In late July, my grandmother's North Carolina garden was ripe and overflowing. The tomato plants hung to the ground with more fruit than we could possibly pluck. The small pepper plants were heavy with jalapeños and chilis, and the old fig tree was swarming with wasps and wrens, attracted by the sweet, sticky fruits. So we dug out grandma's mason jars and stock pots, and she taught me how to can.
Growing up on a farm during the Depression and then raising five children of her own in the 1950s and '60s, she had learned to preserve out of necessity — without canned goods, they might run out of food in the winter. These days, it's much easier — and nearly as cheap — to pick up a can of green beans at the local grocery store. Yet canning is seeing a resurgence that fits right in with the DIY movement and our reverence for farmers markets and CSAs.
Clemson University Extension Service recently founded Carolina Canning, a statewide effort to spread the word about canning through one-day courses. In the past year alone, project leader Susan Barefoot says they've increased the number of workshops nearly tenfold. "Between the economy and the focus on locally grown, more folks are wanting to can, they're wanting to freeze, make jams, jellies, that kind of thing," Barefoot says. "And we just thought it was a good time to do this." She says the classes attract a wide age range, with Facebook and Twitter spreading the word to increasingly younger audiences.
Barefoot learned to can by helping her parents in the kitchen, and she went on to earn a food technology degree from N.C. State University. Not surprising, considering her professional background, Barefoot's number one concern is safety. Botulism, a potentially fatal bacterial illness, is a serious danger of improperly preserved food. "It is a tradition, it's a heritage skill, so people have done these things for years and years," Barefoot says. "But my big focus in this is, they're heritage skills, but folks knew how to do them safely, and if they didn't, they didn't live very long. I'd just rather that second alternative didn't happen to anybody."
Barefoot and her team of canning experts, including Berkeley County-based Gayle Williford, rely on guidelines published by the Department of Agriculture's National Center for Home Food Preservation. Based out of the University of Georgia, the center provides a wealth of information online, including illustrated instructions and recipes for canning, freezing, fermenting, pickling, and more.
Carolina Canning teaches the two basic canning methods: pressure canning and water bath canning. Which method you use depends on the acidity of the food you're preserving. Low acid foods like meats, milk, and fresh vegetables typically require a pressure canner, because they don't contain enough natural acid to prevent the growth of bacteria, and they need the extra heat provided by a pressure canner. More acidic foods like fruits, pickles, and jellies can be made using the simple hot water bath method, which only requires a stock pot. Barefoot says the best advice she can give is to make sure you have the proper equipment — like a deep enough pot and sealing jar lids — and follow your instructions to the letter.
Travis Grimes became FDA certified to can at a three-day course in Asheville a year and a half ago. "There's science involved, but if you pay attention, it's pretty easy to pick up," Grimes says. He's the chef de cuisine at Husk, but Executive Chef Sean Brock calls him his "mason maestro" because he's the one responsible for keeping the restaurant's shelves stocked with canned goods.
"Our main goal is to support our local farmers as much as possible," Grimes says, "and the reality is spring and summer are the times when the farms are fat, and everything is coming in so quickly most farmers can't sell it quick enough, so a lot of it just goes bad out there. In order for us to help them out, we can purchase large quantities so that we can can it."
The canned goods come in handy in the winter when crops are low, and Husk, known for using only Southern ingredients, struggles to find fresh produce. "If we don't preserve food, given the concept of Husk, we don't have food to serve during the winter," Grimes says. "We'd have a very boring menu."
Grimes and his team kept busy this summer canning around 1,400 pounds of tomatoes along with more than 1,000 pounds of wild West Virginia ramps. Jalapeños, cucumbers, Ambrose Farms garlic, green tomatoes, dilly beans, and okra have also found their way into jars, along with a small selection of preserves and sauces.
"During January, we can brush some ribs with peach barbecue sauce, and it's a little glimpse of springtime in January," Grimes says. "Everything from last summer lasted through February and into early March, which is perfect because then spring starts to come back around and everything's fresh again. That's how we survive the winter — we work out of the pantry. That's our goal all summer is to preserve, whether it be pickling peaches or the canning of tomatoes or the making of pickles."
Canning takes up a big chunk of Grimes' schedule, but he says it's well worth the effort.
"If canning were easier, everyone would do it," Grimes says. "Plus, if we bought pickles, we wouldn't be using the beautiful produce our farmer friends were growing for us. The whole purpose of canning is the preservation and celebration of the harvest and our ability to prolong that celebration."
As for me and my grandma, our pantries are full of sweet jalapeño jelly, spiced tomato jam, and peach/vanilla bean jelly to give us that taste of July in the middle of winter. Try finding that in your local grocery store.
uga.edu/nchfp: Official site of the Department of Agriculture's National Center for Home Food Preservation.
sweetpreservation.com: Offers recipes like peach cardamom jam, sweet cherries with basil, and blood plum purée as well as free printable labels for the finished product.
For more than 100 years, The Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving has helped home canners learn to preserve food safely and creatively. This jalapeño jelly recipe is easy, unique, and addictive. Six cups of sugar give it more sweetness than spice, although there is a mild bite to the jelly. Be sure to wear gloves when removing the stems and seeds — that's where the heat is. Serve with crackers and cream cheese.
3/4 lb. jalapeño peppers (about 12-16)
2 c. cider vinegar, divided
6 c. sugar
2 (3-oz.) envelopes liquid pectin
green food coloring (optional)
After removing stems and seeds from jalapeños, purée in food processor with 1 cup cider vinegar. Combine purée, additional 1 cup cider vinegar, and sugar in large saucepot. Bring to a boil; boil 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in liquid pectin. Return to a rolling boil and boil hard one minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Skim foam, if necessary, and stir in a few drops of food coloring, if desired. Ladle hot jelly into hot jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Adjust two-piece caps. Process 10 minutes in a boiling water canner.