My back ached, my feet hurt, and the kitchen was a disaster. But after hours of peeling, coring, mixing and pouring, the jars of caramel-colored apple pie filling emerging from the boiling depths of the canner made it all worthwhile.
I taught myself how to can nearly 10 years ago and have been teaching other people the throw-back art of "putting up" for the past few years. Now it doesn't feel like fall until I've teamed up with friends or family members to put something we've canned into the pantry. During last weekend's canning marathon, my sister, brother-in-law, two nieces and I transformed 60 pounds of apples into three dozen quarts of apple pie filing and applesauce.
Canning is labor intensive and messy. But it isn't hard. If you can follow directions, you can preserve fruit, fillings, jams, sauces, pickles and other produce.
There's plenty of reason to extend your kitchen skills to canning. It's a perfect way to preserve your backyard bounty, and it also gives you an excuse to load up on fruit and vegetables from the local farmers market. It's also a great way to make personalized holiday gifts that don't cost a lot. Best of all, it lets you savor the taste of the fall harvest deep into winter.
Canning is making a comeback among locavores, urban homesteaders and frugalistas reviving domestic arts perfected by their grandmothers. If you prefer formal instruction, you can find canning classes just about everywhere, from my hometown of Portland to Philadelphia to Lebanon, Ohio. There are also plenty of home-canning enthusiasts like me willing to sharing tips and recipes.
1. Know the basics. Canning is simply preserving food -- fruit, vegetables, juices and even meat -- under high pressure so it can be stored indefinitely without spoiling. When it comes to canning, carefully follow instructions to make sure that jams and jellies set and look good -- and to ensure that what you preserve doesn't make people sick.
2. Line up your equipment. Basic canning equipment consists of a hot-water or pressurized canning pot with removable rack; canning jars lids and rings; jar lifters or tongs for taking jars out of boiling hot water without burning yourself; instructions; and the ingredients for the recipes you're making.
Assemble everything before you start. I can say from experience it's no fun to stop in the middle of what you're doing to run to the store to buy a bigger canner because boiling water is spilling out of the makeshift pot you've been using. Sterilize jars, lids and rings before you get going. Keep jars heated: Hot jam cracks cold jars.
3. Buy, pick, barter or work for your produce. You don't need to spend a lot on fruit or vegetables -- half the fun of canning is making do with what you can scrounge up. When I lived in California, I canned lemon curd to use up the bounty of lemons produced by two trees in our backyard. After moving to Portland, I canned jam from the blackberries that grow like weeds in the area. I've canned tomatoes from our garden and pears from a friend's tree in exchange for a few jars of the finished product.
Whether you pick it yourself or buy it from a farmers market, use produce that's in season and use it right away. I've left strawberries sitting on the kitchen counter overnight only to find them covered with mold before I could get to them. In some cities, you can volunteer with urban gleaning organizations to pick fruit that would otherwise go unharvested and take a portion of what you pick as payment for your labor.
4. Start out small. If the thought of canning quarts of anything is too daunting, go smaller. Make batches of jam in as many pint or half-pint jars as fit into a pot you already own that could be used for boiling. "My style is to insert it into my lifestyle rather than spend a weekend canning when I'd rather be outside riding my bicycle," says Laura Ohm, a Portland canning instructor in this story on the Neighborhood Notes website. Ohm says she stocks up on staples, then cans jam or green beans while she's making dinner.
5. Team up. The work goes faster if you pair up with one or more helpers. It's more efficient and fun. Working with other people "helps with thinking, workload and social-ness," says my sister Mary Jo, who joined last weekend's apple marathon.
6. Make enough to share. For years, I've given my canning handiwork as Christmas presents: lemon curd, blackberry or marionberry jam to my childrens' teachers, apple pie filling to my family. In an essay on NPR last month, writer Nicole Spiridakis shared how she and her fiancé made blackberry jam to give away to guests at their wedding.
You can dress up jars with labels you buy or make yourself. Drape the top in wrapping paper or festive fabric and wrap ribbon or a bow around the neck. If you're giving something unusual, include a tag that explains what it is and how someone should use it.
7. Get creative. Once you've mastered the basics, it's fun to branch out. My husband, Jay, cans his Polish grandmother's recipe for pickled green tomatoes. Loaded with peppers, garlic, dill and other spices, the recipe is a good way to use up the last tomatoes of the season that won't ever turn red. He's also canned plum jam, guava jam, hot sauce and something he calls Kansas City chili sauce, a salsa-like condiment of tomato, onion, green pepper, celery, sugar and spices that his dad's family grew up eating. My aunt's family canned antipasto and chutney each year to give as Christmas gifts.
8. Take notes. Before putting away recipes and canning equipment for the season, jot down notes on what worked, what didn't, recipe ingredients or measurements you tweaked, and anything else you'd do differently next time. Little reminders will jog your memory so that next year when you pull everything out again, you'll have a head start.
Read more: 6 Easy Steps to Urban Homesteading