If We Can Can, You Can Too

My maternal grandparents lived on a farm in North Carolina. Growing up, my grandmother would haul 5-gallon buckets of fresh produce from the garden to the house in a little red wagon, scattering chickens in her wake. It seems idyllic now but back then, it was just another day in the life. With 7 children and 41 grandchildren, everything that my grandmother did was on a large scale. For breakfast, she made grits in a stock pot and cooked 2 dozen eggs at a time. It’s no wonder then that watching her can tomatoes and green beans as a child left me with the impression that it was an all-day job that involved an assembly line of aunts and cousins, a giant pressure cooker, and more jars than I had ever seen, even at Walmart.

Fast forward 35 years…

With our tiny garden and our CSA baskets winding down, Angie and I started thinking about how we might continue to enjoy the fresh tastes of summer all year long. Last year we froze so much squash and zucchini that I swore we were never going to freeze anything else for as long as we lived. And the tomatoes! We boiled, cooked, and froze gallons upon gallons of cherry tomatoes that we gleaned from our neighbor’s neglected garden. I never wanted to see another tomato either. But, as usually happens with things like this, we changed our minds – but not before we sold one of our freezers. So…to shake things up a bit, we decided we would give water bath canning a go this year.

Unlike the canning process I witnessed as a young girl, water bath canning is pretty simple. No explosive [pressure cooker] experience or assembly line of relatives required. You can use any deep pot for water bath canning. We used our stock pot. We already had a collection of jars from our regular salsa purchases at the Farmer’s Market and rings/lids from Angie’s mom, so all we had to purchase was our ingredients and a jar grabber. (One attempt to pull hot jars out of scalding water with a pair of tongs was enough to render buying this $3 gadget a no-brainer.)

Last summer, we experimented with pickling jalapenos. This year, we branched out. Along with pickled jalapenos, so far, we have canned 3 jars of Bread ‘n Butter Pickles (or as Angie told her mom by mistake, Sweet ‘n Bread Pickles) and 10 jars of salsa. All the ingredients came from our garden or the Farmer’s Market.

I used a few online resources to get started, including:

Water Bath Canning for High Acid Foods

Canning Homemade Salsa

Million Dollar Pickles

Quick Pickled Jalapenos*

*This recipe doesn’t have canning directions, so I just used the times listed below.

Our experience/experiment left us with a few nuggets of wisdom for future use as well:

  1. Water bath canning only works with high acid foods and jams or jellies. If you’re pickling anything in vinegar, you can use a water bath canner.
  2. Tomatoes are an exception. You can water bath can them if you use lemon juice in the recipe.
  3. A butter knife works perfectly for freeing air bubbles from your jars.
  4. Water bath canning is a relatively quick process. 15 minutes for pints, 25 minutes for quarts.
  5. If your seal doesn’t “pop”, refrigerate and eat that jar first. (So far, all our seals have popped).

We had a lot of fun trying our hand at making some of the things we buy frequently at the Farmer’s Market, and by my calculations, we saved a lot of money too. On average, a jar of salsa costs $5 and a jar of pickles $4.50 at the market. To buy what we made would have cost us $68 at the market. To make it, cost $23, which includes the cost of the jar grabber.

Now, where’s that easy button??