I asked my mother in law, “Why is it called canning, if there are no cans involved?”
“I don’t know”, she said, “That’s a good question.”
At that moment, I had perhaps gained just a little respect in her eyes. (Or she thought I was a smart-ass jerk, its hard to tell with her.)
Sarah’s family has had a farm for years up in the mountains of Western Maryland. If the country goes to hell and my fascination with a post-Apocalyptic Earth goes from film fandom to a reality, that’s where you’ll find me with Sarah and the dogs.
That’s one of the outbuildings for the farm in that photo by the way. That’s not the farm house. I mean, unless you think Sarah’s descended from the Unabomber.
We headed up there a few weekends ago because Sarah said she wanted to “can tomatoes”. I’m always fascinated by any useful skill like that. In a world where we all think food comes from the backroom of the grocery I’m interested in learning a skill that might actually come in useful if I’m somewhere without a Whole Foods store.
The process, which I assumed involved hiring solidly built, tough farm women to stir a lot of pots for 30 hours straight and gab about who to marry their daughter off to, was instead relatively easy. And only at one point did one of Sarah’s relatives show up and when he saw two city people, including a man, preserving, looked at me like I’d been emasculated. It was actually Sarah’s mother that taught us how to can, and in turn, I assume she learned from her (now deceased) mother. Judging from the stock of Grandma’s cellar, Grandma was a master canner.
We bought tomatoes and beets at a farmer’s market in a small town near the farm. There were many Amish and Mennonites there, and it was there that I was reminded that these religions generally prohibit technology. However I learned that you can use technology if it’s a work tool. One devout farm woman used an electronic calculator to total up produce bills, I suppose because it’s a tool used for working.
This is a loophole big enough that you could (literally) drive a tractor through it. This explained why these religiously-minded farmers could drive a tractor to do their errands and use a calculator to total up your purchases. Suddenly they’re just like everybody else, with much bigger tires. All this really prohibits, as far as I can tell, is owning an Amish Camaro.
Fascinatingly, I don’t think they apply the “you must be in the process of plowing your field” to be driving the tractor. Therefore the tractor get used to run all sorts of errands.
Step 2: Sanitize your ‘cans’ and lids
The process of canning begins with clean jars, so you wash them really well, especially the lips, and then toss them in an oven to make them super hot. You’ll be using a towel or tongs to remove them. Of course if you’re prepared well (we weren’t) you’d have this magical tool they call a “jar lifter”, which I assume is some sort of tongs for handling hot jars.
You can adopt the same process with the lids, boiling them until you’ve killed all the Ebola that was infecting them when they were exported from a bat cave in sub-Saharan Africa.
Step 3: Prepare your vegetables.
If you’re going to can something like beets you’ve got to wash them and trim the stems. And you can’t just do this in your kitchen. You have to be on a real farm and sit on a wooden crate. Anything less just won’t do. Preferably with some feral dogs around that think that raw beets are the world’s best chew toy.
If you can’t locate feral dogs, any dogs with a beet infatuation will do.
Next you want to pull the skins off your vegetables. This is easy with tomatoes, toss them into really hot water and the skins slide off. Beets are even easier. You boil them and squeeze them and the inner beet pops right out of the skin.
If your vegetables won’t fit whole inside your jar, or you want to remove things like stems or cores, you want to cut up the skinned vegetable. Your goal here is to preserve something that can be dumped out basically into a dish that you’re cooking, and frankly, I’m not a big eater of tomato skins.
Step 4: Everyone get cozy now
Now stuff your tomatoes into the jar. If you’re careful and you do it with a wide mouth funnel, you can avoid getting anything on the lip. However if you’re a total amateur who shouldn’t really be allowed near anything that sits under high pressure with a likelihood of exploding, you make a mess of it and hide under the table when you heat it.
Sarah’s preserved tomato recipe involves putting in chopped and peeled garlic in the bottom of the jar, the whole tomatoes on top of that, then some more garlic on the top, then a teaspoon of lemon juice to ensure sufficient acidity.
Leave a half inch of air at the top of the jar. Why, you ask? Be patient. All will be revealed to you in the fullness of time.
Put the lids on, and screw them down tight.
Step 5: Shrapnel in your kitchen
A key part of canning involves taking the sealed jars and placing them into a pressure cooker. You heat the contents up under pressure and high heat which causes the air on top (and a little bit of your vegetable) to expand and actually forces some air out of the jar. When the jar cools back down a vacuum is created and the lids affixes super-tight to the jar. This is why the lips of your jar must be extremely clean. If you get tomato-goo on the lip, you can’t form a seal, and then it won’t stay fresh. It’ll heat up, air will escape, and because a seal can’t be formed, air will return. No vacuum, no freshness, and you’re eating tomatoes and beets for dinner. EVERY NIGHT.
This process is exactly what is used in producing canned goods, which is why it’s called “canning”. (Ah-ha!)
The pressure is the key to this process. You really need it for items that are low acidity or even no acidity, and it cuts the time of the entire process way down substantially. However it has a downside. You have an enormous metal object in your kitchen that it almost perfectly sealed inside, which you then heat to create a life-threatening quantity of pressure. Should it explode, a piece of this item would almost certainly implant itself into your skull. The steam outlet weight (that sphere on top) alone would be enough to turn your brain stem into ground chuck, not to mention the shards of the pot itself embedding into various key organs in your body.
For this reason, throughout the pressure cooking process I was careful to keep my wife or my mother-in-law in between myself and the pressure cooker.
The pressure cooker itself is a simple device: it’s a big pot and has three valves for venting steam. The first is that little weight on top. Depending on which combination of weights you use, it is calibrated to create
5, 10, or 15 psi of pressure within the pot. The heavier the weight, the greater the pressure.
Never one to do anything half-assed, the high altitude of the farm and my wife Sarah’s PhD-trauma-induced lust for death required her to use the maximum pressure, and therefore to put the heaviest most dangerous weight on top of the pressure cooker to achieve 15 psi inside the deathpot. I was now assured that if it flew off and bounced around the room, I would be killed instantly instead of paralyzed for life where I might enjoy activities such as dialysis and testifying in front of Congress with Christopher Reeves for more research funding for the permantly disabled.
The other two valves are for emergency venting, I thankfully didn’t see them used.
We put the jars into the pot, thereby adding the potential for flying shards of glass to the shrapnel mix. At this point the thought of being burned by flying superheated tomatoes and beets seemed almost pleasurable. Then we poured in some water, and started the heating process.
Step 6: Clean and store
You’re almost done. Open the pressure cooker, or better yet, have your wife or mother-in-law do it. Using a towel or the magical “jar lifter”, remove the incredibly hot jars from the pressure cooker. Allow them to cool and remove the screw-on rings and clean any food that has escaped during the heating process from the lip of the jar. Press down on the lid to see if a vacuum has been created. If it “clicks” or gives way to pressure from your finger, it hasn’t sealed correctly and you’ve got to eat the contents in the next few days before they spoil.
Over time you learn to get a lot of the excess liquid out of the vegetables before interning them to the jar, and therefore can avoid the layer of liquid at the bottom. Put your jars into a dry cool place and store until hungry.
I’m told that you can keep this stuff for as long as ten years, but that it’s really only good for about three. We’ve now got a basement of sixty or so jars of preserved tomato-garlic, beets, and ratatoullie just waiting to be opened and heated.