Green Living: A beginner's guide to home canning

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      After months of toiling away in the sweltering heat, wrestling with your garden hose, and eyeing your seedlings with the intensity of a mother hawk, the fruits of your labour—literally—have finally sprung. But now your strawberries, carrots, and tomatoes are ripening faster than you can eat ’em.

      What’s one way to keep the food from spoiling? Home canning. “The general idea with home-canning is to preserve food so that it’s shelf-stable for consumption year-round,” Caitlin Dorward, senior research associate at Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Institute for Sustainable Food Systems and local canning workshop instructor, tells the Straight by phone.

      But you don’t need a green thumb to dig into the process. Home canning is a great way to save seasonal produce like organic, Okanagan-grown apples or freshly picked blueberries for the winter months to come. This minimizes your carbon footprint, reduces food waste, and eliminates artificial sweeteners and preservatives in your canned foods.

      Convinced that home canning is for you? The Straight asked Dorward to share her tips for getting started with the health-oriented—and eco-conscious—practice.

      Although most fruits are considered high-acid and most vegetables low-acid, there are some exceptions to this rule. Combining different ingredients also changes a product's overall pH, so it's best to follow a well-tested recipe.

      Know high-acid versus low-acid

      If you’re just getting into home-canning, familiarizing yourself with what foods are considered high-acid and low-acid is key. Acidity is measured on the pH scale, which runs from zero to 14; the more acidic a food is, the closer the number will be to zero. Check out the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Bad Bug Book for a handy list of the pH values of various foods.

      High-acid foods like peaches, pickles, and berries may be canned in a boiling-water-bath process, which kills microorganisms that cause spoilage or mould and creates an airtight seal. “Typically, as a beginner, this is the method you’d start with, because it’s easier and more fail-safe in terms of food safety,” advises Dorward.

      Low-acid foods such as vegetables, legumes, and seafood, meanwhile, must be pressure-canned to eliminate the risk of food-borne botulism, a rare but potentially fatal disease caused by the production of the botulinum toxin in low-acid, low-oxygen environments. Pressure canning achieves higher temperatures than boiling-water-bath canning does, thus inhibiting the growth of these harmful toxins.

      You can begin home canning by sourcing a few inexpensive tools. Some shops, like Canadian Tire, even offer canning starter kits.
      Canadian Tire

      Use the right equipment

      As with most seemingly daunting tasks, getting started with the right equipment is half the battle. For each method of canning, there is a to-buy (or to-borrow) list to note.

      Boiling-water-bath canning requires little more than a large pot and glass jars, and therefore is great for neophytes. However, it’s important to find containers that are safe for home canning, such as Bernardin, Mason, or Weck jars. New lids should be used every time to ensure that the vessels seal properly. Other necessities include a jar rack, a canning funnel, and a jar lifter, which allows you to safely extract your goods from a vat of scorching water.

      For pressure canning, you’ll need to invest in a pressure canner, which comes equipped with a jar rack and a gauge that indicates how many pounds of pressure you’re applying to the jars. The more pressure applied, the higher the temperature reached. “You’re dealing with boiling water and syrupy products, so the more you can emphasize safety in the kitchen, the more fun you’ll have,” notes Dorward.

      Check out home and kitchen supply stores, such as Canadian Tire (various locations) and the Gourmet Warehouse (1340 East Hastings Street), where you can nab most of this equipment.

      Dorward suggests sticking with easy-to-follow recipes and small batches until you're comfortable with the canning process.

      Don’t overwhelm yourself

      It’s easy to get discouraged when diving into a new activity, so try your best to start small. “Use what you have on hand and choose recipes that are simple,” stresses Dorward. “Maybe don’t make a salsa that has 10 different ingredients on your first canning attempt, because you’re going to feel a little frazzled at the end.”

      Test the waters by boiling-water-bath-canning a fruit, for example, which is “straightforward and low-investment”. A fruit-based jam is also a safe bet. Once you’re more familiar with the process and tools, begin increasing the size of your batches and the number of recipes you take on.

      No matter what you do, be sure to follow canning recipes from a reliable outlet. A food’s processing time—the amount of time needed for the jar to be sterilized and sealed—should be observed diligently. “Don’t choose any old recipe off somebody’s blog online,” says Dorward. “Look for a trusted source.”

      If you need some extra guidance, taking a canning workshop in the city can equip you with the knowledge to tackle the task at home.
      iStock/Central IT Alliance

      Take a canning workshop

      If you need a little help, try taking a local canning workshop. These classes cover the basics of either boiling-water-bath canning or pressure canning, and set you up with the know-how to tackle the task at home.

      Dorward, who will be conducting boiling-water-bath-canning workshops Wednesday (July 27) at Strathcona Community Centre (601 Keefer Street) and August 11 at Homestead Junction (649 East Hastings Street), typically starts with a lesson on food safety followed by an outline of the equipment and steps involved in canning a batch of jam. Participants then can their own jams before Dorward launches into a demonstration of pickle canning, which uses a similar process.

      “There’s lots of stuff online that you can read or books that you can get,” says Dorward, “but having somebody there and being able to do it with them hands-on in a class really makes a difference in terms of people’s comfort with the skill.”

      Follow Lucy Lau on Twitter @lucylau.