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Modern-Day Canning: Everything You Need to Know, Step by Step

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Modern-Day Canning: Everything You Need to Know, Step by Step

November 30, 2020

With the abundance of grocery stores and fresh markets today, I never fully understood why anyone would choose to spend hours toiling over the canning process. That is, until I grew a garden of my own. I had overplanted my veggies last year by a long shot, and found myself at harvest time trying to pawn off baskets of produce to every friend, neighbor, and relative willing to accept. So this year I decided it was time to learn a thing or two about canning.

To get started, I turned to my friend Sean, otherwise known as S. Pajot, the cook and writer behind outdoors, food, and lifestyle blog Blackbloods.

“In the old days, when self-reliance wasn’t a lifestyle choice, people made pickles and other canned goods because they weren’t interested in starving through the winter,” he explains. “Giving food a vinegar bath and sealing it in jars was a good way—like sun-drying tomatoes or distilling corn whiskey—to keep summer and fall crops from rotting before they could be either eaten or sold.”

Still, I wondered, unless you have a garden of your own, why can food in 2018?

“For me, it’s just profoundly pleasurable learning how to do things for myself, but also, food seems to taste better when it’s made from scratch in your own kitchen with raw ingredients dug out of a backyard garden or bought off a farmer working nearly the same dirt that you call home,” Sean says.

That sounded reasonable enough. I asked him to help me stock my pantry for the cold months by preserving, sealing, and shelving my favorite fall and winter vegetables. Here are the results—and read on for step-by-step instructions to make spicy pickled rainbow carrot spears.

Photography by Marta Xochilt Perez.

1. Find the best produce.

 As with any kind of cooking, the most consequential thing when canning is the freshness and quality of the ingredients. To get started, we went off in search of our preferred kind of produce—local, organic, and harvested this morning.
Above: As with any kind of cooking, the most consequential thing when canning is the freshness and quality of the ingredients. To get started, we went off in search of our preferred kind of produce—local, organic, and harvested this morning.

“Here in southeast Michigan, we’re lucky, because there isn’t any lack of regionally and responsibly raised food,” Sean points out. “It’s a place that, despite having been despoiled by the lumber, auto, oil, and many other industries throughout the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, still has rich soil, the Great Lakes, and deep agricultural traditions. And like many other parts of the United States, it’s also been touched over the past few decades by the eat-local, organic, and farm-to-table movements. There are heirloom seed growers just ten minutes outside Ann Arbor and urban farmers tilling lots in some of Detroit’s almost entirely abandoned neighborhoods.”

There isn’t a shortage of local-food markets in our neck of the woods either, what with Detroit’s sprawling century-and-a-half-old Eastern Market and the year-round, weekly bounty of the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, as well as smaller neighborhood gourmet groceries such as Ann Arbor’s Argus Farm Stop and The Produce Station, and The Farmer’s Hand in Detroit.

For would-be canners across the country, there ought to be similar markets in your town, but if not, it’s quite likely that a quick Google search will turn up a local community-supported agriculture program, commonly known by the acronym CSA.

2. Prep, ASAP.

 Upon returning to the kitchen with armloads of delicious yet perishable produce, it’s important to take inventory, and immediately.
Above: Upon returning to the kitchen with armloads of delicious yet perishable produce, it’s important to take inventory, and immediately.

“There are many vegetables that need to be washed, chopped, cooked, and jarred right away; they just won’t keep well, whether sitting on the counter or stashed in the refrigerator, and there’s nothing that canning can do to save limp green beans,” Sean says.
When he and I did our fall canning, there was no waiting two days (or even one) before we turned my already-tender backyard tomatoes into four jars of red-wine-spiked arrabbiata sauce. There was likewise zero procrastination before we diced our farm-bought yellow and orange chiles for sweet pickled pepper hash.

With late-fall and early-winter crops, though, the rush to forestall spoilage becomes a little less frenzied because the cooling temperatures allow food to keep longer, and because we’re usually dealing with hardier vegetables. “These kinds of robust veggies—like the onions, radishes, beets, and carrots that we chose for our December and January canning sessions—can even be cellared for months without going bad,” Sean explains. “They’re also exactly the kind of produce, along with tough greens like kale and chard, that keep ripening throughout the winter in hoop houses and greenhouses, then show up on the tables at cold-weather farmers’ markets.”

 For canning, Sean suggests making thick cuts, as a chunkier vegetable is less likely to soften too much or get slowly broken down by vinegary brine as your jars sit on a shelf in the pantry for months.
Above: For canning, Sean suggests making thick cuts, as a chunkier vegetable is less likely to soften too much or get slowly broken down by vinegary brine as your jars sit on a shelf in the pantry for months.

No matter how long one vegetable or another may stay fresh, you’ll eventually need to start chopping. “It’s best to use simple cutting techniques, like a hefty stick cut for carrots, or a thick slice, like we used on our red onions and red radishes,” Sean advises. However, it is always worth toying with less standard approaches, as he and I did, using a peeler to turn Michigan-grown daikon radishes and giant carrots into long, flat ribbony strips for our riff on the classic Vietnamese pickled side dish do chua.

