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Canning for beginners

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Catherine W. Idzerda
Saturday, August 22, 2009
— Today’s topic: canning for beginners.

First thing they need to know: It’s easy, no kidding.

This story won’t give you a step-by-step guide to canning. That’s already been written a thousand times. In a sidebar to this story, are Web sites and books listing detailed—nay obsessive—instructions.

The following are essential tips for beginners from a seasoned caner who once had to clean tomatoes off of her kitchen ceiling.

Tip 1: Start with tomatoes or pickles and start with a small batch. There’s a certain amount of juggling of tasks that goes on during canning, and more is not always merrier. Also, tomatoes and pickles can be done in a hot water bath and don’t require a pressure cooker.
Tip 2: Get a set of canning tools. The small set, which works just fine, includes a jar lifter, a canning funnel, a curved tool for removing air bubbles and long plastic wand with a magnet on the end.

Yes, some people have been known to fish can lids out of boiling water with a tack hammer—which also has magnet on it’s end—but that’s not the recommended method.

The kit will cost about $7.

Tip 3: For tomatoes, you’ll need lemon juice and kosher salt. For pickles, get a package of Ball or Mrs. Wages pickle mix with instructions on the back.

Depending on the kind of pickles you make, you’ll need white vinegar and sugar.

Tip 3.5: Two cups of sugar equals one pound of sugar. This will be handy to know.
Tip 4: You’ll need a giant pot, one large pot and a very small pot or saucepan. All of these will be going at once, so you’ll get a nice steam facial will working in the kitchen. Keep the kids out of the kitchen and watch out for that hot pickle juice. A splatter of that boiling sugar and vinegar is something you’ll feel for days, believe me.

Also, when you take a jar of hot tomatoes or pickles out of the boiling water, hold it away from your body. Once, a jar of tomatoes made a suspicious popping noise and then gently exploded.

It was the wrong time to be wearing shorts and sandals.

Tip 5: Don’t let the instructions intimate you. The University Extension people make canning tomatoes seem as difficult as rocket science and as dangerous as drug enforcement work.
Tip 6: Feel free to break down the steps. For example, preparing tomatoes for canning is seriously messy. In most cases, they need to be peeled.

Here’s the process:

-- Remove the stems and leaves.

-- Clean the kitchen sink and fill with cold water.

-- Using a pan with a colander inset, plunge the tomatoes into boiling water for about a minute and then remove.

-- Put the hot tomatoes into the cold water.

-- Repeat process until sink is full.

-- Tomato skins should come off with a gentle pull. If they don’t, put them back in the water for 30 seconds.

Now, don’t you feel like you’ve done enough for one day? You’ve got a tomato skin sticking to your forehead and the kitchen floor is a dangerous mix of warm water and tomato remains.

Put those tomatoes into a ceramic bowl, place in the fridge, and finish tomorrow.

Tip 7: When the instructions say, “leave a half inch of head space,” that means about a half inch of space between the top of the jar and where the pickles or tomatoes start. Measure before you start canning, but don’t obsess about having it exactly right.
Tip 8: Clean and clear more counter space than you think you’ll need.
Tip 9: You’ll see this instruction a lot: “Sterilize jars, lids and rings according to manufacturers instructions.” Clean jars are sterilized by putting them in boiling water for 10 minutes. Lids and rings can be done in a smaller pan for the same amount of time.
Tip 10: If you can boil water, you can tomatoes or make pickles. It looks complicated, but here’s what it comes down to: Place hot tomatoes into hot sterilized jars, add lemon juice, screw on sterilized lids and rings and then place into boiling water.

For pickles: Place pickles into hot sterilized jars, pour hot pickle juice over the pickles, add sterilized lids and rings and then place in boiling water.


Canning memories

When I was a little, my brother and I helped with the canning and freezing.

I don’t know how my mother felt about the whole thing, but my dad approached canning with manic joy.

If my memory serves me correctly, my mother retained her calm dignity while my father worked himself into a tomato-based frenzy.

In my childhood, canning tomatoes involved a lot of clanging pan lids and rushing about in a steamy kitchen.

Mind you, I’m not using the adjective “steamy” metaphorically. The stove was filled with pots and pans: One for the bubbling and burping tomatoes, another for sterilizing the jars, a third, massive pot for the hot water bath. There might have even been a fourth for the can lids and rings.

Everything was humorously frantic.

“Hi YA!” Dad would whoop as he lifted pots from one burner to another.

He’d set down a jar lifter, lose track of it and then begin a Buster Keaton-like search. He’d disorder each counter, moving all the items about in case the jar lifter was deliberately hiding behind a spatula. Then, he’d search the sink, where the opportunity for banging and clattering was highest.

Finally, the jar lifter would be found. It always was somewhere obvious, such as next to the pot, or somewhere ridiculous, such as in the cupboard with the drinking glasses.

Jars sterilized, he’d scoop hot tomatoes out of the pan, splatter them into jars, fling in the lemon juice and kosher salt and swipe a clean cloth across the top.

Next, a brief interlude of calm as he reverentially placed a sterilized lid on the jar.

Whoop! Back to the frenzy. Jar rings set in place with two flicks of the wrist and one firm turn.

Then into the boiling water.

Some minor glitch always occurred, and my dad would say something to make it hilarious. I can’t remember the incidents, only his response to them.

“Oh, if there was a man here, he would do something,” he’d say in a falsetto voice. (It’s a line from a Bert Lahr vaudeville act my dad saw in the 1930s).

Or he’d give you the punch line from his favorite joke about the boy who is run over by a steamroller. When the men bring the boy home to his mother, she says, “I’m dressing; just slip him under the door.”

My dad, 89, still cans tomatoes and freezes beans, broccoli and whatever else comes out of his garden. He cans applesauce in the fall, using apples from an orchard near where he lives in Minnesota.

Now, I can tomatoes and freeze beans and rhubarb and whatever else comes out of my garden.

When I can tomatoes, it’s a replay of childhood, except it’s just me in the kitchen, rummaging about for the missing jar lifter, spinning on rings with two quick turns and a firm one and laughing at life’s minor disasters.


For detailed instructions on canning, go to:

-- All of the publications on this site are free to download.
-- If you’d like to become a canner extraordinaire, go to the web site for the National Center for Food Preservation at the University of Georgia:

-- The Hedberg Public Library and navigate to Dewey Decimal System number 641.4. Any canning book that recommends canning in the microwave or the oven is too old to use. Those methods are considered unsafe.

Last updated: 11:06 am Thursday, December 13, 2012

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