gear up for food-preservation season, with erica strauss (giveaway!)
ARE YOU READY TO PUT UP your coming harvests—to can dry beans and crushed tomatoes, make pestos for the freezer, get pickling and more? Now’s the time–not when 18 pounds of green beans and 84 dangerously ripe tomatoes are sitting on your kitchen counter–to form a food-preservation plan for what you’re growing this year, to put it up for the long haul.
Erica Strauss of NWEdible dot com and I discussed how—plus we’re each offering giveaways of key canning gear to help in the effort. (And no, that’s not us in the 1940s photo above from the Library of Congress–but we both think food preservation is more fun when tackled with friends.)
Even if you’re a CSA shareholder or a farm-market shopper, and not a vegetable gardener, now’s likewise the moment to make plans for when the bounty you’ll purchase comes in. Do you have fresh lids for canning jars? Enough pickling salt or citric acid? Have you eaten your way through last year’s canned, dried and frozen goodies to even make room for incoming batches?
On my public-radio show and podcast (listen on the player below, or at this link; it’s the June 15, 2015 show), I asked Erica’s advice about food preservation from another perspective than my one-person-household, vegetarian, Northeastern perspective. She’s part of a household of four omnivores in Seattle, plus ducks and chickens and lots more who live in her homestead-style suburban landscape. Erica’s also a former professional cook, with a new book coming out this fall called “The Hands-On Home: A Seasonal Guide to Cooking, Preserving, and Natural Homekeeping.”
As promised, some of our favorite gadgets are up for grabs in a two-part giveaway. Scroll all the way down, entering by commenting in the box at the bottom of the page. But first, listen in, or read along—or both:
read/listen: my food-preserving q&a
with erica strauss
Q. So how are you, Erica?
A. I’m well, but I’m aware that I’ve got bounty breathing down my neck. I have to get out ahead of it or it’s going to eat me. That’s the way I feel.
Q. Eat or be eaten, huh? [Laughter.] I know you don’t just go out into your garden, and find lots of ripe produce, and say, “Oh, I think I’ll do some canning today.” It’s not a spontaneous thing, and then voila, and you snap your fingers and there’s a pantry full of produce.
A. I don’t have the scale of yard to grow all of the produce I want to put up for the year, so I have to have an awareness of when the farmers’ markets are going to have certain things in bulk, and where to go get it. And because I do try and source a lot of what we eat locally—from my own backyard and from these farmers—I have to know what I’m doing ahead of time, or it’s just not going to happen. A plan is essential.
Q. Last year we had a cool summer, and I could tell about halfway through that I wasn’t going to ripen enough tomatoes for the sauce I like to make. So I inquired right away—because I knew it would be something other people were experiencing. I reached out to a local organic farmer and asked if I could order some cases of paste tomatoes. And he said he could fit me into his schedule.
So right now is a good time to take stock of your situation, replant things with some succession sowing, and also connect with potential vendors.
A. Absolutely; you don’t want to wait till late August to order those cases of paste tomatoes. All those people who ordered early will be ahead of you, and the farmer will shrug and say, “We’re all out.” It’s not a widget in a factory; there’s lead time with all these natural resources that we have to account for when we’re thinking about trying to eat more from our local region.
Q. Should we set some goals—is that the first step? What are you doing right now? I feel like one thing I have to do is take stock and say: I still have umpteen jars of applesauce, but last year I didn’t do enough tomatoes and I ran out in April. An inventory.
A. I think the best place to start, whether someone is an experienced canner and food preserver or someone is just getting into it, is to go throw open your kitchen cupboards, and go out into your garage if you keep food there, and go into your pantry and wherever, and look at what’s there right now. You might look into your pantry, for example, and notice that you have 12 jars of green tomato mincemeat from 2002 [laughter] that are realistically never going to get eaten, but that you might be completely out of basics, like crushed tomatoes [below].
If you are looking at store-bought products in your pantry, you might look at all of these canned beans that you buy—and that should be your inspiration for what you should be preserving. What you eat needs to dictate what you preserve.
Q. And just so they know: The 2002 mincemeat…by now it’s probably talking back when you go down into the basement [laughter] so don’t eat it!
A. Just toss it. But as you know, canning and food preservation takes time, and energy, and money—and it takes the resources of this food. It’s sometimes hard for people to let go of things they’ve canned. In fact, I have a funny story:
The first batch of canning jars I got, I sent out a plea for unused jars on my local Freecycle group. One woman responded, and said, “You can have all my canning jars. There’s just one problem: They’re all full of food that’s a decade old.”
I went to her home and climbed up on her counter, because she had decorated the top of her cabinets with all of these canned cherries and apricots that was all now dark brown. I loaded all that stuff up, scraped it all out, and sanitized the jars. But it was a little sad, because you think of all the effort that went into that, and she never got to enjoy it.
The first place to start: Let’s preserve food we’re going to eat. [More on what you should preserve, from Erica’s website.]
Q. Some things I cannot live without having on hand all the time: the tomatoes I mentioned before. I make a quick red sauce and actually freeze it [above] these days; I use to can it. Applesauce: I do all my own, because I have apple trees. Those are things I do for enough of for the whole year, otherwise I feel like I’ve screwed up. What are your mainstays?
