October 7, 2008
Preserving Fall Produce a Skill That Pays Off
By Jenny Slafkosky
The last of the tomatoes, peppers and beans are piling up in backyard gardens across the Bay Area and filling farmers markets with an overabundance of ripeness. Soon there will also be piles of pumpkins and apples literally falling from the tree.
With increasing interest in the Slow Food movement and a resurgence of backyard gardens, more Bay Area residents have a harvest on their hands -- whether it's from their own crop, from a CSA, or from an overeager purchase of too many tomatoes at the farmers market. Along with this interest in local food has come a revitalized interest in methods of home preserving; -- from jam- making to pickling to drying to canning.
For Todd and Jordan Champagne of Happy Girl Kitchen, a company that makes and sells small-batch pickles and preserves, the resurgence in home preserving is a welcome but not entirely surprising trend. The couple teach popular home canning and pickling workshops in Oakland, which have been selling out quickly this year. Particularly popular are the couple's heirloom tomato classes, which teach students how to safely and properly can tomato sauce, juice and whole stewed tomatoes for the winter.
"In the beginning of our classes we always try to put canning into context," says Todd Champagne. "Where does canning fit in among other traditional methods of food preservation like sun-drying, preserving in alcohol, salting and fermentation?
"Hot water bath canning reached popularity during World War II when all the mothers were encouraged to plant gardens to offset food rationing. At that time there were an unprecedented number of people canning."
But after World War II, when refrigerators and freezers made their way into nearly every American home, canning and many other traditional methods of food preservation went by the wayside, and for good reason: Many traditional methods of preserving food can be laborious and time-consuming. Canning is hot, sweaty work, and if done improperly can be truly dangerous because of the possibility of food-borne illness. In a time when it's fairly easy to get a can of high-quality organic tomatoes for a little over a dollar, why spend the time canning? Well, it depends on who you ask.
"I think it's crazy to buy fresh produce just to can it," says K. Ruby, founder of the Oakland-based Institute of Urban Homesteading, which also offers canning and food preservation classes. "The reason to can is because you grew the food yourself and you want to preserve the harvest at its peak."
While K. Ruby likes home canning, she's also an advocate of other preservation methods, such as drying, freezing and cellaring. For her, the purpose of sharing the knowledge of food preservation is to get people back in touch with their food, and with the seasons.
"It's what the Institute of Urban Homesteading is about," she says. "It's about teaching city people to be in tune with the seasons and to be in tune with what they eat and where it comes from."
A similar sentiment is echoed by the Champagnes at Happy Girl Kitchen, who note that canning and preserving food is as changeable as the seasons, and that knowledge of each vegetable one is working with is crucial to success.
"Vegetables change so much throughout their stages of ripeness that you really have to pay attention to where they're at when you're canning," Jordan says. "If a tomato is really ripe, the cooking time can be longer in order to make it safe. It's not just a science; there's an art to it."
Knowing exactly what's going into each jar is an idea close to the heart of Frog Hollow Farm's Rebecca Courchesne, too. Known for their high-quality organic fruit and preserves, Brentwood-based Frog Hollow has long supplied top Bay Area chefs with fruit and has gained a loyal local fan base.
Courchesne's husband, Al, grows the fruit and Rebecca comes up with the recipes for the farm's marmalades, chutneys, conserves and pastries. This family labor of love makes Courchesne passionate about preserving.
"Preserving is for using extra fruit, not overripe or gone fruit," she says. "The jar is only going to be as good as what vegetable or fruit you started with."
Courchesne notes that truly ripe fruit has more pectin in it, a natural thickener for jams and preserves. While Courchesne recommends using ripe, high-quality fruit for making preserves, that doesn't mean each piece has to be picture-perfect.
"We use the bruised stuff that can't be sold fresh," she says. "You don't want to use under-ripe fruit, either; you want to capture the peak ripeness of the fruit."
The right tools
Is home canning right for you? Unless a person is ready for the challenge of canning, Joni Diserens of the nonprofit Village Harvest in Santa Clara Valley discourages the undertaking. Diserens, an experienced home canner herself, says anyone who wants to take up canning should be sure to either take a class or do plenty of research before heading to the kitchen.
"A little bit of information is a dangerous thing when it comes to home preserving and canning," she says. Through teaching and her work with Village Harvest, she's seen some serious red flags when it comes to home canning.
"People think that removing the sugar, acid or salt (from a recipe) might be good for their diet," she adds. "But they forget that these are very good preserving agents, and necessary for a shelf-stable result, and end up risking their health when they remove these ingredients."
The USDA only recommends hot water bath canning -- the process of sterilizing jars in boiling water, filling them with hot food, then submerging or "processing" them in boiling water until the contents reach the proper temperature for food safety -- for acid foods such as pickles, some tomatoes, jams, jellies, marmalades and fruit butters. Acid foods have a pH of 4.6 or lower. While most tomatoes have an acid level of 4.6 or lower, some sweeter varieties may have a higher pH and will need to be acidified with vinegar, lemon juice or citric acid to make them safe to can.
