Category Archives: Food Preservation

Food Preservation: Canning

August is Harvest Time Here in NH

I found it challenging this month to write about food preservation in the midst of multiple, converging US and world crises. However, this is a truth we always live with: at the end of the day, while so many large scale happenings shape the world, we still have to eat, and how we do that further influences the larger whole. So… back to food preservation!

When I started canning, it was considered weird. I would go to my local hardware store to ask for supplies and they would laugh, goodnaturedly, and say: “aren’t you a little young, by, say, 50 years, to be canning?” (I was in my 20s). Then they would have to special order whatever I needed. Now, there are whole sections of stores dedicated to canning, even grocery stores have at least bands and lids. It really made a comeback!

Compared to drying as a preservation method, canning is a modern invention. It’s development was largely inspired by war-time needs in Europe and then the US beginning 200 years ago. More recently it has been a way to store food in uncertain times when supply chains might break down or when people want economical ways of eating (versus going out to eat). Along the way, it has also become a great way for homesteaders to stock up on food when it is abundant for leaner times and to allow for local eating year-round. Here, that means canning in the summer for consumption the rest of the year.

Strawberries, a High PH Food

I exclusively practice water bath canning which is simpler than pressure canning but can only be used with high-acid foods and recipes. That includes most fruits and tomatoes, plus veggies in vinegar solutions.

Botulism is the big concern when canning. Clostridium botulinum spores are all over the place causing us no problems, but when they grow a toxin is produced. Canning works by creating an environment without oxygen, which most microorganisms cannot live in. However, botulism actually needs to have low oxygen to thrive. The heat level in a water bath canner or by boiling the food ahead of time is not enough to kill the spores, so choosing food with enough acidity to stop spore growth is critical.  The high acidity (which means a low ph) doesn’t kill Clostridium botulinum but it stops it from growing, thus no toxin is produced.

There are also mixed reports about whether or not sugar helps prevent botulism. White sugar has a neutral ph, so that doesn’t help. I personally would not depend on sugar to stop botulism. I also don’t eat processed white sugar, so have only used honey when making jams and jellies that call for extra sweetener, following recipes from Pomona’s Pectin. Again, it’s choosing high acid foods that provides the check on botulism.

What’s tricky about botulism is that there isn’t an obvious bad smell or visual clue that it has grown. With all other methods of preserving, it’s obvious when it’s gone wrong. That inability to know through our own senses is kind of creepy and turns folks off from trying. To me, it just means that I take seriously the recommendations and recipes provided.

The USDA’s National Center for Home Food Preservation is a great resource for “research based” recipes and information so you can be sure you are canning safely.

Beyond safety, research continues to find that canning is a good way to keep nutrition and make it bio-available.

To get started there is some equipment needed. The investment is very much worth it if you like it and do it for years. You’ll need: a big pot to cook in, another big pot with a canning rack inserted to hold the jars, canning jars, lids and bands, a timer, plus a set of helpful tools that might not be necessary but are worth getting: wide-mouth funnel, ladle, jar lifter, magnetic lid lifter, and bubble popper/head space measurer.

Cooking Peaches

For the bulk of my canning, I cook fruits like peaches, blueberries or strawberries in their own juices (I start with a little water to cover the bottom of the pot to keep it from burning initially) and can them from there. The peaches are sweet enough to eat straight from the can as one of my favorite winter-time desserts. I also add the peaches and berries to yogurt smoothies that I make and can add some honey then if I feel it needs it. I generally aim for 75 quarts of canned fruit a year. I often end up with extra juice after processing, so turn that into smaller jars of jelly. I make my jam and jelly with Pomona’s Pectin which has honey sweetened recipes included. 

Canned Peaches

One of Our Peach Tress

A few notes on peach canning, which I have done a lot of: I slice them but I do not bother to peel the peaches. If they are not organic, I do wash them in a baking soda solution. If you have any land, I highly recommend growing your own peaches. It’s very difficult to grow them to look good enough for market without a lot of chemical treatments, but you can grow them for yourself organically and you will not mind the cosmetic imperfections once you taste them! It has lately been shown that white peaches may not be acidic enough for safe canning, so stick to the orange varieties. I dry my white peaches instead – yum!

My biggest complaint with canning is that I am boiling a lot of water during the hot summertime making the house less comfortable. Some folks actually have outdoor kitchens for canning, but I have not gone that far. There are some items such as blueberries that I will freeze as I pick them, then wait until it cools down in the fall to process them.

The reason it is worth going through all the work is that you end up with a great, ready to use, shelf-stable for a year or more product which I don’t have to worry about in power outages. Plus, opening a can of peaches in January is like experiencing a little bit of summer when I really need it!

