gear up for food-preservation season, with erica strauss (giveaway!)

WPA canning asparagus 1943ARE 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?

DpynuLymwtD_TDjalgqprUhr1EJU0z1Mtyb-exorzo0On 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.

Read along as you listen to the June 15, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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.]

Tomato sauce in freezer jarsQ. 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?

parsley pesto cubes 3Q. 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…

applesauce to freeze in jarsQ. ..yes, it is [photo above]…

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?

IMG_2314A. 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.

Christmas-Lima-heirloom-beanA. 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.

71sLTPvRcCL._SL1500_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

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. 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 using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

enter to win the canning gear

51MCZu8mYgLERICA STRAUSS AND I each bought some favorite canning gear to share with lucky readers. One impromptu “kit” is up for grabs on each of our websites, including:

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.)

  1. Earen says:

    I have nothing left from last year. This year I rejoined a CSA, which means lots of good produce! So far I have made strawberry lavender jam and a big batch of kimchi.

  2. Shirley Taylor says:

    I have apple pecan pie filling and cowboy candy left from 2014,but it was late in the year when I made them,so we can enjoy them this summer.
    I have a pressure cooker that I haven’t used but twice,20 years ago!
    I’m going to pull it out tonight and get familiar with it again.
    Then,to overcome the fear,I’ll can beans first.
    Then watch out! :)

  3. Shannon Kay Taylor says:

    There were some plums growing wild around here. I made quite a bit of plum bbq sauce. It’s good. Guess I just don’t use BBQ sauce all that much. :) Our freezer has some unprocessed plums. Might use those up in some green smoothies. My Kale is already set to be used this season!

  4. Natasha says:

    I still have frozen fruits. So many frozen fruits. And so much jams. This was a tough year for creativity, in some ways.

    In other ways, it was great. I used up all the tomatoes (and dehydrated skins!) from 2013, and fast. I figured out a number of things I didn’t know how to use.

    Stashing season has not only not happened, like last year, it’s largely been delayed for my household. Wee.

  5. Stacey Hoang says:

    Hi there! All I can say is count me in. I am dying to learn the basics of canning with a small space and very limited budget. Thank you!

  6. Ashley says:

    I have a bag of grape pulp in my freezer that I brought with us when we moved a year ago! Not sure what I’m going to do with it…

  7. Jessi says:

    I have nothing left from 2014 because I moved last fall and actually didn’t have time to garden at all over the summer. This summer is a fresh start. I have a counter full of tomatoes that I plan on canning today. Refrigerator pickles will be next.

  8. Krista says:

    I have several green beans and a few tomatoes left. I plan to can more of each, and to learn about canning dry beans and try that this summer!

  9. Jacqueline Lesowitz says:

    I only have vegetable stock left from last year. I am trying succession planting this year with the objective to learn how to can and have more healthy options to eat and cook this winter.

  10. Donna says:

    I’m in good shape. Won’t be canning for a couple of months (Northern Minnesota) Have 2 pints of crushed tomatoes, 2 jars of pickled beets and 3 jars of Honey Sunshine Bread and Butter Pickles left from 2014. Could sure use a few more jars, though! None of my give-aways made it back home this year :)

  11. Hope says:

    I moved to the Midwest again a couple of years ago and am still quite green to canning. I would love to learn! I made a real mess of some apples last year trying to make applesauce, and that’s as far as I’ve gotten.

  12. Caroline says:

    I still have a lot of jam! And some frozen fruits. The frozen strawberries and peaches and canned tomatoes are all gone though.

  13. Barbee says:

    I have a lot frozen herbs, garlic and ‘pesto’ from last year. Since I just brought in my garlic this week and the basil is going gangbusters, looks like I’ll be composting at least a small part of last years cache. Hate to do it but fresh is really MUCH better.

    I had to laugh at all the talk about the ‘economics’ of growing and canning your own food-since I started growing my own veggies, I now eat some of the most expensive vittles on the planet. I think buying at the store is WAY cheaper than growing your own, fresh, organics.
    But the fact of the matter is that I don’t do it to save money, I do it because I love it. I love the challenges that each and every year bring and the thrill of bringing in that perfectly formed and flavored, vine ripe tomato. Goal!

    Thanks for the website and the giveaway. I learned about hugleculture from you and have built my own beds this year.

  14. Pat Miller says:

    . Still have some tomatoes and string beans in the freezer. 3 jars of Strawberry jam and 1 jar of apple butter. I hope to try some different recipes this year…

  15. Barb says:

    Frozen crab apples from last year’s bumper crop and rhubarb. This year, however, red fire ant invasion of elderberry, apple tree and organic veg gardens is threatening any bounty for canning. Does anyone have a pet/people friendly way of getting rid of the destructive and quite painful little blighters???

  16. Sam says:

    I have a few jars of zucchini salsa and some pear butter left down on the shelves. This year I have been making kim chee and am going try pickling some garlic scapes on my kitchen counter and see what magic that brings.

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