Olympic Principles as Applied to Canning Food for Winter

1 Sep

Happy Locavore Month!  Here’s a post to inspire you a week in advance of our “Try Food Preservation” challenge of the day (that’s Sept 9th if you’re following along on the calendar).  First off, don’t think that this is a first-time canner telling you how awesome and easy canning is. It CAN be easy and fun, but that might not be your first experience. I have some practice, and I’m learning what it takes for me to enjoy it (I know I like the end results, but this year I’ve been working on not feeling burdened by a hobby I generally enjoy). I’m not trying to scare you from trying canning, but encouraging you to do so while taking comfort that it does take practice to get the knack of it. In the spirit of this summer’s Olympic games, I’ve tried to get cute with some Olympics analogies. Please forgive me for that!  If you prefer information via podcast, From Scratch Club just put out their Food Preservation edition of their podcast, and they really boil down (ha!) a lot of what I’ve said here.  If you’re short on time to read, perhaps you’ll get the most new information from the last section of this post–my personal tricks to guarantee a fun experience.  Plus, a rare photo of me in my canning uniform.

A Few Common Challenges:

  • Inadequate training facilities (less-than-ideal kitchen spaces). I have drawn my dream preserving space, and it’s nothing like the 5 feet of counter and 4×4 table top and miniature (but thankfully 4-burner) stove in my apartment. My state-of-the-art canning kitchen involves a separate low power burner atop which I could place a big heavy water-bath canner. Lifting jars in and out would then not be atop tip-toes, with a limited field of vision. But hey, some of the best athletes in the world come from such humble training arenas, that it’s obvious there’s more than fancy stuff involved.
  • Unfavorable training/performing conditions.  It’s usually hot or humid when you’re handling hot glass, molten sugar-fruit mixtures and acidic pickles and tomato sauces. And of course there’s the hot water.
  • You need a chunk of time. You’re likely to sleep lessor relinquish a few weekends if you’re going to put a whole lot of produce away this way. Of course, you can can once and feel happy about that single batch, but it seems to be habit-forming.

    Tomato paste–one of the most time-consuming of the home canned foods. But man, am I psyched to crack these open in late winter and inhale the fresh-as-August flavor.

  • Team and individual competition don’t always coincide. Sometimes winning at canning is easier with others, but the produce won’t wait til your friends are available for the relay or the team all-around competition.
  • You’d need to preserve a LOT of produce (not a quantity most people can afford in a concentrated few months without a really keen sense of budgeting) to actually survive on it all winter.  This probably is a case of adjusting your expectations.
  • Starting up can feel like you just keep buying more equipment. There are ways to combat this.

(My Personal) Motivation:

  • I am able. As I watched the Olympics this summer (while canning, at times) and I realized that there are some things I can do (preserve pickles) and some things I won’t ever do (high jump)…so why not exercise my abilities!?
  • It brings me so much joy to eat something, occasionally (see above), in the winter that tastes so fresh and delicious. I think most of those athletes are actually having fun, or once did while performing their sport.
  • I feel pretty dang empowered. My personal life hasn’t been 100% easy (gee, has anybody’s?) this summer, but knowing that I accomplished some canning makes me feel better. I have found it impossible to mope and can at once. If I’m stressed over hot liquids and acid-to-tomato ratios, I’m not thinking about those other things.  It’s a form of meditation: Late at night, I’m all ready for bed and waiting on those jars of pickles to boil for 15 minutes.  I’m in the zone as I’m extracting them, steaming, onto a towel-lined baking tray (so I can move them from counter to table and back again without truly disturbing them during their sealing process).  I like going straight to bed after my closing ceremonies (see below). It’s the good feeling of exhaustion that has nothing to do with negative emotions or stress from work. The colorful foods in their glass houses have a muted twinkle in their dark cabinet…like an army of protectors from feeling sad or lazy.
  • Some people are just suited for what they do–athletes and canners alike. If you’re like me and enjoy scientific research, math, creativity and anticipation of yumminess…canning would appeal to you for the research for just the right recipe given what’s available to me, there’s the math in making the batch fit my quantities, there’s the extra creative touch like throwing basil in the blueberry-plum jam, there’s the excitement of watching jars go in and out of the canner, there’s the hands-wiping-on-the-apron feeling of accomplishment when finished, labeled food goes on the shelf.
  • You make it your own thing.  This year I’ve gotten really into drawing with colored pencils.  You’re wrong if that doesn’t have anything to do with canning…check out how I’ve been gluing hand-written labels on all my jars.  It’s absolutely unnecessary (marker on the lid works fine), but I don’t care.  Maybe you’ll write a poem or a song or your kids will invent some silly dance that is all about the canning process.  Arts and the kitchen, memory-making and the kitchen, it’s all one.

