You may remember I’m an ultra-beginner at canning. Luckily, I am learning from my sister, who has spent years learning from others and experimenting to perfect her own techniques. Not to mention she has a large kitchen stocked with all the necessary equipment.
So I give you Ultra-Beginner Tip #1: find a canning buddy with experience and offer your labor in exchange for a share of the results. You will learn how to do it successfully and at very low risk, they will get much-needed help and a chance to pass on their hard-won knowledge. It could lead to other fun collaboration too, such as swapping produce from your gardens.
As a child, I didn’t encounter many home-canned goods. I’m sure I would have viewed them with deep suspicion. Store-bought “processed” food carried a reputation of being safety tested, of having consistent quality and taste, and of being well preserved by the miracles of modern chemistry. Not to mention being brightly colored, which my young self (a devout fan of boxed macaroni and cheese and canned tomato soup) equated with better flavor.
That was before I discovered that pale yellow butter actually tastes richer than bright gold margarine. Mmm. Butter.
Which brings me to Ultra-Beginner Tip #2: only preserve foods you want to eat regularly. My first exposure to canning was a jelly-making class taken with friends. I must confess I was so shocked by the amount of sugar we used that I couldn’t bring myself to eat much of our product. I’ve also had a blast spending a day with friends now and then making home-canned apple pie filling, but I feel somewhat guilty that our time and effort produced many wasted jars of too-sweet-for-me.
However, one food that I do adore is tomatoes, and thanks to my sis, I’m in my second winter of enjoying home-canned tomatoes that I helped to grow and produce. What a delight it is to make spaghetti, chili, and soup stock with garden-fresh flavor all winter.
When I open a jar of our stewed tomatoes, the first thing I do is sniff. The flavor hits like a Star Trek transporter, beaming me back in time a few short months to a kitchen filled with bowls of ripe tomatoes, to hours of great conversation, to the warm aroma of sauteeing garlic and herbs, and the unexpected but reassuring pops that signal hot jars are safely sealed.
That reminds me to mention Ultra-Beginner Tip #3: be safe! Home canning requires that someone remember and oversee details of sterility, heat, processing time, and acidity. I rely on my sister for this and am careful to follow her instructions.
We use ingredients at hand from our gardens: garlic and an assortment of fresh herbs as well as a mix of different tomato varieties. We don’t include any other vegetables, mushrooms, or meat, and we add plenty of wine — making a reliably acidic product with minimal risk of botulism.
Every batch has a unique and complex flavor. Cans of stewed tomatoes from the grocery store seem dull in comparison. But here’s what I love even more than the flavor: partly because of its freshness, partly because of its natural variability, and partly because the experience of growing and making it echoes through the experience of eating it, our home-canned tomato concoction satisfies my yearning for a taste of nature all through the winter.