Canning: Meal planning months in advance

Last summer, while sharing a bottle of wine with food columnist Kim O’Donnel, I professed that I wanted to learn to can. Kim didn’t skip a beat, she’s always game for whatever random schemes I hatch, and said that she would teach me. Then, before we could set a date, she decided to follow her husband to Seattle and skipped town (if I didn’t like her husband so much, I would have protested this decision much more vehemently — whisking my pal away to live on the other coast is usually grounds for a good fist shaking and finger waving).

So, this summer, I had to give this canning thing a try without her seasoned help. My belief is that canning is preferred to freezing because the power can’t go out on your pantry. Also, when done with friends, you get to divvy up the goods and everyone goes home with amazing treats. It’s wonderful in the middle of winter to open up a can of tomatoes picked from your own garden when they were at their peak. (And, even though I put fake flowers in my window boxes, I do have a garden. Growing food is a much different endeavor in my mind than frivolous ornamental plants required by the HOA.)

I decided to take a sweet route on my first foray into canning. My friend Krystal and I headed to the Chesterfield Berry Farm near Richmond, Virginia, with high hopes for making strawberry jam. In the fields, we picked more than 20 pounds of beautifully ripe strawberries and then made what can only be described as the world’s best jam. (Twenty pounds of strawberries was overkill, by the way — eight or nine pounds would have been enough.)

Over the next 12 months, in addition to consuming as much of it as my stomach will hold, I’ll be giving out the extra jars as gifts instead of the obligatory bottle of wine when I go to dinner parties at friends’ homes.

How is canning uncluttered? Well, I’m not sure that it is in the strictest of senses. It is, however, a great way to extend the fresh fruits and vegetables of summer throughout the whole of the year. It saves money (a lot cheaper to grow your own than it is to buy it in a store during the off-season) and it makes meal planning extremely simple. The New York Times ran an informative article this week on this very subject titled “Can It, Preserve It, Pickle It, Savor It” that provides many resources for new canners. Even if you don’t have a garden, you can head to your local farmer’s market and pick up the in-season foods you wish to can.

Do you can food? How does it help you with meal planning? Tell us about your experiences in the comments.

29 Comments for “Canning: Meal planning months in advance”

  1. posted by Leonie on

    wow! Bravo!
    Please share how you did it. What resources i.e. books? websites? did you use. And did it take an entire weekend? week?

    I also like the labels! :-)

  2. posted by savvy on

    I can as well, and I’ve also made the 20 lbs of strawberries mistake :)

    I can tomatoes, venison, jams, applesauce, and I’ve tried many other things. Last year my neighbor took this ratty-looking bag of overgrown cucumbers that someone gave her and made the BEST pickle relish EVER. I couldn’t believe those cucumbers turned into that wonderful relish. I definitely plan to try that this year.

  3. posted by savvy on

    And for the person wondering how much time canning takes, it totally depends on what you are canning and how much. During apple season, our three trees give me about four afternoons worth of applesauce making and canning. Tomatoes are similar.

    But usually I make other foods at the same time (fresh marinara, apple pies, crisps, stews…).

  4. posted by Margo on

    I can tomatoes/tomato sauce/spaghetti sauce, pumpkin (I make pumpkin bread, cookies, and pies all year long), apples (sliced for pies, applesauce, and apple butter), pears and turkeys. I bought 8 turkeys during November last year and canned them. Now I don’t have to remember to thaw my turkey meat. A pint jar is the perfect amount for a casserole or stir fry. I also freeze other fruits like peaches – great for smoothies.

    My canner may take up a lot of space but it saves me a lot of time and money throughout the year! It also simplifies meal planning when you know you have the basics for a simple healthy meal in your pantry at any time.

  5. posted by DJ on

    Congratulations!

    My mother went on and on and on about the deadly perils of home canned food to an intense degree while I was growing up. I have quite the phobia about consuming canned goods today.

    But it makes such great good sense to be able to master this kitchen skill. Maybe if I learned how to do it myself, I wouldn’t be so alarmed by the process.

    I dream of homemade blackberry jam. ; )

  6. posted by Steph on

    I tried canning for the first time last summer because I couldn’t keep up with my CSA’s fruit share. I ended up making a dozen jars of peach-mango chutney. I was seriously surprised at how delicious it was and completely paid for that month’s CSA.