    Handwritten labels allow me to feel even more artsy-craftsy when cooking.

  • It is a seasonal experience. And we don’t even have to wait for our turn every 4 years (assuming we make it through brutal qualifying rounds). Some people look forward to getting freezing cold and whipping down a mountain on waxed metal slabs (it’s called skiing I think), I look forward to swollen feet and tomato steam. If I don’t do it now, I miss out for the year. Actually, I get nervous with anticipation as soon as the strawberries hit market tables. I relax as time goes on, because I’ve understood, as a not-first-time-canner, that I won’t preserve enough, but everything I do preserve will bring so much happiness.

    This is what 8 pounds of tomatoes looked like a few weeks ago.

Performance Enhancement:

  • Don’t worry, it’s not like those running shoes that last for one race. I started slowly, especially with what I purchased. You are investing, one 12-pack of jars at a time. Canning is all about frugality and re-use, but it’s a slower return on your investment than you’d like, most likely.  You’re likely to find used equipment or a community of canners to share the time and equipment. I know people who have convinced their churches to start kitchen gardens, to buy equipment in the name of community outreach and food pantries! A few knowledgeable and dedicated individuals can run with this sort of idea with your congregation, community center or other established group.
  • The research and knowing the difference between recipe and formula. There are SO many blogs, tutorials, podcasts, photo collections, online forums and resources available. But the thing that gets me from ooh/aah on a blog post to actually canning myself is knowing what I must not change. For that I go to the USDA and trusted books for formulas regarding safe ratios of ingredients (namely acidity for home canning without a pressure canner) and processing time. The rest is fluid and fun, but only because I know I have the confidence that I’ve cross-checked my stuff. If you like to just go with a recipe, then you can do that too!
  • You can take classes.  I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without exhorting you to find your local equivalent of The From Scratch Club academy.  Try your Cooperative Extension office for starters.
  • A kitchen scale. This goes with research and the tiny kitchen issues. I usually measure what I have before I look up recipes. Then I figure out what I can chop and fit in my vessels. I know I can’t fit 25 pounds of chopped tomatoes in any pot I own. So that recipe for ketchup gets divided in 3, and I can weigh my produce again according to that. Fewer surprises really helps when you’re canning.  For reference, this is what I have: Salter digital scale.
  • Not canning everything (is this like not competing in every Olympic event in your sport?). I don’t convert everything that arrives, abundant and seasonal, into a vinegary or fermented pickle, water-packed and acidulated whole veggie or sweet spread of some sort. I only can what I know I’ll want to eat. I do leave myself wishing I’d done more of x (cucumber pickles…always) and less of y (seriously…more jam?), but I think it feels better than facing another jar of something in vinegar that I wish I could better repurpose. I guess I’m saying that for all I love about pickles, I also like to keep my options open, play the field a bit. So, though this is a posting about canning, the advice to do OTHER food preservation does go into it. I chop and freeze lots of items and dehydrate others. Those methods, especially dehydration, always result in a moment of surprise and delight…many moments, perhaps…when I realize how well-preserved those summer flavors are when reconstituted in a soup or casserole. To bring this point back around, I do my best to choose what I put in jars, vs. letting the jars boss me around, and that keeps the activity fun. (Side Note: I absolutely respect and admire and get a little jealous about the committed folks who manage to can such a variety of fruits and vegetables–I’m really just speaking from personal decisions, hoping it rings true with some readers. Those canning community members have some absolutely genius ideas for what to do with all.those.jamsjelliespicklesandpreserves).
  • The little genius inventions and moments. I hated running back to my book or computer, doing the calculations in my head, an
    Ketchup Recipe

    Binder clip, attached to my cabinet with a thumbtack = perfect recipe placement

    then going back to the counter. So I wrote what I needed to know on a piece of paper and put it right where I needed it, above my counter. I still have that little binder-clip set up and use it for much more than canning.