Canned Peaches

Canned Peaches, Full of Summer!

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Interdependence AND…

Kale Mix Harvested

This past spring saw a surge of interest in gardening and in articles on the topic. I came across one by a woman who had good advice, but made a comment that didn’t sit right with me. She said her family’s reason for growing their own food was not ideology since they believe in interdependence.

After much reflection, I realize my discomfort is in being asked to choose between interdependence and independence, as if anyone could be just one.

My Garlic

Certainly I am seeking to gain skills that make me feel strong and responsible and let me take back some power over my basic needs. But I don’t see that as isolationist – in fact, it often comes from a place of seeing and caring about my connections to the rest of the world and wanting to improve those relationships. I continue in the tradition of The Nearings and Wally and Juanita Nelson with a philosophy of food growing that strives to honor and experience my interdependence with the whole

Monarch Pollinating

planet and find ways to live here that avoid doing harm.

My goal is to do more for myself, and then to shift who I am dependent on to more local sources and relationships. That way, I can have some say in how things are done, as well as cutting the travel footprint of goods.  But I don’t expect to ever be going it alone.

I also find that the more I engage in these activities the more connected and interdependent I often feel, in both liberating and frustrating ways.

Canned Peaches

Canning Peaches

A full root cellar and shelves of preserved food in the fall brings me such pride and satisfaction and a sense of safety. But, being a gardener during a drought, as I am right now, is tremendously humbling, a moment when I truly understand how little control I personally have over the world and my own best-laid plans. Keeping bees also shows me the limits of my personal power. Although I can work hard to be a good beekeeper, I can’t control many of the problems they suffer from: exposure

My Apiary in June 2020

to pesticides and fungicides, forage opportunities lost to development and lawns, erratic weather including droughts, and new diseases and pests traveling quickly around the globe.

These situations help me understand the balance between what I can do by myself and what I must join with others to accomplish.

I live in the US, a culture that tends towards extremism and either/or dichotomies: you’re with them or against them; powerful or a victim; independent or helpless; useful or useless. I am also posting this a couple of weeks after July 4, US Independence Day, when people celebrate the concepts of freedom and self-reliance. Those are great qualities… but when they are emphasized by themselves, they become warped, even pathological, devaluing our connections to and care for others and exacerbating loneliness.

If anyone starts to really think it through, it quickly becomes clear how much we depend on others, especially in a complicated, industrialized society. Even if you have all the skills to fix your computer, your car, your health problems, pave your own roads, make your own clothing, grow your food, cook and preserve it – no one person has the time to do all that. When we pay others to do this work we somehow don’t count it as a dependency, but it is. Can we embrace that, or at least accept that it is the reality?

Hen with Chicks

I can relate to the wish of needing no one but myself. I grew up in a chaotic, stressful house with a mother who had Multiple Sclerosis. I watched her lose all her physical abilities and become increasingly dependent on others, while receiving the societal message that this made her less and less valuable. It was excruciating for my whole family, and from there the idea of living alone in the woods depending on only myself had a certain appeal. I started camping as a young woman, even took classes in “primitive skills” to learn how to survive by myself. 

One Bee on Gooseberry

However, I discovered that the amount of work and dedication that took was more than I could realistically do by myself for any length of time, shaking my illusions of truly doing it by myself.

There is now lots of research including in the fields of neuroscience and health that show how social our species is and how isolation hurts us. I also raise other animals so I have a comparison point. Our goats can stand, run and clean themselves within an hour of birth, and our poultry aren’t far behind,

Mom and Kid

while a human takes years to do those things and then lots more to be taught other necessary skills to live well. Yet we have this wish to see ourselves as needing no one.

 

It is both humbling and beautiful to see how connected we are. To consider how little control I really have over the world and my life scares me. But, to see how much a part of a larger whole I am, to feel how much support I receive just to be alive, and to know that I share the responsibility for the world with many others is a big relief.

I don’t think I’m alone in internalizing this more deeply lately. In this time of pandemic and economic crisis, many people see that we are truly in this together.  Can we find more ways of acting like it across race, gender, class, political beliefs and species? We have so much to gain.

“It is a law of life that man [sic] cannot live for himself alone. Extreme individualism is insanity. The world’s problems are also our personal problems. Health is achieved through maintaining our personal truth in a balanced relation of love to the rest of the world.” –Harold Clurman

Swallowtail Butterfly on Echinacea

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Food Preservation: Nutrition

I have practiced food preservation for years, loving how it helps me eat local food year-round and practice permaculture principle 2: Catch and Store Energy. Writing more about preserving was already my plan before we entered this new coronavirus world of social distancing and grocery store shortages. Now, it seems even more relevant.