    When I mentioned it at work, a coworker dumped all her canning supplies on me. As an unclutterer, this is problematic but I kept it. I plan on doing it again this year and sharing my equipment with my sister so we don’t have to have two sets of supplies.

  7. posted by Michele on

    I’ve been home canning for about 15 years. It’s a deeply satisfying hobby for me — I love it! Unfortunately it’s hard to save money with home canning unless you get the produce for nearly free. (Believe me, I’ve done the math. You simply can’t beat loss-leader sales at discount supermarkets.) The most important advantage, though, is that you know exactly what’s in the product, because you control what goes in the pot. The biggest issue for me is avoiding high-fructose corn syrup.

    So far this year I’ve put up a batch each of strawberry jam and rhubarb jam. I think my strawberry jam tastes better than supermarket brands, even the premium ones. And you simply can’t buy rhubarb jam outside of farmer’s market stands or expensive specialty stores.

    Most years I make pickles . . . which I don’t care for, so I give them away. Also, if I can get apples for free, I’ll make a batch of apple butter (again, no HFCS) and apple-only applesauce (no added sugar, juice, or HFCS). My favorite recipe: peach-cantaloupe marmalade.

    Uncluttering issues: My water-bath canner sits on top of the fridge. All the canning tools fit inside. I don’t have a pressure canner, for a few reasons. All the jars, empty or full, sit in a big ol’ free-standing pantry cabinet with doors that close so I don’t have to look at the shelves. I keep empty jars upside-down in the boxes I purchased them in. To store screw bands, I stretch out a wire clothes hanger, slip the screw bands on, and then “lock” the hanger onto itself with its hook. I can toss the “loop” of screw bands on top of a box of jars or hang it somewhere convenient.

    I could go on forever about canning! Last thing I’ll say is that a Ball Blue Book is cheap and indispensable.

  8. posted by Michele on

    Oh, and a good starter website for beginners: “homecanning.com,” from Ball. It’s the marketing website of basically the only company that makes jars and lids nowadays, so take some of the gadget suggestions with a grain of salt. However, it’s in their interest to teach safe and easy home canning practices so that they can keep customers!

  9. posted by Julie D on

    I grow and can tomatoes every year. I’m not sure if it helps in meal “planning”, but it’s awesome to have them on hand for a quick and tasty pasta sauce, or to throw in soup/stews.

  10. posted by martha in mobile on

    I learned to can PDQ when my husband brought home 30 lbs of tomatoes 3 days before we were leaving on an extended trip. I don’t have a big canning pot, so I used my biggest stockpot — I can only process 5 pts at a time, but that’s okay. I also canned clementine marmalade for Christmas gifts.

  11. posted by Laura on

    I’ve been canning for almost 30 years now, and I’m teaching my daughters and granddaughter. Being able to can peaches, pears, apricots- any fruit- without sugar- is a fantastic health bonus for the whole family. The fruit tastes much better, too!
    Apple butter makes the most welcome holiday present EVER!

  12. posted by knitwych on

    This is great! My grandmother, aunts and great-grandmother all canned from their gardens when I was a kid. It wasn’t called “canning,” though; they always called it “putting up,” as in “We’ll be putting up green beans today.”

    I never learned how, but I sure did learn to appreciate home-canned foods. I’m interested in learning, but for now I’m content to swap my homemade soap for canned goods put up by friends who are really good at it.

  13. posted by Annette on

    We can every summer. Most often we can fruits into jams because I am allergic to high fructose corn syrup which is in most jams, and don’t want to spend as much as the ‘just fruit’ kinds of jams cost. So I use sugar or low sugar jam recipes from Ball Blue Book or from the pectin boxes I get. Making sure my sister in law is here to help means half the jars go home with her and we aren’t inundated with too many jars of jam (a plastic bag of free plums is plenty as opposed to three plastic bags of plums that give one enough jam for three years even if one gives half of it away.) I don’t can non-acid foods because I don’t want to deal with the pressure canner. A waterbath canner is enough for me.

