The challenges and joys of home canning
by Dawn Emery Ballantine
Most folks I have spoken to about canning admit to feelings of trepidation during their first attempt—would it really preserve the flavor, would the jars seal up properly, would the results make anyone ill, would it just end up a waste of some really good produce. All of these bounced around my mind during my first attempt shortly after moving to Anderson Valley nearly 15 years ago.
I come from Ohio, and although I grew up with grandmothers who canned various vegetables and pickles most of my childhood summers, my immediate family found the results suspect and were reluctant to try any of it, except for the pickles. I guess they figured that much vinegar would kill anything.
As the rebel of the family, I couldn’t wait to get out on my own and try all the things my family frowned upon. With the urging of my friend, Judy (more from her below), I agreed to try my hand at it in time to enter the results in my very first Mendocino County Fair & Apple Show.
I settled on a slow-cooked, spiced apple butter, figuring that it had enough sugar so that, even if the seal failed, it wouldn’t harm anyone in the short term. I won a blue ribbon for it and liked it so much that I made more for holiday gifts. (I even sent it to my family in Ohio. No, they never did try it. I wasn’t surprised.)
I was lucky enough to run across a “canning set” at a local thrift store, which included the giant pot for the water bath, a submersion tool to lower all the jars at once into the water bath, and a “jar picker” device to remove individual jars from the boiling water. The best $4.99 I’ve ever spent.
My friend, Judy, was lucky enough to grow up on a farm in central California, and it’s there she learned canning from her mom. She laughingly tells of trying her first canning results on the dogs, saying “When they didn’t die, I figured I’d mastered it.” (Don’t fret. She’s the biggest animal lover I know, and she wouldn’t have used her pets for Guinea pigs. She just has a wicked sense of humor.) When I asked for her favorite canning recipe, she said, “If you live near the ocean, you have access to the ‘chicken of the sea’ . . . Albacore Tuna.”
Judy recently bought a batch of tuna from the awesome women of Princess Seafoods in Fort Bragg. She bought 30 pounds of tuna and had them loined for $5.00 per fish. She says “Loining the fish will cost a few extra dollars, but it is well worth the money. If you don’t mind having the head, skin, etc., you can loin them yourself. The raccoons will love you for it. There are several ‘do-it-yourself’ videos for this on You-Tube.”
Judy’s efforts yielded 42 one-half pint jars of tuna using the water bath method. She continues, “Frankly, I’m terrified of pressure cookers after a scary incident when I was a child, so I just feel safer doing it that way. I make my canned tuna outdoors on camping stoves so the house doesn’t smell like a fishery.”
Judy claims that the only way to eat tuna is with Best Foods mayonnaise. “Best tuna you’ll ever eat!” Having sampled her tuna more than once, I enthusiastically agree.
I’ve never lost my nervousness about canning, but I’ve been helped along the way by a couple of good resources on canning and preserving food. Look up the Ball Blue Book, “the go-to canning guide for over 100 years” according to Mother Earth News. I particularly like Stocking Up and The Complete Book of Small-Batch Preserving. Best, though, would be to find someone who will mentor you through the process until you have the skills to save and enjoy the abundance of the harvest throughout the year.
Dawn’s Spiced Apple Butter
Pick about 30 good-sized apples from your trees or the store. A mix is good, depending on how tart or mild you like your apples.
Wash, core, and chunk them, or use the handy-dandy Apple peeler-corerslicer (which I also found at a local thrift store!). Put the apples in a crock pot or oven safe dish and cook for 10 hours (at 250 if you’re using an oven).
After 10 hours, add more apples and the following spices to your taste:
- 2-4 tsp cinnamon
- ¼ - ½ tsp allspice
- ½ - 1 tsp cloves
- a vanilla bean and a bit of cardamom
Cook another 10 hours or so and adjust spicing. Continue with a final 10 hours of cooking, then adjust spices and add calvados or brandy, if you like. If you like it chunky, leave as is. Otherwise, blend with an immersion blender.
Leave the apple mix warming and set your water bath to boil. Be sure there’s enough water in the pot to completely cover the jars. Sterilize the jars and their lids, making sure everything is super clean.
Fill the jars to ½" from the top, wipe off the lip of the jar, and screw on the lids. Put the jars in the water bath and bring the water back to a boil. Keep the jars in boiling water for a full 10 minutes.
Remove the jars carefully and place on a heat-proof surface, letting them rest undisturbed. You will hear them pop as the jars seal. This is a good sign! If any jars don’t pop, put them in the fridge and eat them within a couple of weeks.
Judy’s Best Canned Tuna
Bring the water in your canning pots to a rolling boil. Sterilize the jars and lids in boiling water. Wash, trim, and cut the tuna into pieces that will fit into half-pint jars. Be sure and remove the dark blood lines, or the result will be a bitter tuna. Pack the sterilized jars firmly with cut tuna and sprinkle ½ tsp salt over the top. (Note: the fat in the tuna creates enough liquid to boil over the fish and spread the salt around.) Wipe the jar rims clean (as leftover schmutz can prevent proper sealing). Put on the lids and tighten. Place the jars into boiling water, making sure they are fully submerged. Keep the jars covered in water and boiling for four (4) hours. You will need to add boiling water over time to keep the jars submerged. After 4 hours, remove the jars and let them cool. If they pop and the seal
Dawn Emery Ballantine lives in Anderson Valley where she sells books, edits this magazine, and cans when she is feeling particularly adventuresome.