Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Confessions of a Gardening Wimp

I wrote recently about being late starting my spring garden. I did manage to get in a bunch more tomatoes this week, along with a few more seeds and some broccoli.  Now I need your wisdom, dear readers.

This year I'd really like to learn how to can and preserve some of my harvest. Problem is, I'm terribly intimidated by the mere thought of it and could use some virtual hand-holding.

I do already preserve a lot of what I grow by freezing (my homemade freezer applesauce is to die for; gave a bunch to my kids' teachers this year and got rave reviews ::preen::).

However, I'd really like to expand into canning as well, so the harvest can be preserved without having to use up all that electricity for freezer space or being so dependent upon continuous power, you know?  It's good emergency preparedness, it's thrifty and sensible....and it just tastes good.

I have a confession to make, though. It's incredibly silly, but I am so intimidated by the whole process.....I have no idea why. Just seems so complicated, eh? And I'm terrified that if I do something wrong, I may poison my family. I know, I know, an overexaggerated fear....but I can't get it out of my mind. Plus I am just not that domestically inclined, so these kinds of home arts are just not something that fit very comfortably in my skin or psyche.

I did buy a book on canning and preserving, but honestly, it just seems too complex and intimidating to learn from a book alone. I am better at learning by doing. The book will be a great resource for me once I've learned the basics, and it will provide much troubleshooting advice for when I run into questions.  But to learn the basics from it?  I'd rather learn it first-hand from someone in person.

I have no family experience to draw upon for canning; my mother did do some limited gardening but I don't remember her ever doing any canning. My mother-in-law, despite growing up on a farm, says they never did any canning either. I do have a friend who says she'll come over and teach me in exchange for some of our grapes to make wine with, but honestly that's not the way I'd rather learn it. It's my back-up plan if needed, but it's not my first choice.

My hope is that I will find a local class on canning and preserving this summer. I need it to be short and sweet, not weeks and weeks, as my schedule is not conducive to going to a class for weeks on end---too many other commitments. But I often find that if I'm afraid of something, taking a class on it is just the ticket to helping me through that fear and being able to venture out to try it on my own.

I don't know why I prefer a class to learning it from a friend; I think it's because I'd rather my failures be in an anonymous setting rather than looking like an idiot in front of a friend. (How neurotic is that?) And it just seems too invasive to have someone come over into my personal space to teach me; I'd rather learn it in a neutral setting. Whatever the reason, I know I'd rather learn it from a class than from a friend, so I'm going to look around and see what I find. Any ideas on the best places to look for such a class?

My other question for you readers who are experienced at this: What canning equipment do you find absolutely essential and what do you not find as essential? I have the proper jars and funnels already from my freezer applesauce etc. experiments; I'm talking about the actual pots and things. If you have brand recommendations too, I'd love to hear them before going out and guessing at buying what I need. Just seems like there's a lot of "stuff" you are supposed to buy and I'm wondering just how much of it is really essential, and if so, which types/brands are the best to get.

Finally, if anyone wants to be my garden/preserving doula and hold my hand to reassure me that I really can learn to do this and it's really not that hard, I'm all ears! I don't have any idea why this is so intimidating to me, but it is. Any encouragement or gentle advice would be warmly welcomed.


Evan and Clover and Co. said...

I'm in the same place as you-- right down to the fabulous frozen applesauce! Will love to see other comments, although with a baby due in June, this may not be the year I tackle canning.

Lauren said...

I used to can veggies and jams with my Granny and I really miss doing it each summer now that I live in the city! Once you do it a time or two and learn the techniques, it becomes much easier. I find boiling methods much less intimidating than using a pressure cooker. If I remember correctly, the boiling method is best for already acidic things -- like tomatoes! Like most things, I would recommend starting with something relatively easier like tomatoes, learn the basics and build your confidence, and then graduate to the fancier canned goods. And it sounds like you have a nice friend who can give you pointers in case you get stuck - let her!

It really is such a fantastic way of preserving the summer's freshness and goodness -- preserved tomatoes are just a different (deliscious!) species than the tin-canned ones from the store. So glad canning is coming back into fashion! Good luck!! And please do let us know how it goes.

West Coast Mama said...

Don't be intimidated, it is not as hard as it seems (just time consuming). I just went to Walmart and got the only canning pot they had. The only other essential items would be the funnel, a rack to go inside the pot and canning tongs (to lift the hot jars out of the water). The little magnetic thing to pick up the lids with is handy but not totally necessary.
I learned to can by doing. Basically find a recipe for what you want to put in the jar. Sanitize the jars in boiling water, then fill (leave about 1 inch of space at the top). Soak the lids in hot water to soften the seal. Make sure there are no bubbles then put the lid on. Secure the ring (not too tight or you won't get a seal in the hot water). Put the jars back in the boiling water (timing varies for what size jar you are using so you can find that info online). You can usually hear the seal popping shut when they are cooling. That's the basics. The worst that can happen is that you don't get a seal and then just store that one in the fridge. I promise it is so easy, just try it and if it fails then look into a class.
In terms of what to start with, my first canning recipe was pickles and they were so easy it was ridiculous. Just cut the pickles (slices or wedges) put them in the sanitized jar with some spices then pour hot brine over them and seal it up. It's that easy.
Good luck! I hope you find it fun and easy. I know it's hard to do that first run but I think it could really calm your nerves to just try it one afternoon when you are home alone (no one has to know if it doesn't work out). (Sorry for the long comment, but I hope that info helps)