  14. posted by Dorothy on

    How is canning “uncluttered”? Well, let’s say you buy a jar of peach mango chutne and eat it. What about the jar? It ends up in a landfill most likely. But a home canning enthusiast can re-use that jar, year after year, virtually forever. One can buy jars that are 75 years old at a thrift store, get new rings an lids for the and she is re-using a jar that may already have been used 20 or 30 times.

    Yes, one needs space and a system to store both one’s canned goods and one’s tools. But to me this is a worthy use of space.

  15. posted by Amy in Ann Arbor on

    My best little-known tip for canning is that you can “glue” on your labels with milk, which makes them easy to remove when you wash the empty jar. This works great for room temperature storage, but I don’t know whether they would stay on in the freezer.

    Strictly speaking, a freezer jam is not actually “canned,” but rather a jam that is prepared and frozen, usually in a cute little jar. And, it IS the best jam in the world–better than genuinely “canned” jam, because it is still fresh, rather than cooked. And, for the woman who was terrorized by tales of “deadly perils,” it’s perfectly safe.

    My grandmother and mother made jams sealed with paraffin on top, but I have gathered that that method is not the best idea. “Open kettle” canning (sterilizing, filling and processing jars with the two-part lid) is safe for high-acid or high-sugar foods (tomatoes, pickles & jams).

    Canning anything else (low-acid, low-sugar foods) can indeed present deadly peril. Botulinum(a neurotoxin)can be present in improperly canned foods that look, smell and taste fine. The way to prevent infection with the Clostridium bacterium that makes it is with pressure canning, using a special pressure cooker that reaches a temperature higher than the boiling point.

    I love picking out luxury foods that are too expensive to be practical and then replicating them in my kitchen at relatively low cost. To me, canning feels both frugal and scientific.

  16. posted by Michelle on

    Growing up we had a huge peach tree in our backyard, so every summer there was a multi-day peach jelly assembly line. After years of such forced labor as a child, I hated the mere idea of peaches or canning.

    In the last few years, though, I’ve come to really wish I knew how. So far I’ve put off learning because my mom is thousands of miles away, and I live in such a small apartment I’m not sure I’d have room for all the gear (or the results).

  17. posted by JJ on

    I can fish, moose, caribou, chicken, turkey, vegetables, fruit/jams, soups, pie filling and am always looking for new things. It is so much healthier and allows us greater control over what is in our food. I love looking at all my colorful creations and take comfort in the fact that I have used my resources wisely and have prepared for future needs. We get a lot of canning information from our cooperative extension of University of Alaska. They also have a free gauge check each year for home canners. Finding space for the equipment and the jars, whether full or empty, can be a huge obstacle and is not for everyone, especially if you live in a small apartment in a large city.

    When I was growing up, the salmon we caught over the summer was frozen in our large chest freezer until fall. About three weeks after school started, we had fish canning week. Fish would be thawing in the bathtub while others would be processed in the kitchen. As soon as the bathtub was empty, in went another batch. I can probably prepare canned salmon 50 different ways. We would also can our smoked fish. After hunting season, we canned moose in stew meat and burger.

    We’ve made a “pumpkin” pie using home canned carrots.

    I like to can beans and soups so that I simply open a jar when needed, and it also reduces the prep time of many dishes.

    If done properly, home canning is not hazardous. We always make sure we only store the jars that are truly sealed, anything else either goes in the freezer or is used right away. I’ve never “canned” in the tins, which seem to have more trouble sealing.

    I’m using jars my grandmother purchased in the 1970s, and they are in great shape. We have a simple system of thoroughly cleaning the jars when emptied and covering them with a bit of plastic and a rubber band. They are stored on “empties” shelves in the basement. When it’s time to use them again, I simply run them through the sanitary rinse cycle on my dishwasher and I’m good to go. The equipment lasts longer when, after the jars have cooled, the rings are removed and the jars are wiped down. Storing the rings separately and wiping the jars prevents rust and “bug” infestations.

  18. posted by Louise Maine on

    Every year my garden gets bigger and I love tending it and then canning the produce (even though most of this happens when school starts – am a high school bio teacher.) I always do salsa, stewed tomatoes with peppers/onions, peaches, pears, and apples from our trees, zucchini relish, pumpkins, and freeze beans, zucchini and everything else. Really need to pressure can (though that scares me) or come up with a recipe that allows me to water bath can them. We have very little freezer space as we buy local cows from farmers we know to butcher for meat. The marmalade recipe shared above will be great for gifts this year. Always looking for something I have not done before. I make my own dog food for my 4 dogs and keeping as much zucchini as possible for them keeps cost low.

