by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
(disclaimer: the following is all totally based on actual life experiences)
I'm not sure if it's the economy, or our current pace of life, but there seems to be a definite upswing in folks, especially younger generations, wanting to slow down to a simpler lifestyle with a do-it-yourself attitude. Once started on this track, the idea of canning and preserving your own food eventually comes up. I can't deny it - it's definitely an attractive proposition, but be forewarned: once started upon, it's a slippery slope.
Jams and jellies are the gateway drug. Maybe you spotted some fruit that could be gleaned from a tree in your neighborhood, maybe a colorful display at the Farmers Market drew you in. Whatever the source, you just have to try your hand at it. And no denying it - the results can be beautiful: sparkling jars full of jewel-toned goodness; the smug satisfaction of seeing them all lined up with pretty little labels; the warm contented feeling of a hunter/gatherer providing for your family. It's hard-wired into our DNA.
And it was so easy. You want to do more. Apples! Applesauce is easy! Soon, you'll move on to pickles (amazing how many things I've seen pickled). You start scouring garage sales for jars, haunting the second-hand shops for a pot big enough to use as waterbath canner or even, the Holy Grail of canning, a pressure canner. Everyone on your gift list (and even those that didn't know they were on your list) is going to get the fruits of your labor, your own home-canned goods, wrapped up in pretty fabric or tucked into decorated baskets. Now, don't get me wrong - that's not a bad thing (especially if you can get the recipients trained to return the empty jars).
But please, stop and think. Just how much processed sugar, salt, and vinegar do you and your loved ones really, actually, eat each year? If your canned goods aren't being used and replenished on a regular basis, you're just wasting both cupboard and jar space. I just checked - I still have a jar of peach jam made in 1998. We just don't eat that much jam. We have a friend that keeps bees - Aries would much rather put honey on his toast. I have another friend that makes the best strawberry freezer jam, and I'm on her gift list (and, I always give her one of my jars, right on the spot - I know how important that is). I've quit (pretty much, anyway - it's sooo hard to go completely cold turkey) making jams and jellies.
This suggestion is for those only thinking about canning too. Start tracking how much of anything you really do use in a year; and canners, how much is left over at the start of the next year's harvest (make a spreadsheet, start a journal, put hashmarks on a list taped inside your cupboard door - whatever works for you). You might not have to make every thing, every year. If spring frosts or blight kills off your harvest three years out of four, you might have to can enough to last for four years whenever you get the chance. Note too, the size of anything best suited to your family's use. If you only use a half-pint of applesauce at a time, filling up quart jars just because they were a good buy at a yard sale is crazy. Knowing, then making a plan, means you can optimize your jar space, storage space, and garden space.
Something else to think about: not only how you're going to store it (some preserved items I still need to keep refrigerated), but also how you're going to use your end product. Only high-acid items - fruits, pickles (made with commercial vinegar - homemade vinegars may not be acidic enough), and tomatoes (and with some varieties now being bred to be low-acid, I always add lemon juice to each jar, just to be safe) are safely preserved in a boiling water bath, and safe to eat cold. All other vegetables, and meats, must be pressure-canned, and then once opened brought to a full, rolling boil for a minimum of 10 minutes (20 minutes for spinach and corn) before tasting. I do have a few jars of green beans, but we much prefer the taste and texture of frozen. The canned ones turn to mush as a side dish - they're only used in winter soups, and I won't bother with canning them anymore.
Canning can be a wonderful and useful skill to have, but please, use it responsibly. I know. I've been there. My name is Sadge - I'm a canning addict.