by Sarah West

It seems common enough to label as a human trait, this tradition of saving. We work now, growing, gathering and processing, so that we may have some for later. Our preservations take many forms: fish sun-dried on racks by the sea, berries pounded and packed into cracker-like cakes, tea leaves pressed into bricks and carried across mountains, dense breads baked with a hole in the center to hang in wait for hungrier times. Pickles, jams, chutneys, and ferments.  Our species has invented myriad ways to extend the given lives of our food sources.

Despite having the unfathomable luxury of store shelves lined with all the food we need all year round, some of the arts of preservation are making a comeback. Home canning in particular has become an entry point for many first-time preservers. The simplicity and low cost of water bath processing make it highly accessible to anyone with a stovetop.  Throw in a garden, and you have the sort of plenty that practically begs to be put by.

But the prospect is not without its intimidations. The fear of contaminations such as botulism is a powerful deterrent.  Even though canning doesn’t demand much in the way of equipment (if you already have a large stock pot, the cost would be under $20 for the basics), it does require some, and a mild amount of initiative to gather it. But most of all, I think it is the unknown that keeps us away, especially those who didn’t grow up watching their mothers and grandmothers can. Those who did perhaps know too much: it’s a heck of a lot of work.

I helped my father can peaches six years ago and have been canning on my own ever since. Once I saw how basic the process is, I began to use it as a template for kitchen creativity: make some new ingenious thing once, eat it all year. I have canned a few delicious things, though most, especially at the beginning, were mediocre. This is in part because, despite what I am about to declare to you, I didn’t always use a recipe. I got lucky in that the liberties I took didn’t result in deadly pathogens growing undetected in my food.

So, I will tell you from the position of a reformed improviser, canning is not a place for throwing things together any more than baking is. The success of both is based on scientific ratios: one results in pathogen-free food, the other in leavening.  The easiest way to get the science right is to follow a recipe. And not just any recipe. Since this is science, I recommend learning from the scientists. The USDA’s National Center for Home Food Preservation has a very informative (and free) online publication detailing what is appropriate to can using the water bath method and how to do it safely, along with a good assortment of recipes. This is the place I wish I had started: Once you have mastered the science, you may begin improvising.

The other thing I learned over time is that canning is never less work and not always less money than buying canned foods at the store. It takes time, and usually not when you have it. I recall many late summer nights boiling a large kettle of water for hours in my un-air-conditioned apartment, sweating and cursing the moment I decided to “do a little canning tonight.” Luckily, the bitterness of our toil does not flavor our food. The effort is entirely forgiven with that first bite of summer tomato sauce in the heart of January. For me, the effort fades the moment I lift the jars out of their boiling bath onto the kitchen counter. The clean, glossy look of them, holding my winter stash of summer fruits so attractively, gives me a sense of satisfaction that cancels out the hours of sleep I have lost to create them.

Ultimately, the payoff is the superior food you can put in the pantry. Homegrown foods properly processed in the home kitchen can lead to gourmet quality, highly nutritious additions to your larder. Though I do not have the pressing need to fill a late winter hunger gap they way my ancestors did only a few generations back, I process treasures from my garden and the market to fill what I see as an entertainment gap. In late winter, when I am dallying in the sure and steady land of roots, beans and hardy greens, I pop open a jar of peaches that taste like sunshine and feel a sense of wealth truer than all the canned peaches on all the shelves of all the world’s stores combined.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine,August 9, 2012)