  19. posted by gypsy packer on

    It is possible to combine the best of both worlds. I’ve dehydrated loss-leader tomatoes. U-pick farms will keep you in cheap produce, especially at the end of the season when the farmers just want the field cleaned up.
    Best way to organize your canning is to can high-priced items with cheap ingredients. If you are a hot-sauce fiend, that sambal paste which runs you four dollars or more in the ethnic grocery will be fifty cents or less if your farmers market, flea market, or community gardener has a surplus and low prices.
    And–if you are laid off or otherwise unemployed, those full jars are going to look very good to you. Check recipes.com and other websites–a plethora of canning info is on the Web and more help with this craft than I ever thought possible.

  20. posted by gypsy packer on

    Forgot one important item–advertise and ask around for free and cheap jars. An index card on the bulletin board at the senior center can get you plenty from those too ill to can. Full goody jars in return will be a blessing to them.

  21. posted by Sara on

    As a big slow food fan, I love canning because I love cooking. What I don’t love is cooking after a long day at work. Canning allows me to cook what I want, when I have the energy, and to then enjoy that good homemade food every day. Twice a month I make a big pot of chili. Once a summer I make a few big batches of pesto, and freeze it. I make tomato sauce and tons of fruit spreads and fillings all summer and can it for the rest of the year.

    I love the feeling of eating something I made from scratch, but even more, I love not having to cook when I’m tired. It’s win win.

  22. posted by Tiara on

    We rent a house that has a nectarine and a pear tree in the back yard. Every year for the five we’ve lived there, I’ve made nectarine jam and pear preserves from the fruit from the trees and given them as presents. While the nectarines are more tart, EVERYone loves my pear preserves. I got the recipe off AllRecipes.com for the pear preserves and follow the recipe off the pectine package for the nectarines.

    My only problem is picking them at the right time. I’ve discovered the nectarines are perfectly ripe for one week in July and if I miss it, they all end up on the ground or eaten by squirrels (or taken by the gardeners). The pears seem to ripen in batches.

    Anyway, except for the time, jars, sugar and pectin, it’s a free gift for friends and family. And a lot of the time, my closer friends and family recycle the jars and give them back for next year’s batch!

    Enjoy!

  23. posted by K on

    Dilly beans. I’m usually more of a freezer girl but every once in a while I borrow my mom’s canning stuff and make dilly beans…. garlic, dill, green beans and some spices…. they are amazing as garnish for a nice Bloody Mary….

    And, before you tell me a pressure canning set up is a unitasker….. mom’s doubles as an autoclave for my dad’s veterinary supplies…..

  24. posted by Whimsy Girl » strawberry dreams on

    […] thought about it again yesterday but didn’t think I could squeeze it in.   But then… this post on unclutter.com …     I was OK reading through it until I came to this […]

  25. posted by whimsygirl on

    I want those labels!! Did you design them youself??

  26. posted by whimsygirl on

    @K

    Not to mention that pressure cookers are amazing for making slow cooked tasting meals in minutes. I adore mine.

  27. posted by Amanda on

    My first experience with canning was with my best friend’s family. They have a vacation home in the NC mountains and friends from near and far stop by with big baskets of produce ready to be processed. While her dad makes delicious apple cider downstairs, her mom turns all kind of things into jelly and jam – especially grapes and blueberries, but you never know.

    I’m still learning, but they can by sterilizing the jars in the dishwasher, getting the jelly/jam nice and hot in its pot, pouring boiling water over the lids to sterilize them and activate the glue, and the just popping the tops on. You can hear them pop as they cool and seal. Anything that doesn’t pop has to go in the fridge, but the rest keep forever.

  28. posted by Sarah on

    Confused- did you actually can this? It says freezer jam on the label….

  29. posted by Virginia on

    I found this thread (below) while looking for recipes but did not find the entire conversation or the recipe. I had lots of overgrown cukes after getting home from a weeks vacation.

    Last year my neighbor took this ratty-looking bag of overgrown cucumbers that someone gave her and made the BEST pickle relish EVER

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