 For crushing spices, under normal circumstances, there should be a mortar and pestle at hand. But when planning our fall canning, we overlooked the fact that my kitchen was not equipped with one. So we were forced to improvise, grabbing a C. S. Osborne Wooden Mallet (\$\18.99 from Seattle Fabrics) from the basement and wrapping the nutmeg, cardamom, star anise and allspice in a clean prep towel, then hammering it to exactly the right degree of grittiness.
Above: For crushing spices, under normal circumstances, there should be a mortar and pestle at hand. But when planning our fall canning, we overlooked the fact that my kitchen was not equipped with one. So we were forced to improvise, grabbing a C. S. Osborne Wooden Mallet ($18.99 from Seattle Fabrics) from the basement and wrapping the nutmeg, cardamom, star anise and allspice in a clean prep towel, then hammering it to exactly the right degree of grittiness.
The knife work is only half of the prep. The other half is sorting and smashing the spices, and blending them for each recipe. “You’ll want black peppercorn, yellow and black mustard seed, dill seed, coriander seed, whole clove and nutmeg, cardamom and star anise pods, dried chiles, allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaves,” Sean says. “And yes, it’s good to combine them all, leaving some whole and crushing others, for a general-use pickling spice that’s always ready to go. But it’s definitely better, if time isn’t short, to tinker with mixes tailored to each vegetable and the kind of vinegar that you’ve chosen for the brine.”

3. Start canning.

What you&#8\2\17;re aiming for.
Above: What you’re aiming for.

Sealing our pickles in sterilized glass jars, then dunking them into boiling water for 30 minutes or so. That’s the canning process in 20 words or less. Doesn’t seem so complicated, does it? And yet there are so many ways the whole thing can go wrong

“Maybe you forget to clear the air bubbles from the top of a jar of cocktail onions, which leads to a flotilla of mold,” Sean says. “Or maybe you try to grab a screaming hot jar of golden beets with your bare hands, which leads to broken glass and an inedible mess all over the kitchen floor.”

“As for gear, you don’t need a bunch of gadgets and paraphernalia. The simpler your setup, the better,” Sean insists.

Your new best friend, the jar lifter.
Above: Your new best friend, the jar lifter.

Aside from jars, lids, and screw bands, Sean’s kit includes:

  • 8-quart stainless steel preserving pan
  • 21 1/2-quart Granite·Ware Canning Pot With Wire Rack ($36 from Amazon)
  • Prep towels
  • Medium mixing bowl (for sterilizing lids)
  • Wide-Mouth Steel Funnel With Handle ($10.08 from Amazon)
  • Measuring cup (for ladling)
  • Large tongs
  • Slotted spoon
  • Chopsticks (for popping pesky air bubbles)
  • Jar Lifter ($7.52 at Amazon, “so I don’t ever again burn the first few layers of skin off the palms of my hands”)

Your canning technique will require a few simple steps.

First, heat the water.
Above: First, heat the water.

“To start, before doing anything else, fill the canning pot with water, leaving only four inches to the rim, and crank the heat to high,” Sean says. “This has to be the first thing you do, because when you’re boiling around 20 quarts of water, it is going to take forever. But after it’s hot, you can kill the burner and use a lid to keep the pot close to the right temperature till you’re ready to sterilize your jars or process some canned goods.”

 Next, wash the jars, lids, and screw bands.
Above: Next, wash the jars, lids, and screw bands.

“Even if they look clean, they aren’t clean enough. Just sponge them with soapy water. Or throw the jars and bands into the dishwasher. The lids need to washed by hand, though; and don’t scrub or brush them, because you do not want to damage the adhesive that creates the seal that prevents our pickles from becoming disgusting.”

 While the water is boiling and the jars are drying, it’s time for mise en place.
Above: While the water is boiling and the jars are drying, it’s time for mise en place.

“Grab your just-cut vegetables from the fridge, toss together your spice mix, and lay out your tools. Then fold two towels into nice neat squares and place them on the counter near the stove: One will serve as a staging area for filling still-hot jars with still-hot pickles; the other will serve as a cooling area for the processed jars that you’ll be lifting out of the canning pot in an hour.”

 Now, with everything in its right place, we need to sterilize the jars and lids. 
Above: Now, with everything in its right place, we need to sterilize the jars and lids. 

“It’s true that they’re clean, because they’ve been washed, but they’re not microbe free,” Sean says. “So use the jar lifter to plunge the jars into the boiling water. Wait at least 15 minutes or just until you’re ready to fill them, then pull the jars out, using the jar lifter, and dump the hot water back into the pot before setting them on the folded towel.” As for the lids, he adds, “put them in the mixing bowl and ladle in a cup or two of boiling water.”

