if you don't trust the recipe.) Lemon juice or vinegar are commonly used to keep the pH 4.6 or lower.
Be headstrong about headspace. Keep a half-inch distance between the top of the jar and its contents for pickles, and a quarter-inch space for jams and butters, because the contents expand while being processed in the pot.
Use produce in its prime. Save your A-game produce for canning. If it's blemished or a bit overripe, just eat it fresh. To get the biggest nutritional bang for your buck, can well-washed produce that's just been harvested. For fruits that brown, you can use ascorbic-acid solutions from canning-supply stores or the canning aisle of your grocery to keep them from discoloring.
(For more canning basic Dos and Don'ts, visit OrganicGardening.com and the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
Cultivate a canning party. In Geary's book, which focuses on 101 small-batch canning recipes, including jams, sauces, salsas, cocktails, and pickled vegetables, she emphasizes that canning is most rewarding when done as a group. "There are a lot of steps involved in most recipes, and it's more fun when you have help and can share equipment and produce," she says. "Plus, it's a lot easier, too, with extra hands!" Besides the equipment and ingredients, Geary says the only other requirements for a canning party are good music and good friends.
Start off simple. Geary recommends starting out making a jam that doesn't require pectin to set up, such as Concord grape, or a fruit butter. More alkaline foods that you wouldn't want to add lemon juice or vinegar to, such as potatoes, are best left for more advanced canners. "You can use a pressure canner to can starches and meats, but that's a whole other set of rules to follow," she says.
Can a fiery treat. Try this hot recipe from Tart and Sweet, and hand it out to friends in winter to remind them of the wonderful heat summer peppers pack. If you don't like things too hot, simply cut back on the habaneros or substitute a milder chile pepper. (Be sure to wear latex gloves when mincing the peppers, and chop everything uniformly for more consistency in the food processor.)
Fire Salsa Verde
YIELD: 6 half-pints
12 Anaheim or other mild peppers
1 large white onion, minced
½ cup white vinegar
2 Tablespoons grated lime zest
6 jalapeño peppers, seeded and minced
2 habanero peppers, seeded and minced
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
2 cups chopped fresh cilantro
3 Tablespoons minced garlic
3 Tablespoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1. Heat a large skillet on medium-high until hot. Add the Anaheim peppers (in batches, if necessary) and roast for 2 to 3 minutes per side, or until the skins are charred and blackened. Remove the peppers from the skillet. Once they're cool enough to handle, peel away the charred skins and discard the stems and seeds.
2. Place the skinned peppers in a food processor. Add the remaining ingredients. Pulse until the desired consistency. Season with salt to taste.
3. Ladle the salsa into hot sterilized jars, leaving a ½–inch headspace. Check for air bubbles (slide a clean, narrow rubber spatula or butter knife down the sides of the jar a few times, or tap the jar lightly on the counter several times, to release trapped air bubbles, thus preventing seal failure), wipe the rims, and seal. Process (put jar in pot of boiling water) for 15 minutes, adjusting for elevation.