Being Frugal has discovered a new “movement:” the urban homesteaders. She read about it on Oh My Aching Debts. Now, she’s planning on increasing her homesteading efforts this summer by canning, among other things. I love the idea of being an “urban homesteader,” especially because I always dreamed of being a pioneer when I was a kid. I used to drag sheets outside and cover the swing set to make a covered wagon. It’s nice to know that my early impulses are finally gaining traction. 🙂 Last summer, I canned a lot for the first time and loved it. Here’s what I learned:
Step One: Gather
First off, gather up all your supplies. You’ll need cans, fresh lids, a boiling-water canner, lots of clean towels, a big pot to cook your food in, non-iodized salt, vinegar, pickling spices, a permanent marker, a ruler, and tongs. You can start canning for under $50, I’d think. The canners run around $20. Try borrowing one if you want to try before you buy. Also, talk about canning to any and all older women you know. You’ll soon be swimming in jars. The future husband’s mom used to can and gave me several big boxes of jars. Just be sure to buy fresh lids for the jars; you can’t reuse those. I don’t know about all over the country, but if you live in the Midwest, you’ll find a canning section at your local grocery store, Wal-Mart, and Ace Hardware. Personally, I love the Ace Hardware. I searched high and low for canning tongs (they have to be wide enough to hold your jars). I finally found them there. Also, the women who work at our hardware store love to chat with me about whatever they’re canning.
Finally, get your produce to can. With a water-boiling canner, you can process most fruit, jam, pickles, beets, and tomatoes. I even canned apples, which we stirred into oatmeal all winter. I’d highly advise canning tomatoes. My mom used to do fifty quarts, one for each week. I managed 35 pints last summer and ran out in late March. When I saw that organic tomatoes are now $1.99 for a 15 oz. can at our Kroger’s, I got re-motivated to can this summer. Subtracting the cost of food and supplies, I’ll easily save $75 if I can 50 jars! You can use tomatoes for sauces, stews, soups, and salsa. I found it was easy to use a jar or two each week. My main advice is to wait until the end of the season. Last summer, I was so excited that I was canning the very first strawberries that came out. By the end of the season, the local farm was selling huge flats for half the price of the early berries. They also sell giant baskets of tomatoes to can in August. This year, I’m hoping our own tomato plants will be all that I can, but it’s nice to supplement if you need.
Step Two: Sterilize
The only worry with home canning is the risk of botulism. Be sure to read a book about canning like the Blue Bell Book or refer carefully to this website from the USDA. It can be a little bit worrisome the first time you do it, but once you talk to a few folks and read the directions carefully, you’ll be much more confident. I figure with all the weirdness that can happen in our food supplies these days, I’ll take my risks. I know that as long as everything is sterile, and I don’t vary from the directions, I’ll be fine. To sterilize your jars, you can keep them boiling while you cook down your food. However, I find it easier to run the jars by themselves through the dishwasher on the heated drying setting. I time it so that the cycle just finishes as I finish cooking down the food. Then, I just pull out the jars and rings when I’m ready to pack them. You’ll keep your lids sterile in a warm water bath to the side.
To sterilize the food, basically, you always cook it. Remember that you’ll always pack hot food into hot jars. Just follow the directions for whatever recipe you want. While you can improvise when cooking dinner for your family, you don’t want to improvise here. Make sure that you have everything on hand, including vinegar and non-iodized salt. You don’t want to stop mid-way and have to run to the store for something!
Step Three: Pack and Process
Once your food is ready, it’s time to pack the jars and process. Be sure to start the water boiling as soon as you start peeling tomatoes or whatever you plan to can. It takes a while to get that much water ready. Follow the directions carefully and measure out the headspace. I usually pack half a jar, run the spatula all along the sides, and then have room for a lot more food. There’s a trick to getting just enough food, but not too much food, into the jar. Some of my early efforts had too much liquid, so I’d end up with half a jar of food on top and half a jar of liquid on the bottom. It’s fine to eat, but wastes jar space and doesn’t look picture-perfect. I also overpacked a jar or two and had them pop open while processing. Start out with a small batch, and you’ll soon get the hang of it. Make sure you have lots of towels around because you’ll need clean ones to wipe the tops before you put the lids on.
Once you pack about six jars, you’re ready to process them in the water bath. Again, follow the directions exactly. When they’re done, use your magic wide-mouth tongs to pull the jars out of the boiling water. Set them out on a rack and wait for the coolest part. As each jar settles, you’ll hear a pop from the lid. That little pop tells you that everything went smoothly. I love counting the pops while cleaning up my mess. I usually let my canner set on the stove overnight because it will be really hot after boiling water for over an hour.
Home canning is really quite simple once you get the hang of it. It will save you money, and you’ll really be able to tell a difference in quality. For me, there was something really satisfying about running down to the basement and picking out one jar from our stock when I cooked dinner in the winter. This year, I thought about buying a steam-pressure canner, but I think I’ll stick to the cheaper water-boiling method. I plan to freeze corn, peppers, strawberries, and peaches. Between that and the jam, cucumbers, and tomatoes I’ll process, we should be in good shape for another long winter. Now, if I can just find my childhood sun bonnet, I’ll really be an urban homesteader!