In this monthly online series, we ask the experts to go in-depth on some of our favorite topics from the magazine.
Whether you’re a seasoned food preserver or taking your first steps into the world of canning, there’s nothing quite so satisfying as the pop of a jar filled with something fresh and delicious. “It’s so rewarding to open those jars in the middle of winter,” says April McGreger, former owner of The Farmer’s Daughter Pickles & Preserves in Chapel Hill and author of The Complete Guide to Canning and Preserving.
We chatted with McGreger and two other experts — Andrew Gravens, executive chef at A Place at the Table in Raleigh, and Kristin Davis, a cooperative extension agent in Mecklenburg County — to learn some tips for beginner canners and to hear a bit about their own canning experiences.
Author of The Complete Guide to Canning and Preserving
Executive Chef at A Place at the Table in Raleigh and Master Food Preserver
Local Foods and Family & Consumer Sciences Agent with NC State University’s Cooperative Extension in Mecklenburg County
When did you become interested in preserving?
Andrew Gravens: I’ve always just been a big fan of pickles. As a kid going to ball games, I always wanted to get one of those giant pickles, and I’ve always loved that briny, fermented taste of preserved foods. So that’s probably where my initial attraction came from — I wanted to make these because I love them.
Kristin Davis: I grew up in a family of cooks. Cooking your own food or preparing your own meals was a normal part of my everyday experience. In my household, some common foods that were generally preserved or canned would include chowchow or green beans. So that really was my introduction to home food preservation.
April McGreger: When I was about 11, I got really attached to my great-grandmother’s tomato relish. I remember the first time that we ran out of it; we had peas and cornbread like we always did, and I asked, “Where’s the relish?” That’s what motivated me that next summer to start putting out my own so I could make sure that I wasn’t going to run out of tomato relish!
What do you enjoy most about it?
Andrew Gravens: I just love the kitchen atmosphere. Being in the kitchen gives me a lot of satisfaction — to prepare food for others and see their faces light up — and pickles have always been a part of that.
April McGreger: It’s not just that I have this beautiful, amazing product: I have a vivid memory of this fun and rewarding time that I spent with my family, or when my son and I were picking strawberries. The joy of doing these things extends beyond just that the product is good.
What is your No. 1 piece of advice for novice canners?
Andrew Gravens: Follow the recipe, but also try your own things. Don’t be afraid to venture away from the recipe with whole spices and flavors that you add in. The things not to mess with would be your salt, sugar, and vinegar amounts. But pickle all sorts of things, because you never know what you’re going to like. Pickling a product can really make it more palatable — you may find that you don’t really like sautéed asparagus, but you like pickled asparagus.
Kristin Davis: It’s important to educate yourself on canning so that you understand how to properly can high-acid foods versus low-acid foods. Another piece of advice I would offer is that if you use a dial-gauge pressure canner, your dial needs to be tested annually. When you’re canning a low-acid food, the pressure in the canner is determined by the dial, and over time, it can get off calibration.
April McGreger: Start really small, especially with preserving fruit. Doing just a pint or so of jam at a time is actually awesome, and a great way to start out — the stakes are low.
What’s the difference between water-bath canning and pressure canning?
Kristin Davis: All high-acid foods are prepared in a water-bath canner. This is an abbreviated description of the process: Take your vegetables, place those in a jar, and place a hot brine over the veggies. Make sure the rim of the jar is clean and the jar is sterilized. Close up your jar, and then place it into a water-bath canner. You’re looking to have water at least two inches above the jar, and your processing time will start when the water comes to a rapid boil. Now, that’s very different from pressure canning. In a pressure canner, the process of preserving food requires steam, which means that your canner is going to have about two inches of water in the bottom. But in both of those processes, what happens to cause the jar to seal is that once the jar is removed from the canner, the temperature changes. That’s when a vacuum seal is created because there’s air escaping, and in the cooling of the pressure, it pulls the lid down to seal onto the jar.
April McGreger: Pickles and foods that are already naturally acidic, like most fruits, are just going to be processed in a boiling water bath. Anything that is low-acid, like vegetables that you don’t pickle, is going to need to be pressure canned.
So where exactly should we start?
Kristin Davis: For a beginner, I usually recommend starting with water-bath canning, because while there are actual water-bath canners that you can buy, you can also literally water-bath can a product in a large pot [if that’s all you have].
Andrew Gravens: I would start with just a quick pickle, and you can choose whatever kind of vegetable you want, whether it’s cucumber or other things you like pickled. (I like cauliflower or carrots.) Then you heat up a vinegar brine and pour it on top, and that’s the quickest, simplest pickling.
April McGreger: I’d say jams and relishes are the easiest things to start with — the water bathing doesn’t damage their texture.
What’s your very favorite thing to preserve?
Andrew Gravens: Pickled okra is one of my favorite things, and typically, when okra is in season, it’s super cheap and you can get more than you could ever want.
Kristin Davis: My family really enjoys when I make bread-and butter-pickles. It’s an easy recipe, so that’s definitely one thing that I can whenever I get my hands on fresh garden cucumbers. But I would say my favorite thing to can is probably peach jam.
April McGreger: I still do love relishes — relishes are one of the things that I always make on my own. And we always make strawberry jam because it’s so much better than the stuff that you can buy in the store.
Yum — that sounds amazing! Any common missteps that we should be sure to avoid?
Kristin Davis: By far the biggest mistake I see people making is canning low-acid foods in a water-bath canner. A water-bath canner will only reach a boiling water temperature of 212 degrees Fahrenheit. In order to kill the harmful bacteria that could be present in a low-acid food, you need to have 240-plus degrees Fahrenheit, which can only be achieved in a pressure canner.
April McGreger: One of the things that I see constantly is that people have an old book or recipe that their grandmother used, or they say, “Oh, my grandmother did it this way.” And a lot of people don’t want to water-bath can or don’t want to do certain things because their grandmother didn’t do it that way. I would say to stick with the current research. When you know better, you do better — when new research becomes available, it’s really important to update some of our canning practices.
OK, we’re ready to give it a go! Can you point us toward any other canning resources?
Andrew Gravens: The Ball canning book is one of the first resources that I had. It has lots of recipes, lots of information about canning and food preservation.
Kristin Davis: The resource that we always recommend is the National Center for Home Food Preservation. That’s usually our go-to for everything.
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