Grow From Here said...

try bottling or covering in oil (food) grade like with gardening/baking /parenting break it down to what you are trying to achieve - sealed bacteria/ fungus/ mold free food that you want to use keep it clean sterilise mix tastes that you like and seal from any air - boil/ heat seal store use good luck -

Anonymous said...

I would love to try your frozen applesauce. Are you willing to share the recipe??

Anonymous said...

You might be able to find classes through a local community college, Slow Food movement, farmers market, or even a large scale grocery store,

lora said...

LOL, I was looking to your writing for some hand-holding before I go to fight the fat fight with yet another midwife. Home canning I'm ok with. I agree with Organic Girl, sanitize by boiling and start with pickles. Pickles, when following a recipe, are not too difficult and will build your confidence. If you try some jam and it doesn't set, it's not a failure - just call it your special homemade fruit topping and serve it on waffles or ice cream or mix it in yogurt. The other thing I did when starting out, even though I grew up canning, was buy a preserving cookbook that has advice as well as recipes.

Moe said...

I do a little bit of gardening, mostly perennials and I'm not much of a canner. This winter I did freezer strawberry jam for the first time -- I had a craving, and it was awesome. I plan on forcing the man to go strawberry picking next month (fingers crossed) so I can make it again with super fresh berries. As for products, women have been canning for decades with few gadgets. You'll be fine.

Virginia said...

I know in GA and in VA the cooperative extension folks in each county do wonderful short lessons and have tons of written materials on canning (and safety).

I started with apple butter - and am moving to fig preserves this year - but also want to try tomatoes/green beans/etc....

Anonymous said...

Really it is so easy to do- I actually learned rather quickly reading an article in Bon Appetit of all places..

I'd start with jam- that's the first thing I canned and it wasn't too hard at all, and the ingredients are super easy: berries, lemon juice, and sugar!

In terms of gear- the first year I canned I made 10 pints of jam with a big stock pot and a crappy pair of tongs... You don't want the jars to touch the bottom of the pot ('cause they can break) so I have used extra rings from Ball jars and even a round cake rack!

Eventually I asked for a canning kit for Christmas- I got one on so far I've canned different jams, peaches, pickles, jalapenos, and apple pie filling.... Google is such a great place to start as well!!!

good luck!

Anonymous said...

Applesauce cans up great. Start with fruit or tomatoes. Berries don't can well, unless they have been cooked to mushy first (preserves/jam). Peaches, pears, apples and tomatoes are the easiest to start with.

The "Ball Blue Book" is great for the basics. Get a water bath canning kit (pot, rack, tonges etc.) and extra flat lids (incase you have to re-process).

Start small and simple, get familiar with the steps and just do it. It may not be fair winning pretty (fruit may float), but if it seals it should be ok.

Emerging Butterfly said...

You really CAN do this. :o) Here is a great site for gardening know how : I know it's a bonsai site (which is addictive in and of itself) but the gardening tips are invaluable PERIOD. By the way...thanks for standing up for body equality...:o) This issue has been a long standing beef for me, and my sweet high metabolized hubby who is currently writing a second book which really nails this. (his first book is called "Being Ourself"...not that you asked. :o)

Laureen said...


Because we live on a boat, I'm not down with the whole canning thing. You want inspiration without intimidation? Read this book:

Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation (Kindle Edition)

I love love LOVE LOVE LOVE this book. LOVE. This is lower input, traditional food preservation without screwing around with canners, heat, pressure, and other scary stuff. And the stuff you create is gorgeous in a way that is greater than the sum of its parts. A link with food history, as it were.

daria said...

Pick up a copy of the Ball Blue Book - I've seen it at big and small hardware stores. Follow the directions and you can't go wrong. Jams are very easy to make and definite crowd pleasers, so I'd start there. Pickles are pretty easy, too, but jam is easier because there is usually less variety of produce involved, and the steps are very specific.

I'd stick with sweet or sour/salty preserving to start - pressure canning does add a potentially scary element. I have been canning for years and would rather blanch and freeze veggies than pressure can them, because it is such a nitpicky process.

One big thing to remember when starting out with canning projects is "do not improvise". Follow the directions to the letter, and don't add a pinch more of this or a smidge less of that, because it is a scientific process. Recipes are calculated to ensure that bacteria do not grow in the finished product. That's why sterilizing the jars and lids is so important, as is proper heating in a boiling water bath.

Thank you for your GREAT articles! I'm pregnant for the first time - due 9/15 so I don't see much canning in my future - and am obese. Your articles have given me hope and lots of ideas, THANK YOU!