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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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An Early Fruit Tree Yield & Stacking Functions

Nanking Cherry Blossoms

We are currently receiving our first yield of the season from our fruit trees and bushes – nectar and pollen much needed by our bees and other pollinators!

In permaculture design we have a concept called “stacking functions.” We ask for multiple benefits from each element added to the system – we want to do more with less. Rather than narrowly specializing, we ask more from everyone, build on the relationships we create this way, and aim to decrease our workload in the process. The system becomes more efficient by way of complexity.

Honey Berry Blossoms

Oftentimes the various functions are already there, we just need to open our minds to seeing them. Once we identify them, we can then work to better use and enhance them or more deeply understand their value.

When I choose plants to bring into our landscape, there are numerous jobs I’m looking to fill, such as insectaries, pest confusers, dynamic accumulators, nitrogen fixers, fodder and, of course, food for us. Fruit trees and bushes are an obvious choice to give us a great yield later in the season, and a huge boost to nectar and pollen eaters in the spring (video: Bees Visit Nanking Cherry Blossoms).

Peach Blossoms

And they really need it. To make one pound of honey, it is estimated that more than 550 worker bees will be needed to visit 2 million flowers. They will fly the equivalent of once around the world to make just that one pound. After the winter, my bees have consumed most of their resources and need the mass blooming of trees and dandelions to get off to a good start. 

Jostaberry Blossoms

Here are other reasons to love trees… like all plants, they are the true producers on our planet, creating the energy that runs the whole food chain. Then, like all long-lived, woody plants they clean pollution from the air, stabilize soil, cycle water, moderate temperatures, sequester carbon out of the atmosphere, and give oxygen in return. They can offer shade and habitat.

Stacking functions is a useful permaculture lens to develop.

In a mechanistic view of a farm, each aspect is reduced to one use. You have pigs for meat, cows for milk, veggies for human consumption, cover crops and fertilizers to feed the soil, machines to manage the land, and waste products to grapple with.

Clove Currant Blossoms

But in nature (meaning in reality) complexity and relationships are what create health and resiliency.

Understanding that animals also make soil-feeding manure, and that their behaviors can be used in healthy land management leads to systems taking them out of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operation) to go back onto pasture with rotational grazing. Increased soil life, better crops, fewer fertilizer inputs needed, and no waste.

A reductionist mindset is often applied to our lives as well – school is to learn information, work is for making money, home is for raising a family, vacation is for relaxing. But, we’re better off when we realize it’s not that simple.

Red Currant Blossoms

When work is seen as a critical place of social connection, programs strengthening relationships increase satisfaction and performance. Remembering that our homes can also be productive work places can inspire us to develop skills in our gardens, woodworking shops, and sewing rooms. Integrating fun and relaxing activities into our lives rather than just waiting for vacations can make our communities and lives more vibrant.

Meanwhile, I thank my plants for the many ways they feed and support life!

Peach Blossoms

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