Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Urban Homestead Series: Because I Can

(Yes that is a bottle of wine on the counter. No I don't recommend drinking and canning. However, recipes that call for booze are fun and I do encourage pouring yourself a mild libation after all your hard canning work!)

Putting food by is essential to any homestead, urban or otherwise. There are lots of ways to preserve the harvest. You can freeze, dry and ferment food. And you can can. Can you do the can can? (Sorry. Just had to do that.)

Anyhoo, all last year I read many bloggers who preserved and stockpiled food by canning. This year I was determined to join their ranks. I purchased a second hand canning pot and rack in the spring, started collecting jars and picked up some other essential tools this summer. I scored a free book on canning and patiently waited for harvest season to come around.

This weekend I finally took the plunge into water bath canning! Wanting to start with something relatively easy and foolproof and using ingredients available to me, I decided on two different jams: crab apple and plum jam, using crab apples that a neighbour gave to me and fresh plums from the Niagara region and currant jam with the currants I harvested from my garden plot earlier in the summer.

I won't go into any detail here about how to can, safety issues and such. There are far more experienced canners out there as well as other online resources, which I'll list at the end of the post for reference.

What I will do is share a few thoughts on the process and my experience as a beginner.

First of all, I had to get educated on and over the fear of botulism poisoning. Since I planned to stick to high acid foods and recipes that are suitable for the water bath method, botulism is not really too much of a worry, but still I was nervous at first. Once I was reasonably convinced I wasn't going to poison myself or anyone else I chose my recipes and gathered my ingredients.

Canning is a great way to preserve and have access to local foods through the winter, however I noticed that many recipes call for a number of non-local ingredients like lemon juice, sugar and salt. Not only that, but recipes for things like jam, call for shockingly large amounts of sugar. Normally, I don't buy sugar. Ever. I'm a raw, local honey girl through and through, with some maple syrup thrown in here and there as a treat. I just about went hypoglycemic when I read how much sugar I would need for my two jam recipes. Also, if you end up buying fair trade, organic sugar like I did, the cost can be quite high. Finally, some recipes call for fancy ingredients like specialty alcohols. The crab apple plum jam called for wine, and the currant jam called for a currant liquor. Of course, not all recipes will have booze in them, but if they do, this too is an added expense. (Currant liquor or Cassis, by the way, is absolutely divine and I plan on making my own next year!)

With all my ingredients and equipment at the ready, recipe and instruction book open, I got down to business. I brought the water in the canner to a boil to sterilize my jars and started processing the apples and plums for cooking. Everything took about twice as long the first time because I was checking and double checking the recipe and canning instructions to make sure I was doing everything properly. Timing is everything when it comes to canning and each step is important. I wanted to make sure that I didn't miss anything.

I noticed I used a lot more water than I normally do when working in the kitchen and I had the stove going at high temperatures for much longer than normal. Canning is energy and resource intense. What with all the water and boiling, non local sugar and lemons, I could feel my carbon footprint getting bigger and bigger. Not to mention, all that steamy water was really heating up my kitchen, which would be great on a crisp, fall day, but definitely not something I would willingly do in the humid heat of high summer.

In the end it took me two days to do up both recipes and I ended up with 12 jars of jam, two of which didn't seal properly, so need to be eaten right away or frozen for later use.

All in all, I'm pleased with the results and I'm very happy to have taken on learning this new skill, which, once learned is actually quite easy, though fairly labour intensive from start to finish (especially since I was working within the confines of a small kitchen and had to do a lot of shuffling of things back and forth to make room for other things.)

I can definitely see the benefits of putting up food for storage that doesn't need to be frozen and I will be oh so grateful for the taste of summer fruit on my tongue in mid winter, but honestly, of all the homesteady things I've been learning about and doing in the last year, I don't think I love canning the way that I love say, crocheting, or working with herbs.

Frankly, while the weather is still lovely I'd rather be outside in the garden or foraging and wildcrafting. Instead of slaving over a hot stove, I'd rather start a batch of pickles or cabbage fermenting (it's much easier, with less cleanup, there's no risk of dangerous spoilage, it retains more nutrients and you don't need electricity to do it). Instead of slicing, dicing, peeling, coring, juicing and pressing, I'd rather decant herbals tinctures or gently pluck the dried leaves of my herbs from their stems to put into jars.