A. Absolutely tomatoes. I can mine because I’m feeding a family of four and we’re big eaters—it really doesn’t make sense for me to dedicate all that freezer space. I also like the convenience of having something ready-to-go—just pop it and use it. So crushed tomatoes are the Number 1 most useful item I put up. [Crushed tomato recipe from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.]
I also really love canning my own dry beans, so I have the convenience of a can of beans from the grocery store—except I’ve saved a lot of money by using dry beans, and I get to avoid some of the BPA in the cans. [How to can beans in a pressure canner, from NCHFP.]
Other things I think are versatile: pestos. I do a ton of them. You do, too?
Q. I agree. With herbs, I live in the Northeast so everything’s out of season many months of the year in winter. They cost a lot—an organic bunch of basil or parsley costs a number of dollars, and it’s often not in excellent condition in winter. So I freeze a lot of herbs.
You mentioned economics—the money. I have to confess with some things I put up, I’m not saving money over buying it in the store. But I’m not wasting all the cans, the BPA-filled cans—the garbage is one thing I’m reducing. But I’m not economizing literal dollars on everything; some I am. Do you find that, too?
A. I think this is where people have to really assess what their values are. We [in Seattle] don’t have the type of climate where tomatoes reliably ripen by the bushel, so most years I actually buy my tomatoes from a farmer in eastern Washington who grows them in a way I’m very comfortable with. But because I’m buying the raw materials for those tomatoes, the cost to me is sometimes even more than if I just went to the local warehouse store and bought a giant Number 10 can of commercially canned tomatoes.
I feel like there are some advantages to doing it kind of the slow-food way. I know the people who are growing my food. I’m supporting the economy of my local farmers. I’m reducing that waste. I’m not having to think much about what’s in the can lining that I’m feeding to my kids.
If you are able with the climate you’re in and the amount of land you have to grow all the raw ingredients you preserve, it can be very cost-effective in a dollars-and-cents way. But even if you have to buy some of the raw ingredients, you have some advantages: You get things at the peak of ripeness when they’re the cheapest.
But it’s true: I don’t know I’d say to some who was struggling financially: You should absolutely go buy organic tomatoes from your local farmer. We all have to make those judgments for our own situation.
Q. And some things, like making jam: You use a lot of fruit, and some types are very expensive, and cook down to a small amount of jam relatively speaking. It’s not like you’re getting free jam. [Laughter.] But it is your own, and you can control the amount of sugar in it, and you know where the fruit came from and on and on.
On the other hand, cucumbers and zucchinis are cheap in peak season. Even if you had to buy them—let alone if you grew them from a few seeds—you could make a lot of pickles. What does white vinegar cost at the supermarket by the gallon, a few dollars? So your basic dill pickle is a cost saving, compared to buying handmade artisanal pickles. I’m shocked at the price of jarred pickles, and I know they put a lot of work into it, but I can make them much more cheaply with just vinegar and water and salt and dill and garlic.
A. I think this really gets to the crux of it: You pay for quality, one way or another. We compare the cost of doing something by a more DIY route to the mass-market equivalent, but that’s not a fair comparison. The quality difference is so huge.
If you’re going to do an economic assessment of if it’s worth it, make sure you’re comparing applesauce to applesauce. The kind of applesauce you’re making is probably sugar-free, from a mix of apples…
A. …to something that would be an equivalent to buy in the store. Usually what I find when I look at this: I can get cheaper products, but not cheaper products of the same quality.
Q. Let’s talk gear a little—speaking of things to invest in. I hear you have a Can-o-Rama each summer, by the way. [Laughter.]
A. True—this is something we do, especially for tomatoes. I know that every year we’ll use something like 100 to 150 quarts of canned tomatoes. I know it sounds like a lot, but I use them in soups, stews, sauces, I have kids who like spaghetti.
What my husband and I have taken to doing the last few years is rather than piecemealing 20 pounds of tomatoes at a time, we order in these cases of local canning tomatoes—‘Roma’ types—from right over the mountains. We just clear the calendar for a weekend.
We get the grandparents to watch the kids, and we just can and can until our eyes get a little blurry, and put aside an entire year’s worth of food that weekend. We make it into this big, fun project. And then we have a beer and put our feet up for a good couple of days. It’s more fun with another person.
Q. I learned to can originally when I got my weekend home almost 30 years ago. A woman down the road, who is about 20 years older, said she was going to be canning one weekend—she’d seen that I was gardening, and wondered if I was interested. And so she taught me. We did a lot of different projects—pickles, jam, and they even did meats. She had an extra set of hands; I was getting the learning. And we both ended up with lots of good food.
Do you have a lot of gear? As I said, I freeze a lot now, in a couple of small freezers—but do you have a pressure canner, and a food dehydrator? How much gear do you have?
A. I would say mildly obscene amount. My husband is a home brewer, so that’s another method of food preservation that we do. And that’s very gear-intensive; it involves a lot of very large pots. In our garage, we have a lot of very large pots, and during Can-o-Rama those get taken out and cleaned up, and we’re able to do a dozen jars of tomatoes or whatever at a time.
