Aug 1, 2011

The dollars and sense (?) of canning

If you didn't grow up in a home where summer fruits and vegetables were canned or preserved, you're missing a slice of life and history that is worth getting to know.  (For a free peek, scout out the food exhibits at your local county fair.  You'll see pickled and preserved foods of all kinds.  I bet you'll do two things:  1) eat some fair food and 2) come away tempted to try your hand at canning...both things are bound to happen.)

If you have children, a family canning session is a great opportunity for everyone to learn some life lessons on self-reliance, economics and food safety.  (And most kids are more willing to try new foods if they had a hand in putting them on the table.)  That's a combination of incentives that's hard to beat, and every time you pop open a can of something you created, the lessons are remembered without anyone saying a word.

Canning as food thrift?  Not these days.
But I find myself questioning if I (or anyone else) comes out ahead financially by canning our own produce these days, rather than buying fresh, frozen or canned foodstuffs at the grocery store as we need them.

If our grandparents canned out of necessity, our parents continued to can foods out of habit and frugality.

Do we have a good reason to can food today?   Maybe, but it won't be because it's cheaper than a trip down the canned vegetable aisle.

If you have to buy fresh produce to preserve it, brace yourself for sticker shock. And then shop and ask around; if you're at a roadside stand or farmers market, ask them if they've got a box of produce that's a bit too bruised to display. You can often snag a better deal that way, even if you have to cut out a few bad spots.

If it's your own produce, it may be cheap, but don't kid yourself - it wasn't free.  You had to buy plants or seeds, spend time growing them, applying water, fertilizer, etc., along the way.

The act of preserving your food will cost you something, and not just your time and a few extra dollars on the electric bill to heat the water and cool your kitchen.

The first year of canning is an investment in jars, lids, a kettle and lifters. (Look for used jars at estate sales or Goodwill and borrow a kettle and lifters if you aren't ready to fork over the cash for all new stuff, but don't try to can without the proper equipment.)

For those of us with jars and a kettle sitting around, we still have to buy new lids (don't ever re-use the flat lids, and be cautious of using older ones - even if they're unused, the rubber seal may be dried out and separate from the metal lid.)  At the risk of sounding whiny, buying new lids isn't even cheap these days - a box of 10 lids runs about $2 most places.  Even if everything else was bought and paid for in years past, that's $0.20 per jar before you put one drop of food or liquid in it.

I just don't think canning can be justified based on the cost savings these days.   Can you rationalize that your food is all-natural, contains fewer preservatives and is better tasting?  Sure.   And those are good reasons to forge ahead if you want to try canning food.

My advice?

1. Identify exactly what foods you know you'll use, and draw a bulls-eye on items that are pricier to buy in the store. That's your target zone.

2. For your first year, underestimate what you'll use up. If you run out in March and wish you had more, make a mental note to double up next year.  Don't overdo it the first year - you'll spend too much on produce, jars and equipment, waste more time than you should have spent, and emptying jars of uneaten food leaves a bad taste in everyone's mouth.

3. Stick with things that can be preserved without a pressure canner.  Pickles, along with naturally acidic foods like tomatoes and fruit can be safely preserved in a "water bath" (where you boil the jarred food for a length of time to kill any bacteria and create a vacuum seal in each jar.)  You can safely freeze low-acid foods like sweet corn, peas and beans if that's what you're determined to preserve. 

The oven or a dehydrator can be used to make dried jerky, fruit, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs.  (Borrow one, or look for a used model on Craigslist or Goodwill.)  If you're ready to buy a new one, go mid-range and fork over at least $50 or $60 for a model with a decent wattage.  Really nice Excalibur and American Harvester models go for a few hundred; personally, I can deal with a lower-end model for now, and maybe forever.

4. If you want to go all Martha Stewart-ish and make gourmet gift jellies, sauces, etc., just be sure to give them away as planned.  (I've done that and then forgotten about them when the holidays rolled around.)

As for me?

The figs were an unexpected gift, and I took full advantage of them.  I'll do it again, if I can.

Last weekend, I used the new dehydrator to dry peach slices.  Mr. Official wants to carry out his grandparents' Christmas tradition of making homemade fried pies.  Later on this fall, I'll get the meat department guys to thin-slice a roast or two and make jerky.  I'l probably dry some herbs as well.

This past weekend, I also filled the roasting pans a few times with tomatoes, peppers, onions and garlic for pizza sauce. (You simply let it cook it at 450 until it's a little charred on top and puree it; the result is way more delicious than the process makes it sound.  I don't do it because I can't buy pizza sauce cheaply, but because this yields WAY better sauce than I can buy at any price.  I'm freezing the thick, concentrated sauce in little 8-ounce containers - just the right amount to thaw and spread over a couple nice large pizza crusts. A dearth of homemade tomato sauce is one of the reasons I made very few pizzas last year.  No more excuses - a couple dozen containers are now in the freezer.

I also plan to roast, peel and freeze Anaheim peppers we are growing.  At $1 for a small can, I can justify the time and effort it takes to "pick a peck of peppers" pop them on the grill or under the broiler, slip the skins off and and stash them in my freezer.  We will use them all winter in vegetarian chili, green chili, chiles rellenos, chile cheese dip...well, you get the picture, right?

The remainder of my half-bushel of tomatoes is destined for pepper-onion relish today.  If I find a good deal on another half-bushel later on, I will probably put up some tomatoes with green chiles (like Rotel) and a batch of homemade salsa - as fiery hot as I can make it.  These probably come out about equal to what I'd spend if I bought them in the store, and my family prefers my homemade salsa and Rotel tomatoes if they have a choice.

That's probably all I will "put up" this year unless I get my hands on some pears for pear honey, or okra for pickles. (I adore hot, spicy pickled okra and it's an expensive indulgence, not to mention getting harder to find on grocery shelves. But my efforts have never quite panned out in the past.)

I'll take pictures and give recipes for each of these when the time comes and maybe pass along the canning "bug" to others.

Happy canning,