How I Learned to Can and Lived to Tell About It
A few weeks ago we got the call; there’s raspberries, raspberries everywhere, which sent my girlfriend scurrying up to her folk’s house to pick copious quantities of bright red raspberries. By the time she left for the weekend half our fridge was overflowing with big containers full of raspberries.
This should be something to be excited about, how often does someone call and tell you that you just won the food lottery and you’re getting six free pints of fresh-picked raspberries. This is especially true when there is no question what I should I do with them. They should become raspberry preserves. A good half of mornings start with toast, and some sort of preserves, with raspberry being my favorite.
The problem is botulism, or in other words my irrational fear of poisoning my future self. I know people have been preserving food for the millennium, I know modern canning techniques aren’t really that complicated, and I know that according to most of the world I undercook everything. To be fair, I think cooking a steak to anything beyond medium should be a felony and that the way many of my friends like their meat cooked I should just serve them charcoal briquettes.
Anyways, I’m digressing, for the longest time I’ve wanted to learn to can. I love the idea of taking the best of the season, fixing it up just the way I like it, and eating it all winter long.
I’ve picked up some books along the way, went so far as having a friend of my mine who is an avid canner give me a lesson, it’s just that botulism is kind of invisible and odorless and according to the CDC “the classic symptoms of botulism include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness” which seem to me to be the same symptoms as a Sunday morning.
So what to do, this whole thing is supposed to be about trying new things and pushing boundaries, and what are the chances I’m going to kill myself with the first jar I take out of the pantry anyways.
In spite of my future self’s later regrets, I set out to learn to can. The upside to the weekend is I would get to buy kitchen gadgets, always a plus, if I did things right I would have enough raspberry preserves to last out the coming apocalypse, and there would be enough extra I could give them away as gifts and people would think I was being thoughtful, because they were homemade. The downside was I could be poisoning myself or someone else without knowing who was going to get it – kind of like Russian roulette with over-cooked fruit.
To start, I grabbed the Complete Book of Home Preserving by Ball, who is a major manufacturer of canning jars and equipment. The book is great; they have a really easy to read section at the beginning to get you started and a more in-depth section at the end about the science of food preservation.
Read up a little from the CDC, which essentially said a lot of people can at home and that it is very dangerous to do it wrong. Someday I would love to see a government guide to crossing the street. I think it would go something like “there is a long history of street crossing in America that dates back to colonial times. In fact, crossing the street is an important part of many American’s lives today, but needs to be done carefully to prevent being adversely impacted by passing automobiles, that may have the right away and be harmful to your health.”
In my reading it looked like I would need canning jars, a wire rack to get them in and out of the pot, a big forceps looking thing, and a funnel. I remembered from my one lesson that the wire rack and forceps looking thing were really helpful to get the glass jars in and out of the scalding hot water. So I stopped at my local hardware store to pick up everything I thought I would need.
I was planning the whole operation for a Sunday night, looking at the cooking time and everything else I figured it would take a couple of hours to get everything done. I got the raspberries out and started picking through them, realizing I really should have done this a few days earlier, eventually, got them all cleaned up and ready to go.
I took out the pot I was planning to use, grabbed the wire rack that goes in said pot, said “ahh shit,” that’s not going to work unless I use the highly controversial Ferris Wheel canning technique, where you rotate the cans vertically through the boiling hot water like they’re a ride on the midway. Decided it was a bad idea and instead, tail between my legs, ran out to Menards, where I picked up an all in one canning kit that came with a big pot and everything else I bought the day before at the hardware store. Go me!
By the time I got back, had dinner, watched a new episode of True Blood, it was 9:30 pm and either time to start canning or throw out all the raspberries, because I wasn’t getting back to this for at least a week.
Making Raspberry Slurry
The main thing I needed to get started was the raspberries and sugar, which are supposed to cook at a rolling boil for a good 10 to 15 minutes, which is a challenge on the burner I have for them. Essentially, I’m supposed to cook the fruit until everything starts to thicken, the book is very good about giving you three tests to use, I kind of used my own test, coupled with my irrational fear, to cook everything for a much, much longer time, than necessary, which in hindsight produced very thick preserves, which is a bonus.
Eventually, I was able to cook the shit out of the fruit, figured out how important the funnel is, and got everything in the big pot where the magic happens. The one thing that was very clear in everything I read about canning is the key to not killing loved ones is to make sure the sealed jars spend at least fifteen minutes in boiling water. On my crappy stovetop that means keeping the lid on the big pot the entire time.
At the end of the fifteen minutes, turn the big pot off and let everything sit for five minutes to equalize the pressure between the jars and the outside world. I think it’s nice that science gives the jars time to get ready for their lives in the outside world and kind of wish it did the same for the rest of us.
After a couple of rounds of fruit in jars and small contact burns from piping hot raspberry slurry, I was able to get the last jar sitting on the cooling rack around 1:30 am. The little shop of horrors looking countertop was all scrubbed down, and I was ready to let my future self-roll the dice.
Out of the 13 cups of raspberries I was able to get 14.5 jars of raspberry preserves, I learned a lot about canning, except why it’s called canning and not jarring, and hopefully have gotten over my irrational fear of poisoning people.
Postscript: In case you’re curious, the preserves are tasty, and if you’re reading this there’s a good chance they haven’t killed me yet.
Mark is Umami's publisher