I do have a pressure canner [this one, to be specific, on Amazon; photo above], because I can meats and dry beans and stock and other low-acid foods. That’s absolutely essential from a safety perspective.
The one thing that might surprise people to know is that I don’t have a traditional water-bath canning kettle—one of those enameled speckled deals. Don’t have one, don’t like them; I had one and got rid of it.
Q. The other tricky thing about them: When I got a stove with a glass top, I learned that those canners with the rippled bottoms don’t work on a cooktop. You need a flat-bottomed pot. I use a giant pot not unlike what you store in your garage.
Let’s talk about dry beans—you mentioned how they’re a low-acid food. I get dry beans from the food coop—and this year I’m growing some—and I cook them and put them up in portion-size containers and freeze them. I usually have garbanzos, pintos and black beans in there—and if I want to have rice and beans, or a side of beans, or add beans to some of my vegetable soup, I’ve got beans. But you pressure can them.
A. It’s a very similar concept to yours—pre-cooking the beans so you don’t have to go through the overnight process of pre-soaking them or long simmering. Beans are nutritious, economical—they’re in so many ways such a frugal food. But they do take a little effort to prepare properly.
What I found is that I could get all the benefit of a canned bean with all of the price advantage of bulk dry beans. Even the best-quality organic dry beans are relatively inexpensive, and the process of pressure canning them is quite straight-forward. Like you I have garbanzo beans, black beans, red beans and maybe the small white beans.
Q. I love black-eyed peas, too.
A. So just like you have the portions in your freezer, I have them in my pantry and can just grab them. Beans always add a hardy substantial-ness to a meal.
Q. You make a kind of curry-in-a-hurry with garbanzos, don’t you?
A. I always have commercially canned coconut milk in my pantry, because it’s so useful. So basically a can of garbanzo beans, a can of coconut milk; if you’ve got some fresh ginger or onion or garlic you sauté that up, dump the garbanzos and coconut milk in there, and add seasonings. I like to use those Southeast Asian-style Thai curry pastes for adding a lot of flavor easily.
If I’ve got some chopped tomato, I’ll put that in there, too, and just simmer it. Served over brown rice it’s really nice, and it doesn’t take much time—only time for the sauce to thicken. It’s a fast vegetarian option; it’s always there, a pantry staple.
Q. Now back to pesto: The big debate is whether to put cheese in or not before you put it up. You don’t can your pestos; you freeze them, right?
A. Don’t ever attempt to can pesto; it’s not safe, and it will be disgusting. [Laughter.]
My goal with pesto is to create a versatile basis for whatever I want it to be in the future. So I do a walnut and lemon pesto. I do walnut because the traditional pine nuts are very expensive, and hard to find really fresh; they go rancid quickly. I use walnuts, and put in some lemon, this sort of very brightly flavored pesto. It’s not cheap—it’s got olive oil, and the walnuts, and basil—but it’s the slightly more frugal version of a traditional pesto.
I use it as the basis for salad dressings, and sauces for fish and chicken—and just to dip bread in. It’s delicious.
Q. So we’re going to make a plan, and get our gear ready—I know, for instance, you have your favorite canning funnel [above]. And lots of recipes. If you’re a beginner and afraid to even get out the hot water-bath canner, there are my refrigerator pickles to try. [Or go a step farther and try Erica’s Turmeric Garlic Pickles. That recipe is here.]
more food-preservation advice
- canning safety, from Erica Strauss
- how to can beans in a pressure canner (from the National Center for Home Food Preservation)
- how to can crushed tomatoes (from NCHFP)
- Erica’s basically free thick tomato sauce (from skins and cores that are usually discarded)
- Erica’s “What Foods Should I Preserve?”
- Erica’s Canning Planning Sheet
- Erica’s Pressure Canning Planning Sheet
- how to dry homegrown beans
- homebrewing information at NWEdible dot com
prefer the podcast?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its sixth year in March 2015. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the June 15, 2015 show right here, and also use the buttons below to subscribe to future shows, free.
enter to win the canning gear
- Ball Blue Book (new edition) of preserving how-to and recipes
- a 6-pack of green Heritage pint Ball jars
- a 6-pack of green Heritage quart Ball jars
- the Norpro jar lifter
- Erica’s favorite canning funnel
- a canning scoop
All you have to do is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page, after the last reader comment, then go comment in the same place over on Erica’s website, too, at this link. Here’s my question:
What’s left in your freezer or pantry from 2014’s harvests, and has your food-stashing season started yet? Tell us a little about your plan.
Feeling shy, or have no answer? Just say, “Count me in” or something to that effect, and I will, but an answer is better. I’ll pick a winner (U.S. or Canada) after entries close at midnight Sunday, June 21; Erica will, too. Good luck to all. Again: double your chances of winning by also entering your comment on Erica’s website here.
(Photos of crushed tomatoes, canner, from Erica Strauss, NWEdible dot com. Used with permission. Funnel photo from Amazon. Disclosure: Purchases made from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission.)