Frugal homemakers have relied on home canning for decades to preserve the bounty from their gardens as well as take advantage of local in season produce. For many, it is a viable way to preserve their catch from hunting and fishing. Home canning saw a decline in the 1950's and 1960's with the availability of commercially canned foods, the introduction of home freezers and women going into the work-force. Canning has always been a way of life for certain religious groups and has tended to be a more popular activity in rural areas. As a newlywed, I canned as a way to stretch our food budget. Those skills served us well while raising by today's standards a larger family. Back then I would read through Mother Earth News and borrow cookbooks from the library but other than that, there really wasn't a lot of home canning literature available. In 1994, the USDA revised their home canning guidelines effectively telling folks the only lids they recommended were the new two piece metal snap lids even though thousands of housewives had used the glass lids and glass inserts for ages. Two reasons caused this to happen with the first being the companies producing the metal lids paying to have them tested and because there is a visible indentation when the lid seals, they were viewed safer regardless of the fact metal lids can give false seals. Home canning grew in popularity amongst the back-to-the-land group then saw a sudden increase during the y2K scare. Now, home canning continues to increase in popularity because there is a growing disillusionment with the food industry. Folks are taking matters into their own hands by snubbing their nose at the food industry, choosing instead to put up their own healthy, preservative and additive free foods. Into that mix comes another segment of the population interested in home canning, the ones who want or have to save money on food costs.
Home canning is one of the most frugal activities you can do. You can save a substantial amount of money. Like many home canners, I can year round but the busy canning time when local produce is in season here is from mid-May through mid-October. During that time as each kind of produce comes into season, I try to can the amount we will need to get to the next season for that produce. For example, when local asparagus is in season, I will put up enough to last until it is in season again the following year. This takes a bit of planning. My first goal is to can enough so we don't run out of that food item and second is to not can so much of one food item that the stock cannot be used within an eighteen month to two year time frame.
What this really means is I have to have a plan. With a plan in place there is less chance of problems during the busy canning season when there is a tendency to be running the canner multiple times in one day. It is easier to keep the focus on processing local, in season produce leaving those foods like meats, poultry and dried beans that can be canned year round to the quieter canning months. That doesn't mean those foods that can be canned outside the busy canning season won't be canned then if the opportunity presents itself, just that I know they can wait while I get those foods canned that won't wait. Here's how I create a plan for the busy canning season:
- the home garden - The home garden is where I like to grow certain fruit and vegetable varieties as well as fresh herbs that I cannot get in the grocery stores. For example, if I have plans to make a particular tomato based sauce, I may plant a couple of different varieties of basil.
- know the local growing seasons - If you want to save money on home canning you need to know when each fruit or vegetable comes into season in your area as well as how long it is in season. For example, asparagus is the first vegetable to come into season here. It lasts about three weeks. The best time to can asparagus starts about four days into the season but avoid the last few days of the season as well as the asparagus can be tough. There are several resources to help you determine when each crop comes into season. Simply watching the grocery stores can give you a clue. Foodland Ontario is an excellent resource for those home canning in Ontario. Keep in mind that some local crops are available year round as they are grown in greenhouses. For canning purposes, I choose the field variety of these crops leaving the greenhouse varieties for fresh eating during the rest of the year.
- size of jars - I tailor the size of jar to the product being made always with the goal of preventing waste once the jar has been opened. For example, we will use a 500 ml jar of green beans for one meal. If I can them in 1 L jar, half the jar would go into the refrigerator where it could get pushed to the back and forgotten meaning half the jar of green beans is wasted. Another thing I do consider when choosing jar size is processing. I can process 7 - 1 L jars or 16 - 500 ml jars at one time in the pressure canner meaning if I use 500 ml jars I am actually processing one litre more than if I used L jars. My favourite size is 500 ml (pint) used for some jams, most vegetables, condensed soups, mushrooms, meats, pasta meat sauces, dried beans, stocks, stews, fruits, sliced pickles, chili sauce and salsas. Next is the 250 ml jars used for jams, jellies, condiments, some fruits, fish, poultry and ham. I use the 1 L and 750 ml jars for pickles, tomato based sauces and some soups. I use the 125 ml jars for specialty items (eg. fancy jellies, hot sauces).
- amount of jars - The easiest way to calculate the minimum number of jars needed of a particular food is number of servings per week X number of weeks. For example, a 500 ml jar of green beans is two servings for us so I need 1 jar per meal. If I serve green beans twice a week I need 2 x 52 = 104 jars, 500 ml size. If I can them in 1 L jars so have the jar is used for one meal and the other half used for a meal a couple of days later then I need 52 - 1L jars. Now, we spend a little over 2 months of the year at our vacation home so most in my position would reduce the number of jars of a particular food to factor that and I do for some but for others that is part of my 10% extra for entertaining and gift giving. Another useful way to calculate the minimum number of jars needed for some specialty foods (eg. taco sauce, seafood sauce) is by recipe batch. A recipe may make 7 - 250 ml jars of a particular food of which you may decide to only make one batch so you only need 7 jars of that size. I continue in this fashion until I have calculated the grand total of number of jars needed.
- take food inventory - Once I have an itemized list of the number of each jars of each type of food I want to can, it is time to take inventory of what I have in the pantry. My calculations may say I need 104 - 500 ml jars of green beans but my records show we ran out a month before the new green bean season started or I may find that last year I made 8 - 500 ml jars of bread and butter slices but have 6 left. In both cases I will adjust the total amount of that food needed to be canned this year. At the end of the inventory, I have a rather good idea of what I need to can and how many jars of each food that I am canning along with what sized jars needed.
- take canning needs inventory - Next, I take inventory of all supporting ingredients (eg. Pomona's pectin, Clear Gel, sugar, citric acid, pickling spice, canning salt, etc) and canning supplies (eg. lids, jars). With my food list in hand, I calculate how much supporting ingredients and canning supplies I need. If anything needs to be ordered like Pomona's pectin or Clear Gel, I order it the first week of May in the amount that will last a good year.
- canning equipment check - The last thing any home canner wants is their equipment to malfunction during a heavy canning session. My pressure canner is an All American so it doesn't have a gasket but when I was using the Mirro pressure canner, I checked the gasket before the busy canning season. I still check the gaskets on my pressure cookers that are often used in the prep of various foods to be canned. I also check the Kitchen Aid strainer and grinder attachments to be sure they are in good working order.