Putting Canning In Perspective

Sharon June 7th, 2011

I wrote Independence Days: A Guide to Sustainable Food Preservation and Storage because when it came time for me to take the next steps in eating locally and homegrown – to holding some of summer’s bounty for the long winter, there wasn’t any book that really covered what all I needed to know. After writing A Nation of Farmers about the “Why” of growing your own and eating locally, I ran into hundreds of people who had the same problem. They wanted to keep eating the same great food after the CSA boxes stopped coming or the farmer’s market closed down, but they didn’t know how.

One of the things I found as I became more expert at food preservation, and started to spend more time teaching and talking about it is that most of us have a mental image in our heads when we hear “preservation” mentioned. We think about canning, and about our grandmothers standing over a kettle in August, often for days on end. Indeed, when I did interviews they almost always began with someone’s memory of putting by food – and always by canning.

Now canning is a great technique for certain foods, and if it is done right at home, it is both safe and yields a much better tasting product than any industrial scale food could ever offer. And how would it not?  Instead of a company buying a whole orchard’s worth of peaches, all standardized to produce good canning quality but little flavor, shipped for several days after green picking, and then industrially processed, you can take peak-ripe food, often bought very cheaply at the height of the season or grown in your own garden, and process it to your own taste. I do a fair amount of canning, and I enjoy it – in part because I also don’t spend weeks over a hot kettle.

But assuming that canning is the main form of food preservation available to us doesn’t serve us all that well. People who have that mental image of grandma with a hot pressure canner (or worse, the image of an explolding pressure canner – old ones did explode sometimes, but they don’t anymore) immediately leap to the conclusion that storing and preserving food is too much work. Plus, for those of low income there’s the barrier of acquiring equipment, and it takes time to build up a supply of used canning jars – and new ones are pricey.  You either need new lids or better, the reusable ones, but they also can be costly.

Now all of these issues can be overcome – it is possible to shift the season of some canning. For example, I plant my main crop of cucumbers in late June or early July, rather than in May, like my neighbors. This means I’m not making pickles and running the stove in August, but doing it in late September, when the heat of my stove is wanted anyway. By using other food preservation techniques, and only canning when that’s the best way for my family, I get more free time, and cooler. Laying out sweet corn in my solar dehydrator in August means that after a short bit of cutting, I go in and drink iced tea and allow the sun to do my work for me. Preserving food doesn’t have to be hard – although there is some work involved, of course. But as long as we’ve got the assumption that it must be, we won’t experiment.

Moreover, the other reason this bothers me is that canning is a fairly new technique.  It was developed for Napoleon’s army in the early 19th century, so we’ve had canning for less than two centuries. On the other hand, human beings have been putting food by as long as there have been human beings – in cold or dry periods where crops do not grow, and for years of crop failure, drought or disaster, taking the excess of summer and autumn and putting it aside for times to come is one of the most basic and necessary of human activities. While canning is very useful for some things, if human beings couldn’t store up food for dry or cold seasons and eat well without canning, we’d all pretty much be dead. I don’t like to give canning pride of place simply because doing so crowds out the other ways we can preserve food, and our long and deep history of holding summer through the winter or the dry season.

Preserving food is simply too useful a technique to be abandoned because we assume that preservation means “canning.” During high summer, at the produce peak, most farmers have bulk quantities of produce for *vastly* less money than retail prices. The same farmer that sells tomatoes for $2.50 lb may have a bushel for $20 (these are real prices, local to me, your own will vary by location and the season). A bushel of tomatoes will keep you in salsa and sun dried and fresh salad tomatoes for quite a while if you can come up with the $20, and will get you five times as many tomatoes as the same $20 would get you buying retail.

