xoFood: How To Can, Dry, Pickle, Preserve And Process

I have a lot of extra produce at my disposal, which has led to my house being ground zero for the zombie apocalypse. Preserving intimidated me because it seemed so scientific, so here are some tips to ease you in.
Publish date:
September 7, 2013
xoFood, m-rated, M

When you move to Portland, there is an implied contract with the city that you’ll surrender your SUV, develop an immediate and insatiable desire to garden and bike, and wear ironically tight, colored pants. Since literally everything grows here, I have a lot of extra produce at my disposal, which has led to my house being ground zero for the zombie apocalypse.

We have only two seasons in Portland: knitting season and pickling season. Solstice is marked by the arrival of pumpkin beers in the fall, and the arrival of berry beers in the spring. Personal pride is not based on cars or professional standing, but your sauerkraut and ability to wax your mustache into a curly Q.

Preserving intimidated me because it seemed so... scientific. I had a Martha-induced cynicism about it all -- it wasn't passed down to me. Acidity, botulism, and the investment in the right tools seemed like a pain in the proverbial ass.

But I'm here to assure you, once you’re over the hump, the intimidation factor plummets. Here are some simple preserving tips to ease you in. For the record, I have a FINE kraut.

Canning is sometimes a waste of time

I preserve tomatoes more than anything else because they get the most use over the course of the year. Canning tomatoes is a timesuck and then you have to use salt to preserve them. If you have the freezer space, it is SO much faster and easier.

Place cleaned Roma tomatoes in a Ziploc, but don’t bother to peel them. Lay the bag on the counter so it's flat, with the tomatoes all in one layer, suck the air out, and freeze it. When ready to use, the tomatoes literally slip right out of their skins.

Alternatively, you could blitz the tomatoes, throw them through a food mill and then freeze them. Part of what I enjoy about both these methods is that if you grow tomatoes, you know you don’t have ALL THE TOMATOES in one place at one time, and this allows you to freeze as you go. I head out every few days, grab what’s ripe and just process those.

Who is eating all this fucking jelly?

Whenever you see an abundance of fruit, you go right to making jam or preserves. Don’t get me wrong -- you get a small high the first time you hand someone a jar of YOUR jelly, but then you realize you’re giving away a lot of ball jars you never see again because NO ONE CAN EAT THIS MUCH JELLY.

Fruit has so much natural sugar that it doesn’t need a lot to make it amazeballs. You could stress having it set (the thing where it jiggles but doesn’t slide off the plate), but I say, screw it. As long as you get something nearing preserves, which is easy, no one is going to complain. My friends named it “Smack” -- something between preserves and syrup that’s as addicting as Walter White's stuff. We put it on pancakes, waffles, ice cream, yogurt.

Make it with any berry, maybe add rhubarb -- or use peaches instead or plums or stone fruit and play around with the spices you add to it. Now, I know it stresses people out when I don’t include deliberate recipes, but please, try it.

Take 3 cups of fruit. Clean it, chop it up, and add to a saucepan with 1 cup of water and a cup of white sugar. Bring it to a simmer and allow it to low simmer uncovered for an hour.

Add a splash of vinegar (yes, any kind, but flavored vinegar is more interesting, balsamic is sometimes interesting as well) and now start adding spices. Go Asian with five spice and cinnamon, or Middle Eastern with star anise and nutmeg… balsamic and pepper are really interesting with raspberries on their own.

Add brown sugar, honey, agave, corn syrup, maple syrup: all have different “sweets” to them and are based on personal taste. I like to layer a few of them. As the smack reduces, it will thicken. It's done whenever you think it's done. Now can it or freeze it.

Because flavored vinegar is not worth $15 a bottle

Flavored vinegars are truly idiot proof because in vinegar, literally nothing can go bad. It's a seriously inhospitable environ for bacteria. An inhospitable but delicious environment. To start, grab one of those big ol' plastic gallons of distilled white vinegar. I am a fan of these glass bottles from Ikea.

Are you ready for the complicated part? Put the stuff in the bottle. Add vinegar:) Close the top. Wait a week. Impress friends. I myself enjoy blueberries and thyme, or raspberries and mint. Lemon and pepper is another fav. Proportions? I have no idea what you’re talking about. Just throw stuff in and walk away. ALL GOOD.

Can You Pickle That?

There are a few items I don't bother canning because the vinegar preserves the foods within. Pickling is simply vinegar with herbs and maybe garlic and peppers. My favorite example is pickled beets.

I love this Ikea jar, and in it I layer peeled raw beets, then a layer of beet greens, then a layer of sliced onions, and do it all over again. Really pack them in as tight as possible, then cover in a hot pickling solution (vinegar, garlic, peppercorns, and canning salt; canning salt is important because it's not calcified- regular table salt is going to turn your stuff blue).

Flip the top shut and keep it out of your window. Use whenever you'd like, just make sure the vegetables are always submerged completely in the brine. Below, yellow beets and beet greens.