  • Clear as much out of your way as possible. Put all the dishes away, clear out the sink of that one last mug you didn’t wash, move anything that’s going to tumble or be in the way to a different place (just remember that your condiments are on the desk in your office, the kitchen utensils are on top of the TV cabinet, the bowl of fruit is on your bed, etc.). Make your space canning central for a few hours.  I was always impressed with how the gymnasts packed and unpacked their extra gear each time they took their turn. Compared to that, the pre-canning cleanup seems like a cinch!
  • Set up your process. When I’ve canned with my dad, we actually did a little walk through of who would fill, wipe, place lids, etc. Get that flow nailed down whether you’re alone or (better) with friends/family. If it seems like you’ll be dancing (and not for fun/music/joy), reconsider the placement of your items. You may need an A set-up (chopping, cooking); a B set-up, filling, lidding and a C set-up, boiling, cooling. Think about what goes next to what from the perspective of where you’re going to scoop into, drip onto, etc. Prop up one end of your cutting board on a rolled up towel so it drips that juice into the sink. Move the kitchen furniture around so you get that work flow just as you need it. Put the compost bucket next to you on the floor. Don’t worry, these aren’t forever moves.

Canning Set Up A: H2O is essential–you’re going to get dehydrated (just like an Olympic athlete!).  Clean sink, towel over kitchen items not stowed away, pot ready for tomatoes, weighed produce, tilted cutting board.  The pot will actually replace the produce bowl in about 30 seconds.

Canning Set Up B: jars in hot water, boiling water canner on stove, 2 pots of cooked tomato products, lids in their simmer pan, funnel, jar lifter, lemon juice!

  • Have some gear. Ok, I know this isn’t really fair to tell you to go buy stuff, and I’m actually not a gadgets person. But canning is a case when the right tools for the job, and some fun extras, really make it go smoother. After you go through a few trying bouts without a piece of equipment, you’ll learn what you really need. For me it was a wide-ended funnel and an apple peeler/corer

    I’m saying, “don’t mess with me or my tomatoes or you go into the boiling bath too!”

    (scored at a thrift store–which are categorically awesome for kitchen gadgets, less so for athletic gear).

  • Hold Opening Ceremonies: In my case, my setup process also includes setting music and donning my canning clothes–apron and well-secured hair. If putting on a Rambo bandanna makes you feel awesome and gets you in the mood for canning, make it a ritual. Truly, so much of canning is taking the chore out of it, and making it something you do for a good time. It’s probably going to get hot in your kitchen–maybe you feel like canning in your bathing suit. I say, “Go for gold!”
  • Don’t forget Closing Ceremonies: Don’t leave your kitchen messy…at least get the mess consolidated, surfaces wiped and everything close back to order. Nothing will deter you more from future canning than the memory of waking up to a mess the next day (remember all those times in college when you said, “I’m never drinking again” because you felt like such a wreck? Canning isn’t so habit-forming at first that you actually will can again if you have a can-over in your kitchen the next day). So, for me, that pre-cleaned countertop and dish rack help the closing ceremonies go off without a hitch (and I’m not inviting washed-up pop stars to my kitchen).

HAVE FUN!  (I know I look super-serious in the self-portrait, but I was unclear when the camera was going to go off and it felt vain to take another snapshot.)  I hope you enjoy preserving the bounty, and maybe you’ll find canning is for you.  Again, go listen to the FSC podcast, it will get you very excited!

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3 Responses to “Olympic Principles as Applied to Canning Food for Winter”

  1. Kelly September 2, 2012 at 7:32 am #

    Awesome post! After a long night of canning, I am now motivated to do more. It is addicting!

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