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Confessions of a Canning Virgin

Honestly, if I had been this nervous about sex, I would still be a virgin. I can proudly say that I am a canning virgin no more. In contrast to other such firsts, this time I was very anxious before, but deeply satisfied later.

This inaugural journey into canning was not pretty. You might say the journey of a thousand tomatoes begins with a single slice. In my case, I was about… oh… maybe, THREE tomatoes in when it happened. That’s three tomatoes in — to the FIVE pounds of tomatoes my first canning recipe called for. When I sliced my finger, I sliced it well. A beautiful u-shaped cut that supplied copious blood. I contemplated a trip to the ER, weighing it against the loss of the produce and against the concept of a failed canning adventure.

I recalled the time a nurse told me that 20 minutes is the point at which the bleeding should stop and if it hasn’t by that time, you go get stitches. In that case, as I recall, it was more like 40 minutes and a roll and a half of paper towels…but this time, I had a mission. And, I had a bunch of fresh tomatoes from the farmers’ market.

So this, I tell myself, cannot be like that time. It just can’t. I’ve already got the twelve ears of corn, shucked, parboiled, and cut from the cobs. I’ve already got the other ingredients all “mised up”–diced, peeled, measured. I flush the finger with hydrogen peroxide, I press the wound closed, apply pressure, hold it over my head. I am grateful for clean, sharp knives. The cut doesn’t hurt as much as it worries. It must be tonight! Even ran out of cumin, but got some more.

Eyeing the now-so-much-more-enormous looking bowl of tomatoes, I slice. Carefully. And slowly. This is going to take a lot longer than I’d anticipated. The throbbing left middle finger complains as I make my way, gingerly, through the five pounds of tomatoes.

Who was it that recently advised me against starting a canning project after dinner? I insist upon ignoring perfectly good advice, as I have done all my life, and forge ahead. This is the girl who refused to consider the Iowa Writers’ Workshop simply because it was in a state other than NY or CA. Why start listening now?

Upon returning from a weekend with a small group of insanely fun, intensely talented, incredibly supportive women, I was inspired to try this home canning thing. So I began looking for my equipment. I began poring over books. I decided that my first solo attempt should come from Sherri Brooks Vinton’s excellent book, Put ‘em Up! This seemed only right as it was Sherri who walked us through her pickled spicy carrots (page 148) recipe. We all went home with a jar.

Canning Across America helped start the Canvolution, which helped to fireup a national interest in home canning. I looped in my girl Linsey Herman and she jumped on it. She gathered a group to to offer a canning, preservation and pickling seminar in Cambridge as part of Canning Across America. Nika Boyce  is one local expert who taught us that day. Alex Lewin  demonstrated and walked us through lacto-fermentation. I remind myself that I’ve sort of done this before.

Re-reading the how-to section, in Put ‘em Up!, I discover I’m supposed to have two inches (minimum) above the lids after they’ve been elevated by the lid rings from the bottom of the pot. Preferably three. I have just one inch.

The pot I planned to use (my big pasta pot) is not tall enough. I pull out the stock pot which is slightly taller. It will only hold four jars, but I’ll have a little more room for boiling water to cover the top of the jars.

Now, I have to figure out how to configure lid rings and a smaller jar to ensure the filled pints stay upright. My glasses begin steaming up. I time the veggies so that the Corn-Tomato Salsa will be hot when the jars are hot.

More questions: should I have seen those teensy air bubbles escaping the rings when I lower the filled jars into the water bath? How will it affect the seal if I only had one inch of bubbling water?

Since only one pot in the house is deep enough to hold the jars with an inch of water above, I have to process the second batch after first come out of same pot. I get the kettle going.

Rolling boil in this pot means water all over the cooktop. I didn’t hear “pings” from the first batch but the seals appear to be fine. When I take the second batch out of the water bath, they ping immediately. Suddenly, I’m so happy. I can almost forget about the throbbing finger. Almost.

I end in the wee hours of the morning, with eight pints of corn-tomato salsa, some leftover for the fridge, a ton of pride and determination to can more. Can a pressure canner be far off?

Tips for Canning Virgins:

Many advise picking something easy like jam to start out. We just don’t eat much jam.  I’m lucky to have friends that gift me jars now and then and that’s much-appreciated. I wanted something that we would really enjoy and use a lot. So either, pick something easy if you follow conventional wisdom. Or, if you don’t, pick something you will love, regardless of whether it’s easy or not.

1) Think through the prep and start at an appropriate hour.

2) Prepare your canning “mise en place”–i.e., get the tools you’ll need all clean and lined up. Prep as much of the raw materials ahead if you can. You don’t want jars to cool off while you begin chopping or peeling.

3) Clean sharp knife always make kitchen work easier and safer. Also makes cuts hurt less, heal faster.

4) Read through the recipe and canning steps several times. I learn best by doing, not reading. I can tell you my next canning experience was so less fraught. I did some beets. Only, I forgot to think through what would be the weight of the beets in the recipe without the greens. So, I ended up with one and a half jars of beets. The half jar went into the fridge.

5) Check the height of your jars and lid rings etc., before you get that water boiling.

You will enjoy this tremendous feeling of self-sufficiency when you have your finished jars lined up. Don’t fret, canning is like many things we do every day with hardly a thought about the dangers. Things like crossing the street or driving a car are just as hazardous if we don’t follow simple rules and precautions. So it is with canning. Forget the rules, you can grow harmful, even lethal bacteria in your preserved food. Follow the rules you will be fine.

Using Boiling Water Canners: Tips from The National Center for Home Food Preservation

CAA Contributor Jacqueline Church is an always-hungry, ever-curious freelance writer. Currently, she’s working on a book about chefs and the heritage breed pigs they love. She’s a topic editor at Suite101.com where she writes the gourmet food column and writes frequently about the intersection of sustainability and gourmet food. She has remodeled her fingers more times than she can count. You may find her at Jacqueline Church, on Facebook, and she’s @LDGourmet on Twitter.

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2 Comments

  1. Mama Urchin says:

    Another tip for you, use a serrated knife to cut tomatoes. Not sure if you were doing that but it does make a slip of the knife less likely.

  2. Jacqueline says:

    I actually was using a perfect serrated off-set knife, just not enough care. Thanks for the tip though!