I haven't yet tried any of the more savoury recipes like salsa, which I still plan to do, as well as pickled beets, but on the whole I don't see myself as a hard core canner. I just get much more pleasure from making medicine and fermenting foods. (I am however, attracted to the possibilities of drying food and I think a dehydrator might just end up on my wish list in the near future.) So while I will can when I can, I imagine I'll spend more time and effort on the things that give me real joy. And hopefully there will be some hardcore canners out there willing to barter some food for medicine in the future...

What about you? What homesteading activities do you absolutely love and which ones are you just kinda sorta 'meh' about?

Oh and here are those resources I promised:

For inspiration read this lovely article by Jenna from Cold Antler Farm.

For 'how to's' Rhonda Jean's got you covered here, here and here.

I also referenced this site.


Liz said...

Despite all the work, I really do like canning. Making my kids' lunches all year with homemade jam and fruit makes it worth it. (Usually, instead of vodka, there's rum on my counter. ;-)) I'm liking dehydrating too.

Does cleaning count as homesteading? I hate cleaning.

As for all the sugar - honey can be used in its place. Haven't tried it, but here's a link...

Anonymous said...

Canning IS exhausting, but it's gratifying to open up jars of berry or red pepper sunshine that you grow or gather in July, in February! My best experiences have been joint canning experiments with friends, so you don't feel so badly about all the Time, or boiling-water energy, you're using. Nowadays, in a small kitchen apt, I prefer to process and freeze red peppers and tomato sauce in freezerbags -- though I MISS the pickles!

Scout said...

What a wonderful (and honest) description, thanks so much!! I haven't tried canning yet, but I plan to. I don't think I'll love it either, but I agree that it's an important skill, and worth some effort.

I do have a dehydrator, though, which is *awesome*. I've done apples, pears, peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes, celery ... oh my! We're going canoe-camping this weekend, and I've made up a "vegetable soup" from my own dehydrated ingredients, as an alternative to the "meals ready to eat" style camping food that we usually buy. Much nicer to think of eating light, easy-to-pack food that's made out of our own garden and veggie box goodness, even while out in the wilderness :)

Amber said...

Hi Liz,

The idea of having jars of the summer harvest to use all winter is definitely appealing and no doubt makes all the hard work totally worth it. I know this winter I'll be really happy I put the time in to can a few things.

Thanks for the honey tip. That possibility is very exciting!

Anon, I love the idea of group canning sessions! Sharing the work and the fruits of your collective labour sounds like so much fun. In the future I envision community or neighbourhood canning sessions...lots of people with different tasks, a huge harvest of food from the local gardens, laughing, working, canning, sharing...

Scout, ok, you've totally convinced me that I want a dehydrator! That's so awesome that you prepared all your own camping food. Wow, very cool.

Kyaroru said...

Mmmm, I do envy your nice homemade jams... Here in Tokyo it really doesn't appeal to me to try canning any fruit, since local in-season stuff is hard enough to come by and not much of it is typical can fare (figs abound right now, maybe I should look for a recipe). However, we are totally loving the CSA organic veg we've been eating for many months now and you've given me the urge to at least freeze up some stuff now during prime harvest that won't be available in a couple of months.

I've also been wanting a solar dehydrator (and oven) for quite some time and should really get on it since humid season is over and the dry & sunny Tokyo winter is approaching! I only wish my city boy & I were a bit handier and could DIY it like this!

Thanks Amber.

SoapBoxTech said...

Congrats on achieving another goal.

Its getting to be time that this single feller picked up a few of those "womanly" skills too, I think.

I wouldn't worry too much about your briefly enlarged carbon footprint. You saved a WHOLE lot more by not requiring preserves to be shipped to you.

Anonymous said...

SoapBox: If the alternative was to bike to a local market and buy some jam from a local producer, who processes in volume, i'm not so sure her home canning is the most carbon-footprint minimizing option.

But kudos on practicing some useful skills.