Todd Champagne explains the reason behind the advice.
"What it comes down to is two aspects: Attaining a high enough temperature, for a long enough time throughout the whole contents of the jar, that the level of bacteria is killed and the jar is sterilized," he says. "Then you have a high enough acidity so that botulism spores are inhibited. Temperature alone doesn't kill botulism, but enough acidity negates it."
Another risk factor with home canning is using old recipes, notes Diserens.
"Thirty years ago the food supply was different," she says. "A lot of tomatoes now are low acid, so are peaches, which is why preserving resources like the Ball Blue Book keep getting revised. You may have to add more processing time for a recipe than you did 30 years ago. In addition, strains of bacteria have gotten more resistant as the food supply changes; there are a lot of factors to consider."
While the Champagnes are enthusiastic about home canning, they're careful to note that it's imperative to have the right tools and reference guides to do it safely.
"We hold five-hour canning workshops on just heirloom tomatoes, Jordan says. "As a general rule it's good idea to have a book or have a guide."
Jordan likes the Rodale Food Center's "Preserving Summer's Harvest" (Rodale Books, $16.95), edited by Susan McClure, and the "Ball Blue Book" ($4.95), the guide put out by the makers of the jars and tools by the same name, which can be found in many hardware stores that also sell canning supplies.
For first-time canners, Jordan has this advice: "It's really great to do it with someone who's done before. It's the best way to learn and conquer the fear. Once you do it with someone who knows how, you'll see how natural it is."
Beyond the jar
For those that want to preserve food -- but stay away from canning -- there are plenty of other food preservation methods that yield delicious results.
"I do a lot of drying, particularly of apples and tomatoes," says K. Ruby of the Institute of Urban Homesteading. "I use a food dehydrator, and with that you can dry zucchini, carrots and onions, which are great to dump into soup during the winter. Or you can add dried tomatoes to focaccia or marinara sauce. Dried apples are good to eat on their own."
Diserens of Village Harvest is also a fan of drying, especially at lower temperatures.
"At Village Harvest we've been playing around with drying in the way that the raw food advocates recommend -- drying below 150 degrees, which is similar to sun drying. The freshness of the flavor and the nutrients preserved in the final product is a considerable difference (from higher heat methods)."
Other ways to keep food include cellaring, or storing things like pumpkins, squash and onions in a cold, dark place, and pickling, a quick answer to an over-abundance of just about any fruit or vegetable. Even simpler is small-batch freezing, which is simple and convenient for sauces, jams, butters and fruits. Many fruits also freeze well in a raw state.
"Frozen ripe hachiya persimmons make their own 'sorbet' in their own fruit-shaped shell," she says. Freeze them whole, then "defrost them slightly and serve with a little vanilla ice cream and fresh ground nutmeg, yum!"
Reach Jenny Slafkosky at [email protected] Online resources-- Ball Company's products and guides -- www.freshpreserving.com-- National Center for Home Preservation (Site includes pdf versions of USDA home canning guidelines) -- www.uga.edu/nchfp/index.html-- University of California Extension Home Canning Guides (A downloadable library of preserving and safe canning guidelines) -- anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu/ CanningFoodPreservation/-- Village Harvest -- www.villageharvest.org/ resources.htm-- Happy Girl Kitchen -- happygirlkitchen.com/-- Institute of Urban Homesteading -- www.sparkybeegirl.com/iuh.html-- Frog Hollow Farm -- www.froghollow.com/kitchen/
Recommended books-- "The Ball Blue Book," from the makers of Ball canning products ($4.95) -- "Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving," by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine (Robert Rose, $22.95)-- "Preserving Summer's Harvest," by the Rodale Food Center, edited by Susan McClure (Rodale Books, $16.95)-- "The Complete Book of
Year-Round Small Batch
Preserving," by Ellie Topp and
Margaret Howard (Firefly Books, $19.95)-- "Preserving Food Without F
reezing or Canning," by the
Gardeners and Farmers of Centre Terre Vivante (Chelsea Green
Publishing, $25)-- "Putting Food By," by Janet Greene, Ruth Hertzberg, and
Beatrice Vaughan (Plume, $17) -- "Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables," by Mike and Nancy Bubel (Storey Publishing, $14.95)
Online resources-- Ball Company's products and guides -- www.freshpreserving.com-- National Center for Home
Preservation (site includes pdf versions of USDA home canning guidelines) -- www.uga.edu/nchfp/index.html-- University of California
Extension Home Canning Guides
(a downloadavble library of
preserving and safe canning guidelines) -- anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu/ CanningFoodPreservation-- Village Harvest -- www.village
harvest.org/resources.htm-- Happy Girl Kitchen --
happygirlkitchen.com-- Institute of Urban Homesteading -- www.sparkybeegirl.com/iuh.html-- Frog Hollow Farm -- www.frog
Originally published by Jenny Slafkosky, Oakland Tribune correspondent.
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