It’s August (!!) and gardens and fields are overflowing with produce. Today’s Farmer’s Market was swarming even though the Market Master had only just rung the opening bell. Vendors baskets were stacked high, but not for long. As I stood in line to pay for some Kirby cucumbers I watched people snatching green beans by the huge handful from a bin beside me until it was nearly empty. My own little tub of dirt has already yielded a few tomatoes and the basil is thriving. Our CSA share is also generous, and I’m now having to scramble to use all of it. This is our third year with a farm-share, and I feel like I finally have some good resources for making sure our fruits and vegetables don’t go to waste. Our farmers work really hard to grow food for us and it kills me when it spoils before we can eat it. This post is about tools and skills that have helped me immensely in my quest to eat local and make the best use of our CSA and Farmers Market purchases.
Steam and Drama
My canning odyssey started last summer when my husband surprised me with 25 pounds of rapidly ripening peaches. When we had eaten our fill and shared all we could we were still left with a lot of fruit, and it was dead ripe. I had no choice but to bust out the Ball Blue Book and put them up. Long story short, I had every burner on my range going–one pot for the water to scald the skins off the peaches, one giant, scary boiling water bath for the jars, one sauce pan to simmer the jar lids and one to boil the syrup for the peaches. It was a hot night in August and I was a sweaty, cranky, jittery mess. My beige suede clogs have permanent blue stains from peach peels falling upon them. The yield was just 5 quarts, but the seal on one blew out so we refrigerated it immediately and kept it as our personal stock. The verdict? Totally. Worth. It. My mom got a jar as a Christmas gift and enjoyed it so much that she decided to gift me with a Ball Auto Canner in the hopes that all the steam and drama of last summer would not put me off canning again. I have also been exploring small batch canning using Marisa McClellan’s book Preserving by the Pint as my guide.
The Ball Auto-Canner
(Note: I have not been compensated in any way by the manufacturers of this product, nor is this an endorsement. It’s an account of my personal experience with it and a summary of the reviews I have read, in my own words. The Auto-Canner is fairly new to the market and I hope to give information to other home canners who are curious about it.)
The Auto Canning System is innovative in that it employs water, steam and pressure in a closed system to reach the temperatures necessary for successful water bath canning without the large amounts of water and energy. It should be noted that this device is NOT A PRESSURE CANNER. You cannot preserve low acid foods using the Auto Canning System, (which I will refer to from now on as the ACS). While I am pleased and impressed with my ACS thus far, it has some pros and some cons.
Pros and Cons
I consider the small amount of water required by the ACS to be a huge positive, and not just because it conserves a resource. It takes far less time to sterilize jars and process the food. The sterilization/pre-heating cycle is around 12 minutes and the processing times for the recipes I have tried were around 25-35 minutes. It is also not necessary to simmer the jar lids in a separate pot. That’s one less thing on the stove. The unit does vent some steam but the kitchen stays cool so, yay!
One possible drawback to the ACS is its size. It’s as tall and wide as the biggest canning pot, but with a relatively small capacity (6 half pint or 4 pint or 3 quart jars at a time). If you are a longtime canner who puts up a lot of food for your family every year, the ACS is probably not the best fit. If you are an apartment dweller with little storage or counter space, it might not suit you either. It’s a good fit for my experience level and small household. I was able to carve out a place to store it in my laundry room.
The ACS comes with a really nice jar lifter and metal rack (canning necessities) and a cookbook with recipes and meal planning guides. The book has lots of information on water-bath canning. The manufacturer strongly recommends that you only use the recipes they have developed, tested and published in their book and online. I totally get it because it’s a food safety thing, but I noticed in a lot of the product reviews people seemed disappointed in the number of recipes available. I am too, a little. (I mentioned before that I have this absolutely wonderful book on small batch canning and I had hoped I could make some of the recipes using the ACS, but alas…. More on that later.)
That being said, I have tried two recipes so far; one from the book that shipped with the unit (Bread and Butter Pickles) and one from the Ball Canning website (Blueberry Jam, reduced sugar version). The pickles are still curing, so I’ll have to get back to you on those, but the jars sealed with no issues, and that is great. I used the amount of cucumbers the recipe called for and had too many by far, and ran a little short on the brine. This may be due to my inexperience, and haphazard jar packing. The Blueberry jam recipe called for what I thought was a lot of pectin, and the set was a bit firm, but the jam was still spreadable and had good flavor and color. Next I’m hoping to try the Applesauce, Pears or Dilly Beans.
One last thing about the ACS that is a con is its cost. At about $300, it’s a big investment and you will have to carefully consider if it is the right tool for the job. I was lucky to get mine as a gift. A few online reviewers also got theirs as wedding and holiday gifts. It’s not something I would just go out and buy to experiment with canning. Many people probably already have tools in their kitchen that they could use to start canning, and decide later whether to buy more.
For me, intolerant of heat, and scared of 16 quarts of water at a rolling boil, the ACS was a great gift. I’m hugely thankful for it. It is my hope the manufacturer publishes more recipes. Maybe the author of the lovely book I’m going to talk about next will team up with them!
Preserving by the Pint
Preserving by the Pint, by Marisa McClellan, is my current favorite cookbook. I’ve read it cover to cover and I love both the recipes and the photography. It makes canning approachable and glamorous. I’ve tried two recipes and have had success with both. “Zucchini Butter with Fresh Thyme” is a delicious spread made with that ubiquitous summer squash. It does not need water-bath processing and can be jarred and stored in the fridge for about a week. “Dilled Carrot Spears” allowed me the opportunity to try out some small batch canning in my stock pot. They are delicious and pretty too.
I had a couple of large, beautiful bunches of carrots from my CSA farmer–more than I could eat out of hand and I don’t love cooked carrots so these crunchy pickles were an ideal solution. I also appreciate the section with detailed information about the author’s favorite canning tools and what the reader can find in their own kitchen inventory to get started with water-bath canning. The recipes are very hip and a great reminder that pickles aren’t just cucumbers and jams aren’t just for toast.
A couple of other books that I love and think are must-haves are the Ball Blue Book, published by the Ball Corporation and Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison. Vegetable Literacy is another book I have read cover to cover and re-read portions of often. It lists many familiar vegetables and a few unfamiliar ones by their botanical families and provides both information and recipes for each. My favorite is the Garlic Scape and Walnut Pesto. I make it each spring and sneak spoonfuls of it from its container in the fridge when no one is looking. The Blue Book Guide to Preserving covers everything from water bath canning and pressure canning (very different) to freezing and dehydrating. It’s inexpensive and well worth the read when you’re ready to try canning or any other method of preserving your garden bounty. I relied on it when I canned (those peaches) for the first time ever and it did not let me down.