Friday, July 30, 2010

It's Official. I'm a canner.

Let me begin this post by saying that I am far from an expert canner. I have plenty of experience as a canning assistant thanks to my grandmother’s obsession with the preservation and storage of all edible goods, but only recently have I taken the initiative as the person in charge of canning.

My fist attempt was in my friend’s kitchen. I didn’t plan it that way, but it seemed like the thing to do at the time. I had made a road trip to glean canning tomatoes and was supposed to begin my canning career the next morning with my aunt’s supervision. But since I have a hard time waiting to do things, especially when I have all the necessary supplies and the thing sounds like fun, that didn’t happen. I began shortly after dinner while she tried to study for her new job. Step 1: Retrieve tarp from car and lay it on the kitchen floor to prevent the leaking boxes from soiling her carpet. Step 2: carry in the tomatoes from where I’d left them outside. I had taken them out of my car a couple of hours before trying to avoid the old cheese stench of the more putrid specimens from further infusing the upholstery. Step 3: Attempt to establish some sort of work space in nice, but tiny, apartment-style kitchen’s three whole square feet of counter space.

That settled, I moved on to assembling the pressure cooker. I’d owned it for two years (thanks, Mom!), but I hadn’t had sufficient harvests or purchases to justify busting it out yet. I diligently read the instructions for canning raw tomatoes word for word. Every single one. Twice.

Since there wasn’t space or a sufficiently large pot to let the jars simmer, I filled the kitchen sink with dangerously hot water from the tap and set them in. Only after I had it filled the sink did I realize that the tomatoes I was planning to can had yet to be washed. No matter. There was a sink in the bathroom. Unorthodox, but functional.

After two and a half solid hours the first eight pints of tomatoes were canned. At least, I hoped they were. I was too tired to wait for the cooker to depressurize and left them inside to wait until morning.

When I awoke at all of 5:30a.m. (previously mentioned new job requires an hour commute), I opened the canner. The jars were still warm. Each and every one of them had successfully sealed. The only downside was that my eight pint jars each contained roughly a cup of solid tomatoes floating in juice. Canning fail. I can only imagine the response I would have gotten from a 4-H fair judge. Needless to say, I was a little bummed. I really like to be good at things on the first try. It’s part of why I scrupulously follow the directions. You can ask my mother-in-law. I’m a little obsessed about it.

After a quick two-mile run (I’m training for a 10K I have no intention of running, but that’s a whole other story), I began my second attempt at canning.

This time I had backup AND experience. How could I fail?

We split up the work. My aunt blanched the tomatoes while I peeled, cored, and seeded them before putting them in a colander to drain. It was part of my juice-reduction strategy. I packed the tomatoes into eight pint and three quart jars as tightly as I could manage, further eliminating any extraneous juice. We secured the lids, stacked them ever so gently in the pressure canner, closed the lid, and processed the tomatoes exactly as directed.

After what seemed like an eternity thanks to her glass top stove, the tomatoes had been processed and the canner had cooled sufficiently to reduce the internal pressure far enough for the safety lock to release my prized canned tomatoes. I lifted the lid and inspected the situation. There were tomato bits in the water. Not a good sign. Pretty much always indicates some failure on the canner’s part. I took the jars out one by one with my handy jar lifter and waited.

Pwop… Pwop.

If you’re unfamiliar, that’s the sound a canning lid makes when the gas inside the jars cools and shrinks enough to suck down the safety button. It might be the most beautiful sound in the whole world, at least the most satisfying for a newbie canner, hampered only by the fact that one must wait for it to happen. I was impatient, but I managed to distract myself by loading my car up with unused canning supplies.

I came back after I finished loading the car and scrutinized the jars. One hadn’t sealed. In my attempt to reduce excessive juice I had failed to leave enough head space in the jar. The tomatoes had gotten blown out of the jar in processing, and their smushed remains kept a seal from forming between the jar and the inside of the lid. The tomatoes weren’t preserved, despite my efforts, and wouldn’t last more than a week even with refrigeration. Not bad though. On my second try I canned six quarts of tomatoes successfully in less than four hours.

Before I left my aunt gifted me with a zucchini weighing in at nearly three pounds. This is a point of contention, but I’m a firm believer that zucchini large enough to contain seeds are past the point of unprocessed consumption. My brand new Ball Blue Book® Guide to Preserving provided a solution: zucchini relish, a pickled mixture of zucchini, onions, green peppers, and spices. I haven’t tried it yet, but it smelled good and every jar sealed. Pickled food needs a bit to reach its full flavor potential, right?

I made the unsealed tomatoes into sauce for pizza. Super tasty. I love serendipity.

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