Tips for newbies, canning faithful

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There are so many resources out there for home canners, it can be pretty overwhelming. It’s important to follow reliable information, and you can count on your local extension service for that.

Beginning canners and experienced canners look for different information, and I’ve found both of them can benefit from a Facebook group I joined about six months ago. The group is open, but you have to ask to join. Search for “canning” on Facebook and you’ll find it.

The 5,364 members (as of Sept. 14) offer a veritable gold mine of information on a variety of topics, including the best tools for the job (pressure, steam or hot water bath canners), the best recipes for what you have to work with, and the best resources out there (making sure you use the right method so you don’t kill anybody with your hard work).

Member posts range from, “Help! I have a bushel of turnips and I don’t know what to do with them,” to, “What can I do with a batch of jam that turned out too runny?”

Canners can browse through brag shots of the rows of pickles, chutneys, soups and whatnot, and access reliable family recipes that others are generous enough to share. It’s fun to read the more unusual posts about recipes from the Depression, such as corn cob jelly and peach pit preserves, and technical questions about pressure canning meats and dog food.

The group, which has added more than 2,000 members in the past eight months, is growing fast and includes canners from the United States, Canada, Spain and Australia.

NEWBIE CANNERS

My advice is to start with jam (not jelly). It’s relatively safe and easy if you just follow the directions. Choose a recipe that has pectin added, so you don’t have to do the old-fashioned method to see if it will set up. Get the right equipment — many people just buy the canning kit at the hardware store and that’s easy enough.

For your first canning book, I recommend The Ball Blue Book (it might come with your kit). It has illustrated pictures to follow, clear recipes and really useful information. Sometimes you can find cheap equipment (and jars) at thrift stores and yard sales, but if you’re starting out, it might be best to get new jars to avoid any problems (nicks, cracks and old jars that explode).

After you have a few successful runs with jams and you’re feeling pretty confident, try your hand at chutney, salsa or pickles.

But once you venture into this territory of preserved foods with acid (salsas, pickles, chutneys), you have to be really careful. High-sugar foods such as jam aren’t susceptible to botulism, but low-acid, low-sugar foods are dangerous if you don’t follow the directions. Botulism bacteria spores are naturally all around us, mostly concentrated in foods that come from the soil (like garlic). Once you preserve the food in a low-oxygen environment (a sealed jar), the botulism bacteria becomes active and produces a toxin, which can paralyze or kill you.

Following the recommended methods and maintaining the level of acid in pickles or other acidified foods prevents the botulism bacteria from producing that toxin. Be safe. Follow recipes. Don’t substitute or skimp. And if you notice something wrong with a jar of food after it’s preserved (it’s murky, the lid is bulging, there’s spurting liquid or it smells not quite right), don’t even try the food, just dispose of it. Yes, that jar was a lot of work, but it’s not worth killing someone.

The National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia is a great resource for beginners and experts. The center’s “So Easy to Preserve” series of books and information is invaluable. It also offers an online, self-directed course at homefoodpreservation.com.

When you’re ready, spring for “The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving” edited by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine. This isn’t the Ball Blue Book, it’s much more comprehensive and has 400 recipes for almost anything you’d ever want to make. Syrup, marmalade, pickles, juice ... anything.

FOR THE ‘YES, WE CAN!’ CROWD

You experienced canners know what you’re doing. You’ve probably relied on grandma’s recipes for years (and you know that you don’t hot-water bath process green beans unless they’re pickled). This year, why not can something new? Or check out one of the newly published canning tomes? My favorites are:

■ “Put ‘Em Up” by Sherri Brooks Vinton — I love how this book is organized — by ingredient! So if I have a ton of rhubarb, I turn to the rhubarb section and choose from rhubarb soda syrup, rhubarb pickle, rhubarb chutney, jelly or jam.

■ “Tart and Sweet” by Kelly Geary and Jessie Knadler — What a beautiful book of artisanal preserves. I break out this book when it’s time to make gifts for people to ooh and aah over. Why not make some blueberry lemongrass syrup? Curry tomatillo pickles? Don’t mind if I do. Also, the authors share some fun ideas for a “can jam” with friends, complete with cocktails and music playlists.

■ “Food in Jars” by Marisa McClellan — This is my newest drool-worthy book. I’m a big fan of McClellan’s blog (of the same name) and her recipe collection doesn’t disappoint. I’m already dog-earing some pages for preserving small batches this winter, with her year-round focus on putting up food (Meyer lemon curd, anyone?).


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