Our July 2019 Veggie Garden

I don’t think we are in great danger of running out of food. But, I do think the safety of shorter supply chains and of avoiding stores is appealing, the health benefits from real, nutritious foods can only help us, and that people taking stock of what they truly need and rely on is leading to a new appreciation of food

A Few of my Favorite Seed & Plant Catalogs

growing. Seed sales are booming, CSA memberships are selling out, and garden plots are in demand. It follows that soon, how to use and save what is grown will be the question.

Before looking at specific techniques for preserving in detail, I want to address the issue of possible nutrient loss in preserved foods.

The belief that raw plant foods are ideal is currently popular. I was taught differently. Years ago, driven by my own health problems and by environmental and ethical concerns, I researched human nutrition and experimented with a number of different diets. I can say that vegan, low-fat, and raw veggie diets only further worsened my health. But, along the way, I was lucky to discover some people who helped me learn and make choices that have served me well, especially brilliant Wise Woman Susun Weed, and The Weston A. Price Foundation.

I learned that animal products are generally best raw but not plants. Plants treated in some way to break their tough cell walls makes the nutrients, especially minerals, that they contain much more accessible to their animal consumers (that includes human animals). This is supported by looking back at how our ancestors ate, and at current research.

Plant Cell Walls

Cabbage

The basic idea is that the thick cell walls of plants hold in the nutrition we need.

Our teeth cannot break the cell walls, and our digestive juices are not strong enough to do so either. We didn’t evolve an internal cooking (fermenting) system, like ruminants have, so, if we want to get value out of plant foods external “cooking” methods become necessary.

When I say “cooking” what I am referring to are any ways that break those cell walls. Heat is one way – roasting, baking, grilling, etc. Other options are freezing, drying, lacto-fermenting, and covering in oil or vinegar (think salad dressing). You can actually see this process happen, when a crisp bright piece of kale turns limp and dark in your soup, when the lettuce starts to look weird and slimy sitting in the dressing a long time, when your frozen blueberries warm up and, well, are just not the same as fresh. These are all clues that you can now really benefit from eating these!

Carrots, filled with carotenoids!

Minerals & Vitamins

Minerals are elemental rocks which can have different forms but can’t be destroyed by anything in your kitchen.

Vitamins, especially antioxidants, are often enhanced by cooking. Research has shown this with lycopene, carotenoids and ferulic acid. Vitamin C is a less stable compound so will break down more easily, with heat, exposure to light or time. However, Vitamin C is in a lot of plant foods – not just citrus – and much does remain after cooking.

Cooking In Water

One reason people became worried that cooking meant less nutrition may be because of this fact: if you heat a plant in water, the freed nutrients can leach into the water. If you are a drinker of Nourishing Herbal Infusions you will also understand this, as we rely on the long, hot water treatment of the herbs to move those compounds into the water. Here’s the key – the nutrients haven’t been destroyed but transferred into the liquid. That’s why for herbal infusions we squeeze out the herbs and compost them then drink

Braising Garden Veggies

the liquid only. If you boil veggies and throw out the water – yeah, you’ve wasted a lot. So make sure not to do that! We prefer oven roasting in olive oil, and also braising on the stove top with oil and a little water. Whatever liquid is left we make sure to ingest as well.

What About Enzymes?

Dr. Pottenger’s research did show that the enzymes in raw meat and raw milk aid our digestive process, which is why raw milk is more easily digestible. However, the enzymes in fruits and veggies are mostly destroyed by our own bodies because we don’t need them.

Elderberries in the kitchen

Safety

There are a number of constituents found in plants that are toxic or anti-nutritional to us which cooking deactivate, like oxalic acid in spinach, and cyanide-inducing glycosides in elderberry and phytohaemagglutinin in kidney beans.

Uncooked veggies aren’t useless to us – we get fiber, and some of the vitamins and minerals they contain. But at a time when we are worried about feeding the world and many well fed people have specific deficiencies, it seems we should try to get the most we can from what we eat.

Harvest!

The good news in terms of food preservation is that most of these techniques also offer us more bio-available nutrition. The research shows that some methods of cooking and of preserving keep certain nutrients better than others which is an argument for a diversity of tactics. In my next posts I’ll go over the varied options we have for keeping our harvests year-round.

I do know that there are wildly differing opinions, experiences and even conflicting research results out there.  I’ve shared here my own experience and what I learned from people I trust for you to consider and make your own best choices for yourself!

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