 Vinegar, salt, maple syrup, spices, sliced garlic, and carrots simmer on the stovetop.
Above: Vinegar, salt, maple syrup, spices, sliced garlic, and carrots simmer on the stovetop.

“This is the point at which we make our pickles,” Sean says.

“The most basic recipe for the nonfermented variety includes vinegar, salt, and some spices,” he explains. “We need the spices for flavor, and nothing else. The salt tastes good, but it also curbs bacterial growth. However, the most significant detail is the acidity of the vinegar, which must be at least five percent in order to lower the pH level of our pickles and brine to at least 4.6, creating the kind of high-acid brew that inhibits the survival of microbial bugs.

S. Pajot in action.
Above: S. Pajot in action.

“Vinegar alone is often enough to properly preserve vegetables; you don’t necessarily need to cook your pickles,” Sean says. “But it does help kill bacteria. It more deeply infuses the brine with the flavor of the spices. And I think it improves the texture of most veggies.”

 “Use a funnel, some tongs, a slotted spoon, and a measuring cup to transfer the vegetables, spices, and brine,” Sean says. “Yes, you could do without one or two of these tools, but they make it a lot easier to fill your jars without any messy kitchen incidents that waste hours’ worth of work or leave permanent scars.”
Above: “Use a funnel, some tongs, a slotted spoon, and a measuring cup to transfer the vegetables, spices, and brine,” Sean says. “Yes, you could do without one or two of these tools, but they make it a lot easier to fill your jars without any messy kitchen incidents that waste hours’ worth of work or leave permanent scars.”

Try Sean’s recipe for carrot pickles:

Spicy Pickled Rainbow Carrot Spears

Plant-based diet, as art.
Above: Plant-based diet, as art.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound rainbow carrots, quartered lengthwise, then cut into four-inch sticks
  • 2 ½ cups apple cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon pickling or kosher salt
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 teaspoon crushed dried chiles with seeds
  • 5 cloves garlic, sliced widthwise

Combine vinegar, salt, maple syrup, the spices, and sliced garlic with a half cup of water in an eight-quart preserving pan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and simmer for five minutes. Add the carrots, and cook for another five minutes.

The pickles are still hot. The jars and lids are still hot. Put them together, using a funnel, tongs, slotted spoon, and measuring cup to transfer the mixture to the jars.

If there are air bubbles floating on the surface of the brine, take a chopstick and pop them. (“An oxygen-less jar is one more factor that will keep microorganisms from colonizing your pickles,” Sean explains.) Next, clean the edge of each jar with a damp paper towel, pop on the lids, and screw on the bands until snug. “Don’t crank them too tight. You’ll want to eventually open these things. They also shouldn’t be too tight because all of the air needs to escape from the jars while they’re being processed in the canning pot. ”

Another crucial tip: “Make sure to leave what’s called head space, a half inch for pickles, between the food and the rim. It is the thing that allows for a vacuum to be created and an airtight seal to form after the jars have been pulled out of the pot and they’re cooling.”

With the jar lifter, load the now-full jars into the pot. “They should be evenly spaced, sitting neatly on the wire rack, at least an inch underwater,” Sean says. “Add more water, if needed. Turn up the heat, if needed. Then watch it boil.”

The processing time for canned goods differs from recipe to recipe—sometimes 10 minutes, other times 20, even occasionally 30—and there will be added time if your kitchen happens to reside at an elevation of 1,001 feet or higher. “For example, we gave our spicy carrots a 15-minute boil. But if you were canning in Isabella, Minnesota, at 2,000 feet above sea level, then you’d have to tack on five extra minutes.”

Altitude Added Time:

  • 1,001 to 3,000 feet 5 minutes
  • 3,001 to 6,000 feet 10 minutes
  • 6,001 to 8,000 feet 15 minutes
  • 8,001 to 10,000 feet 20 minutes

“Once you’ve reached the prescribed processing time, switch off the heat,” Sean instructs. “Give the jars five more minutes in the hot water, then pull them out with the jar lifter and arrange them on your second towel, in a diamond pattern or a figure eight or whatever seems like fun. All that’s important now is leaving them alone for the next 12 to 24 hours. Don’t shake them. Don’t poke them. Don’t unscrew and rescrew the bands. Just wait, and enjoy the tinny popping sounds coming from the kitchen. That means the lids are sealing.”

After letting the jars rest for the half or whole day, test them. “Jab the middle of each lid with your finger; it shouldn’t pop up and down,” Sean says. “There’s also the so-called lift test, which requires you to remove the screw band and pull up on the lid from its edges with the fingertips of one hand. If the lid holds, we are done.

The modern-day root cellar.
Above: The modern-day root cellar.

“Now, you’ve only got to worry about giving tours of your pretty pantry,” says Sean. “And eating everything.”

For more of Michelle Adams’s recent adventures, see Before & After: A Garden Makeover in Michigan for Editor Michelle Adams. For more on a plant-based diet, see:

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