In my part of the world, harvest season is now in full swing, and it’s demanding. Just picking and washing and storing nature’s bounty takes time, and the vegetables from my garden are so good and various that ambitious cooking is required just to live up to them. Adding canning on top of that? Not something I’d ever managed to do in 18 years of gardening.
Last year, however, the ridiculous bushels of cucumbers and squashes I produced prompted a unfamiliar impulse: pickle. To learn how, I ordered the most popular book on Amazon.com’s canning & preserving list: Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving: 400 Delicious and Creative Recipes for Today, edited by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine. The Ball of the title is a popular brand of canning jar and the tone is correspondingly organizational: “Preserving food in mason jars might sound old-fashioned,” the Ball Complete Book declares, “but it is as modern and practical as the latest health food trend or gourmet creation!”
The phrase “gourmet creation” is the tipoff, of course, that anything fancy here will err on the side of weirdness. Kiwi daiquiri jam, anybody, with optional green food coloring? Fortunately, there are recipes for old standards, too, and even instructions for canning roast beef, a practice that the advent of the freezer compartment would seem to have rendered obsolete. But, for me, as a beginner, Ball Complete was too sprawling, and it failed to quickly answer the question I was most anxious about: how worried should I be about poisoning my family with botulism?
Not very, says Sherri Brooks Vinton, author of Put ‘em Up: A Comprehensive Home Preserving Guide for the Creative Cook from Drying and Freezing to Canning and Pickling. Within the first paragraph of her introduction, she rebuts the two myths about canning, time-consuming and dangerous: “Home food preservation is simple and delicious, and no one was harmed in the making of this book.” She swiftly covers the safety principles—heat and acid kill the bacteria that produce the botulism toxin, so canning recipes have to be followed dutifully, with the specified amount of vinegar added and time spent in a boiling water bath. This clear, friendly book explains many food preservation methods, and is organized by ingredient, which really works for gardeners confronting a surplus of something in the yard.
Daniel Gasteiger’s Yes, You Can! And Freeze and Dry It, Too is charmingly passionate and homey. He includes recipes from his mother. He talks about freezing leftover Thanksgiving dinners for his dad. In just 200 pages, Gasteiger manages to cover not just canning and fermentation, but an enormous array of other food preservation techniques. Want to know how to make your own instant potatoes, dehydrated vegetable mix, frozen pies, fruit leather, and canned yams? This is the book for you.
Alas, as cool as some of Gasteiger’s methods are, I’m not really interested in duplicating supermarket food. I want the opposite of that. What I want, clearly, is Liana Krissoff’s Canning for a New Generation: Bold, Fresh Flavors for the Modern Pantry. Krissoff wins points for keeping the homemade truly homemade: Instead of recommending store-bought powdered pectin to help certain jams gel, Krissoff gives a recipe for pectin made from a green apple stock. Her initial discussion of the theory and practice of canning is superb. In the best locavore tradition, Krissoff’s recipes are organized by season. And those recipes! Strawberry jam with Thai herbs, cumin and paprika pickled turnips, cardamom plum jam!
I may need to start gardening for the canning, rather than canning for the gardening.