Tea time! Not just for old ladies anymore.

There is literally nothing as slick as having someone over and whipping out the TEAS YOU MADE YOURSELF. “Oh, yes, 2012 was a good year for chamomile in the garden. Great vintage!”

Step one: pick flowers. Chamomile flowers, lavender, jasmine flowers, basil flowers, herb flowers of any kind: orange blossoms, mint leaves.

Step two: dry them out. I throw them into a muslin bag and just let them hang out someplace breezy and dry.

Step three: brew tea (I don’t really need to walk you through this part, do I?). My caution is to use only your blossoms because you want to be sure that they haven’t been sprayed with anything.

Fermentation is Fun

Kombucha, dill pickles, sauerkraut -- these aren't pickled or canned, they're fermented. Meaning, you're growing bacteria. Which suddenly seems really complicated for this tutorial. Let's stick a pin in that and circle back when we're really stircrazy in winter.

Dried herbs: not just for bongs

You could absolutely pull a great impersonation of your hipster dipster Aunt Ida and hang herbs in closets while singing along to Starland Vocal Band. But as it happens, *my* hipster dipster neighbor a few years back saw me doing exactly that, pushed her braids aside and then said, “Dear, why don’t you just use the microwave? Isn’t technology marvelous!”

Wacky McWackerson was totally right. Here’s how you do it. Lay herbs in a flat layer on a piece of paper towel in microwave. Microwave in 10 second boosts (just 10 seconds). Open in between, check, close and do all over again.

Once dry, throw em in bottles or Ziplocs. Drying them this way preserves their color and taste. Even if you’re not growing your own herbs, don’t you hate that you often buy them in the store for a specific use, and then have leftovers that go bad? This is a great way to deal with them.

Yes We Can!

There are a few constants within canning you always need to keep in mind.

  • Keep it clean.
  • The rights tools for the right job.
  • It's OK to ask for directions.

Keep it clean:

Cans can be purchased in a variety of sizes. Expect to pay 8-12$ for a dozen jars of any size. Think ahead of time about how you’ll eat and use the item in question, because once it's open, it's open and will begin to go bad. Think about the item itself, because it may require a certain size jar.

New jars come with lids and caps. They are not ready for canning, clean everything really well first. A dishwasher is the perfect shortcut because it also sterilizes the jars. If not, get them nice and soapy with hot water, rinse them really well and send them right into your processing pot to steam and sterilize.

The rights tools for the job:

After 10 minutes, they are sterile. So now, you need to remove them. Use your jar lifters. They are worth the money. Turn them rightside up on a clean towel.

Use a funnel to pour in your canned goods. The funnel creates exactly the right amount of “head space” which is necessary for the pressure in the jar to be created. Use a CLEAN funnel and a clean ladle.

Use the magnet to lift the lids, which have been in a saucepan of simmering water, onto the jars. Screw them on tight, but don’t force it.

It's OK to ask for directions

Now put the jars into your canning bath on the rack. Put the lid on and bring it to a boil, and from the time it hits a boil, process for as long as suggested. It's better to over process, even at risk of making your foods meh, than to under process.

There are foods that are high acid, and low acid. Acidity is necessary in order to keep the food safe. If you are not following a recipe, and are concerned about the amounts, use a PH testing kit.

If you are done with your canning, you can just turn the stove off and walk away. If there’s more to be done, use the jarlifters to carefully pull each out jar and place on a clean towel, away from any activity, to sit overnight. Don't stack them.

At some point overnight, the lids will pop. It's a tremendously satisfying sound. Don’t test the lids, don’t bother them, don’t poke them. In the morning, check the lids. If one of the lids hasn’t popped and still has give, it's not processed. You can try to process it again, or you can accept fate and eat those within the next few days.

Once you’ve opened a jar, remember it can now go bad, so keep it in the fridge. Once you’re done with whatever is in there, you need to toss the lid, although you can reuse the ring. Clean the jar and put it away for next year. Buy replacement lids at anyplace that sells jars.

If you see anything hinky in your jars, that’s a problem. Hinky: mold, or something that doens't look right. Better not to risk it. And two years is the safe bet for how long those goods are good for anyways.

In those cases, do not throw out the whole jar -- make sure you open it, and toss the food inside. That way you can keep the jar, but also ensure no one takes the jar out of your trash and risks it themselves.

Your new problem will now be getting jars back from friends. I am, as we speak, inventing a bluetooth tracking system just for canning jars so I can walk into anyone's house and immediately be notified if they've got any of my jars on the premises. "TURN OVER THE JARS AND NO ONE WILL GET HURT".

Look at you, Farmer Jane! You’re just one short step away from moving to a commune and rediscovering patchouli as your personal scent (not really). So give these a whirl and post how it works -- more importantly, xoJaners, share your secrets! You guys have been following me on Instagram lately, and I see so many of you are puttin' up the summer goods. So this week, tag them on Pinterest or Instagram with #xoPreserve and #xoFood and I'll check em out!