I would like to start this post by thanking John Gerber, Amanda Wasserman, Peg Thibbets, and Chuck Goonan. My first post would not have been complete without the help of you all. And to everyone who read it, shared it, and enjoyed it, I am high-fiving you through this screen. Thank you all so much.
While helping my big sister Sarah make dinner in her kitchen in Boulder, Colorado this past fall, she asked me to go down to the basement and pick out some food I’d like to eat with our dinner. Slightly confused, I went down the stairs and took a left at the bottom like she had said. I was amazed to find at least thirty multiple-sized mason jars filled with everything I could ever imagine. There was tomato sauce for pizza and pasta, different flavored pickled cucumbers, numerous types of dressings and sauces. I chose some salsa, dilly beans, and pickled carrots. I walked back up the stairs with my jaw slightly ajar. I was amazed to find out that Sarah canned and jarred all of these things herself with local ingredients from her neighboring farmers’ market. She had done all of this so she, her husband, and their daughter could eat local and healthy throughout the whole year. A light bulb went off in my head. Why doesn’t everyone do this? Sarah is actually saving money in the end because she buys the day-old, cheaper tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables to use for preserves. Also this makes her dinner preparation quick and easy, which is necessary with her adorable two-year old daughter rampaging the kitchen trying to touch everything. Again, why don’t more people do this? The list of benefits is quite extensive, ranging from health to economical. This experience piqued my interest in canning and preserving. And now I will be expanding on this interest, which I feel so fortunate to do.
Each Friday at 3:30pm I will be working with Peg Thibbets, the producer member behind the Harvest Market. Peg and her current volunteer Jess, have been prepping for the Northampton farmers’ market every other Friday, and I feel very lucky to join them. On the other Fridays, when they are not preparing for the market, Peg is going to teach Jess and I about canning and preserving.
This experience could not have worked out more perfectly. I have been presented with the opportunity this summer to work with Bramhall’s Country Store in my hometown of Plymouth, MA. The preliminary plan consists of helping with their massive front yard garden and working in the kitchen of the store canning and making preserves. Because I have loved food and recipes since the dawn of my time, I could not pass up this opportunity. With my lack of canning and preserving knowledge, I knew I had some work to do and some lessons to learn. But now I get work hands-on with Peg and Jess in the All Things Local kitchen to prepare for my new summer job. Thank you, universe.
When I sheepishly walked in about eleven minutes late on Friday, February 27, I was surprised to see so many people working in the kitchen. Amanda had two volunteers, Peg with Jess, and then myself. Later during my shift, Peg astonished me saying how during one of her workshops, there was about twenty people squeezed in the kitchen happily prepping for corn relish. I could not picture that many people comfortably chopping away.
Before this shift if I thought about what canning was, I pictured putting a jam or sauce into a mason jar and then putting that jar in some hot water, and then you would have a jar of jam! But nope, this process, as Peg explained with a laugh, is quite similar to that of a surgical operation. Once Jess and I finished cutting our vegetables, we brought the seasoned pot of chopped onions, celery and peppers over to the stove with the corn, so it could come to a boil. During this time of waiting, Peg brought the canning/surgical instruments over to the counter. These were three pieces of equipment that I was particularly unfamiliar and curious about.
The first tool I was instructed to use was the jar lifter, which I thought were just a fancy pair of tongs. Earlier we had placed the jars, metal tops, and metal screw bands into a pot of boiling water. I had asked Peg why this was a necessary step, and she explained saying this is important for a couple of reasons: the boiling water changes the temperatures of the jars and their tops so when the boiling relish is poured in, they will not crack and break; the jars and tops are also put in the boiling water to sterilize them, so they are clean and ready for the relish. When it is time to remove the jars and tops from the boiling pot, this is when you use the jar lifter. Jess had done this before, so Peg taught me how to properly use the tongs to pick up the jar by the neck and place it on the counter. The metal tops and the screw bands were a little trickier, but I eventually got into a decent rhythm. Peg warned both Jess and I that when we start canning and preserving on our own, to be prepared to get burned…a lot.
Another tool was a funnel of some sort, with a very wide mouth. Using my expert contextual information, I realized it was most likely to put the ingredients into the jar. As I made that discovery, I realized that I had not thought about the difficulty of putting a relish, or a jam into the jar without the proper funnel. I would have found out a very hard and messy way if I had tried to do this myself. The next surgical-looking instrument looked like an oversized plastic popsicle stick with a tapered end. This was the tool we would jokingly ask for quite urgently as a scalpel, just as the doctors of your favorite medical shows would. Clearly this was no scalpel; it was a bubble remover. I did not know there were bubbles that needed removing, nor there that there was an exact tool for this job. After I funneled the steaming corn relish into a jar, I would slide it to Jess who would cautiously use the plastic popsicle stick to remove any air pockets while pushing it all down, leaving room for more relish. Peg taught us that it is important to remove any air bubbles because it makes the relish look a little strange from the outside of the jar. This is especially important if you are selling your jars. According to foodinjars.com, it is important to have a plastic or wooden bubble remover so no scratches are made to the inside of the jar. Also, according to Marisa, author of “Canning 101: Why You Should Bubble Your Jars”, “you need to have enough air in the jar so that after processing, the escaping heat can pull the oxygen out of the jar and create the vacuum seal.” Basically, if there is an air bubble towards the bottom of the jar, it throws off the air space proportions and can cause discoloration and a difference in flavors during storage. You do not want to open up your valuable jar months later and find out an air bubble was hiding and caused mass relish destruction.
Once the jars were filled and our fingertips were feeling toasty, Peg instructed us to use a warm and damp paper towel to wipe clean the lip and the finish (another word for the sides of the mouth) of the jar. This was to ensure that no relish residue would hinder the sealing compound on the underside of the metal lid from fitting flush with the jar; same goes for the metal screw band that fits around the finish. Jess and I made sure all of the jars had an air-tight seal and we placed them in the jar rack. This contraption holds the sealed jars at an upright position while in the pot of boiling water to avoid leakage and spillage. This is the most important part of the process, and Peg warned that “if you don’t have the time, don’t do it”. The jars must stay in the boiling water for fifteen minutes exactly. But, you only start timing when the water is fully boiling. This part is called “processing”. Once the fifteen minutes were over, we removed the jars from the water and placed them on the counter. Peg smiled and let us know that what was about to happen is the most satisfying part of the whole procedure. As we watched the cooling jars on the table we heard a satisfying “pop!” I gasped from excitement because that sound meant that the jar has been fully sealed! The heat that escapes during the cooling process (that Marisa explains in the article I mentioned above) is what causes that rewarding suction sound.
All of us surrounded the jars like three proud mothers watching our baby jars grow up. Peg was right, it really was the most satisfying sound. I learned immediately that I loved the sound, and the knowing that I can create that sound many more times on my own is beyond gratifying.