Potatoes in the fall run 70 cents a pound or more here – or 50lbs for $12. It doesn’t take a math genius – and while many smaller families might quail at the thought of using up 50lbs of potatoes, it actually isn’t that hard if you can use the simple technique of natural cold storage (commonly known as root cellaring, although you don’t actually need a cellar, just any place that stays cool and doesn’t freeze – an enclosed porch, spare bedroom closed off from the house, an old fridge or freezer on a porch, a garage, hay bales in a barn). You’ll save a lot of money, trips to the store, and if you don’t eat them all, you can plant them in the spring when they begin to sprout and make more potatoes.

Season extension, natural fermentation, cheesemaking, dehydrating, preserving with sugar, salt or alcohol, natural cool storage – all of these are great ways to store some food. And with some judicious canning, together they make a complex and wonderful diet for the seasons of our lives in which things do not grow. But no one technique is all.

Whenever I do interviews or teach classes, the first thing I do is try to very gently let people know that this isn’t all about canning. Sometimes someone confesses that the thought of pressure canning makes them nervous. What I tell them is this – it is true that pressure canning can involve risk of botulism bacteria. However, so does eating industrially canned food – there’s no magic in the industrial process that precludes this (in fact, there was an outbreak in commercially canned chili just a couple of years ago). If you are attentive and pressure can correctly, there is no reason to be afraid of it.

However, there’s also no need to fetishize canning. Most of the other techniques we have used over the years to store food fell into disfavor, not because the techniques were valueless but because of the excitement generated by canning in the first half of the 20th century. Like baby formula and suburbia, canning was seen as modern, progressive, scientific and clean. And like baby formula and suburbia, things that might, in small quantities have been extremely useful were taken to ridiculous extremes. At the same time we were giving up the breast largely because of our sense that formula was progress, we were also giving up natural cold storage, lactofermentation and drying food.

Canning is a great addition to our repetoir – some things couldn’t be the same without it. But it is only one of many tools. The trick is for us to reclaim what is worthwhile about our past (actually that may be a large chunk of our overarching project, not just our food project) and to put things like canning into perspective – as part, but not the whole of the basic human project of provisioning ourselves.


13 Responses to “Putting Canning In Perspective”

  1. Karin says:

    I have finally come to this realization. While I take great pride in the rows of jars that line my self. I also find it hard to convince my family that they want to eat another serving of pickled beets after a full winter of eating pickled beets. So as I have progressed in my canning adventures I have refined the list to include salsas,chutneys, jams, some tomato stuffs and fewer pickled in a jar stuff.

    I also found that by doing this I have changed what gets planted in my garden so that more veggies can go into cold storage without as much effort as canning.

  2. Andrea G. says:

    Now you’ve got me curious. What *is* the best way to dehydrate sweet corn?

    Have a great Shavuot!

  3. Carys says:

    My very favourite book on preserving is “Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation” by Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivante. It’s a French book that was translated into English and published in the USA by Chelsea Green Publishing.

  4. Frogdancer says:

    It’s funny. Canning seems to be a very American thing. In Australia it’s virtually unknown.

    I was intrigued about it and started to look at canners in Amazon, but then decided that we don’t eat tinned food very often so the effort of canning would go to waste.

    The one thing I DO like about it though, is that it’s not reliant on a steady stream of electricity to keep the food viable, like freezing, so canning is still on my radar…

  5. kathy says:

    I use my pressure canner often for meat as I don’t like to rely on my freezer and the convenience of canned meat is wonderful. I also can spaghetti sauce with loads of other vegetables in it so that is another instant meal. I no longer bother to can things like beets, carrots or corn as they hold so well with other methods. I water bath loads of applesauce, peaches and salsa. Other fruits are dried, made into leather or frozen. It pains me but we really don’t eat much jam. A couple of batches for us and a couple for gifts is more than enough, a targedy as I love to mae jams and jellies. Bruce is building my summer kitchen. At least the heat will be outside.

