Master Gardener: What to do with the bounty
“My mom put up lots of fruits and vegetables but never showed me how,” my friend said wistfully as she helped me prepare peaches for the canner. “Even my in-laws canned but always said it was too much work and I wouldn’t want to do it.”
I put that sentiment in the same disappointing category as not sharing the European language my parents spoke at home when I was growing up because they didn’t want us to start school “sounding foreign.” Fortunately, we were a 4-H family and food preservation was just what everyone did in summer and fall. There were community packing/processing plants that welcomed the public and even provided “seconds” (blemished or off-size fruits) for pennies that we peeled, cut and placed into cans for their facility to safely process. The local 4-H food preservation instructor let my city-raised mother join us kids to learn the art and science of preserving nature’s bounty for the lean times.
Too much work, you say? Yep, it takes some time, planning and some specialized equipment, but there’s a certain magic to opening a jar of local peaches in the dead of winter and tasting summer. My stepdaughters help in the process without me even asking because they want peach jam that tastes of peaches (not sugar syrup), crunchy pickles with garlic from our garden or applesauce from apples they prepped with our silly corer/peeler tool.
Too dangerous you say — all that risk of botulism? I still reference my mom’s heavily annotated Sunset and extension publications for ideas (and to see mom’s handwriting before I try to channel her endless kitchen energy), but I stick strictly to the processing times and modern lower-sugar syrup recipes found in the CSU Extension Service publications. “Canning can be dangerous if tested methods are not followed, and this is especially true in Colorado,” said Extension Specialist Marisa Bunning of CSU, “because adjustments often need to be made for elevation. Many canning recipes available to the public do not account for higher elevation, and that can lead to food spoilage or even contamination with botulism toxin. Although it is critically important to adjust for elevation to ensure the temperature is adequate to destroy bacterial spores, this is a science lesson that is not very well-known.”
Now here is where the wonderful CSU Food Science and Human Nutrition department and Extension experts have really outdone themselves: there’s an app for this. Preserve Smart is available for Apple and Android platforms and there is a version apps.chhs.colostate.edu/preservesmart. The app focuses on food preservation methods and basics. Users can choose whether they want to preserve fruits or vegetables, and then select their particular type of produce. Preservation options vary depending on the type of produce, but include freezing, canning, drying and making spreadable preserves, like jams and jellies. Preserve Smart differs from any food preservation magazine or book because it allows users to set their elevation before starting the preservation process. Elevation needs to be taken into account when canning, especially in Colorado and other high elevation locations, because if not done correctly, it can be a serious health threat.
Too much equipment needed? Not really, and what you don’t already have in your kitchen is all available locally at our hardware, grocery and even thrift stores. You’ll need a water-bath canner: this is a large enamel pot with a rack in the bottom to hold the jars. If you’re going to tackle acidic fruits like tomatoes (more advanced food preservation) you’ll want a pressure cooker. A jar lifter is a nice tool as it makes lifting full jars easier and safer; a plastic canning funnel is a necessity in my book. An enamel Dutch Oven or heavy stock pot is needed to cook the fruit or syrup, a pasta pot is nice to sanitize jars and rims, and a small sauce pan is needed to boil the lids. Lots of towels, some kitchen tongs, sharp paring knives, mixing bowls, a ladle, large spoons and oven mitts are also needed. You’ll want pectin for jams and jellies and there are low/no sugar brands out there.
Now for jars. There’s a dizzying array of jars out there these days and I’ve seen good used ones at our thrift store for pennies: 4-ounce jelly jars to 2-quart spaghetti sauce monsters. The boiling water in your canner needs to be at least an inch above the jars when you process so take the depth of your canner into consideration when buying jars. There are two choices of openings: standard and wide mouth. Wide mouth are easier to pour and place through. Also consider the serving size of a jar and how long it will take to use the contents once it has been opened. A quart of peaches doesn’t last long at our house, but a pint of jam will go bad because we are only using a tablespoon at a time. I tend to use pints and quarts for whole or sliced fruits and 4-ounce and half-pint jars for jams and compotes. For gifts — and who doesn’t love a homemade jar of jam at Christmas — smaller jars will give you more goodies.
Finally on to rims and lids. Just like the jars, these come in regular and wide mouth and they are two pieces. The rim is a metal band and the lid is a flat metal disk with a rubber seal that sits on the jar rim. You can reuse jars and rust-less rims but never reuse lids. Lids and rims and can be purchased together and separately.
Of course, there are more details and every recipe has its own requirements — but it is all in the app. Remember, there is nothing like the taste of summer during a snow storm, your own jalapeno jelly on cream cheese at the holidays or wrapping up your homemade preserves to give to friends at Christmas. The latter is a tradition my mother started when we both learned to can, and everyone looked forward to her creations. Luckily for us, the CSU Extension is making it safe and convenient to apply the science — it’s up to you to add the art. Download Preserve Smart and get started.
Jackie Buratovich was raised in a central California farm family and loves making things grow in and around a solar home in Routt County. She received her Master Gardener training in Boulder County in 2003, and acknowledges that while growing conditions here are more challenging, being back in an agricultural community is like coming home and being able to grow greens outside all summer long is a bonus.
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