  6. Rachel says:

    …the simple technique of natural cold storage (commonly known as root cellaring, although you don’t actually need a cellar, just any place that stays cool and doesn’t freeze – an enclosed porch, spare bedroom closed off from the house, an old fridge or freezer on a porch, a garage, hay bales in a barn).

    I wish it was as simple for me as it is supposed to be! I’ve tried root cellaring onions and carrots in my basement for the past two winters, and have lost most of them. The humidity is just fine, but it’s not nearly cold enough. My porch, though enclosed, regularly drops below zero–it’s much warmer than outside, but that just means that if it’s -30 outside then it’s -20 on the porch (and there’s no room for a fridge or freezer).

    I would eventually like to build an insulated root “cellar” room in the corner of my basement… but until I can do that, I’d love suggestions on how to root cellar in areas where it gets really cold in the winter!

    (I really wish I still lived in the house I rented in my first year of university–it had a genuine, dirt-floored stone-walled root cellar!)

  7. EngineerChic says:

    Same problem here, Rachel. I’d like to blame it on the new-fangled overly air-tight houses … but ours was built in 1960′s, so it isn’t really airtight!

    We rely on the freezer to preserve a small fraction of the summer bounty – mostly berries that we get at PYO local farms.

  8. Nicole says:

    Rachel, EngineerChic: I suggest “Rott Cellaring” by Mike and Nancy Bubel. They include many old fashioned cold storage methods that don’t require an indoor root cellar structure. My grandpa vouched for many of these methods, having used them as a kid in WV.

    If money is tight, the UN FAO web pages on food preservation include many of the illustrations from that book.

  9. Michelle says:

    I recently purchased A Nation of Farmers and I’m really enjoying it! I’m panning to do some canning, freezing and drying this year for the first time. Very exciting. Look forward to reading your future posts!

  10. Nena says:

    When I was growing up, we did the typical canning and freezing you’ve described. We also had a root cellar, smoked meats and used dehydration. I’m experimenting more w/ dehydration, smoking and lactic fermentation to restore long unused skills (some only memories of assisting) and to add new ones, so I found this post to be very timely for me. Once I returned to canning and freezing, like you, I began to quickly figure out the costs of these methods and it only made common sense to integrate the methods that are both more energy efficient and less costly as part and parcel of a food preservation strategy.

  11. Karin says:

    I was wondering if you could build, very simply, something that will insulate your veggies on your porch. So perhaps you put your carrots on your porch but you surround then in a square of haybales to insulate them just a little…

    Just thinking off the top of my head here…

  12. Rachel says:

    @EngineerChic– yes, mine is a 1940s stone-walled basement… the leakiness is offset by the furnace-in-a-very-small-space-ness!

    @Nicole– yes, that’s a great book! (And you’ve prompted me to order it from the library again.) Alas, it gets too cold here in the winter for most of the outdoor storage options to work without some really significant construction–it regularly hits -30C, and I’m on bedrock so I can’t dig very far down. And if I’m going to build something, I may as well do it in my basement…

    @Karin– I’m thinking that an insulated container on my enclosed porch might be my next experiment. I don’t really have room for hay bales, but maybe a cooler inside an insulated box or something?

  13. Nicole says:

    @Rachel – With a furnace in the basement I’m guessing your basement gets pretty warm in the winter? If so, insulating from the furnace might be less cost effective than insulating from the cold outside.

    In an ideal world, I’d build a cellar outside the basement, underground, with a vent from the basement to the cellar to bring a little warmth to the cellar when needed to keep things from freezing.

    Also in that ideal world, I’m put that vent on a temperature controller so you wouldn’t have to manually open and close it. :) That’s less difficult than it sounds; people do this for greenhouses all the time, but I haven’t seen a non-electrical version. Sun permitting, a small solar panel and marine battery could provide the power.

    Alternately, you could insulate the porch and/or add a passive solar heater to the porch if you get sun on the porch. (I’m thinking the style peole build for windows.) As a bonus, it would help reduce heat losses from the house to the porch.

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