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Yes We Can
How canning, pickling and preserving connects us with our food
By Michael Ames
Photos by David N. Seelig

It wasn't that long ago that the microwave oven was a miracle, a magic, time-saving machine. But today’s food trends are moving mostly in reverse. For the conscientious eater, TV dinners and other one-time wonders are beyond passé—they are downright evil. If our relationship with food goes in cycles, it seems we are right back at the beginning.

Perhaps no trend bears this out more clearly than home canning. "Putting up food," as it’s known, is a serious throwback to a less convenient time. Most modern humans would agree that industrial canning methods have worked just fine for preserving fresh foods for months, years or even decades. Canned foods fed 19th-century explorers and soldiers in two world wars and remain a basic fact of life in remote settlements throughout the known world. At about a dollar per unit for most staple vegetables and legumes, the classic tin can continues to be sound economic policy for any household.

But for fervent believers in today's fresh-and-local movement, the tin can is flawed. Preserving food at home in the kitchen takes some time and know-how, but has several benefits. Methods of home canning range from the relatively simple pickling—where salt and vinegar preserve everything from cabbages to cucumbers to beets—to the pressure cooking and sanitizing of spinach, beans or just about anything you can seal into a glass jar. Pickled pigs ears? Why not? Canned chili con carne? Absolutely.

The time and effort involved in all of this is invariably worth it. According to Kaz Thea, who teaches home-canning workshops at the Sawtooth Botanical Garden and also manages the Wood River Farmers" Market Association, foods preserved at home are superior by just about any metric.

Let's start with taste. Thea pointed out that the extreme pressure and heat used in the industrial methods tend to break down consistency and flavors. There's a reason that those supermarket beans from a tin can don’t hold their shape in soups and stews. Factories may be economically efficient for manufacturers, but they could turn your pasta e fagioli into a mushy, beany mess.

There is another, lesser-known benefit of the home-canned bean: a longer shelf life once the jar has been opened. This is likely due to the fact that home canning occurs at a lower temperature than the supermarket variety. Thea buys black turtle beans from local organic hero Mike Heath of M&M Heath Farms in Buhl, Idaho, soaks them overnight and cooks them for an hour or so before canning. This process is low impact on those delicate beans and they will last much longer in her fridge than even the best organic beans from the store. The homemade version’s best feature, however, is its most essential: "The beauty of canning is you have food that will last you a few years," Thea said.

Be aware, however, of home canning’s real and present danger: botulism. Despite Clostridium botulinum bacteria’s recent cameo in Botox skin treatments, botulism is a serious and potentially fatal toxin. Even more frightening, some strains are odorless, colorless and extremely difficult to detect. "If I open a can, and it's doing some sort of funny bubbling thing, I’m probably going to throw it out," Thea said.

The high-heat, sanitization and vacuum-sealing processes of home canning are therefore particularly relevant with low-acid vegetables like green beans, corn and beets. In these foods, it is vital that bacteria-breeding oxygen is removed through the sterilized, vacuum-sealed canning process.At higher altitudes like ours, water baths must boil longer for fully sanitized foods. Canning higher-acid fruits and pickling vegetables in vinegar carries far less risk. Adding lemon juice or citric acid also helps to ensure a botulism-unfriendly environment. (Check canning-specific cookbooks or government sites like the National Center for Home Food Preservation——for current, detailed instructions on canning a wide variety of foods at home.)

Pickling brine, a solution based in salt, vinegar and/or sugars, kills off unwanted bacteria while simultaneously highlighting many foods' best flavors. Depending on the intensity of the brine, pickled foods will last several months or more.

At CK's Real Food in Hailey, head chef and co-owner Chris Kastner pickles several dozen jars of bread-and-butter pickles in the early fall to use all winter on hot dogs and sandwiches. Last September, his staff stocked up on 150 quarts of sliced spicy Hagerman cucumbers pickled with garlic, chilies and onions. Kastner also pickled a panoply of peppers in big two-gallon jars, which he finds to be "a great snack and diet aid."

For use throughout the winter, Kastner and Thea preserve tomatoes in a variety of preparations (smoked, strained, pureed, roasted, sauced). And the relishes, chutneys, hot sauces and jams that can be concocted from goods grown at home or purchased at local farmers' markets, perfectly embelish simple winter foods.

For Thea, the point of preserving the fall harvest goes beyond the immediate pleasures of taste and practical preparation. "We've taken the joy out of cooking and eating," she said. "We don’t spend much time in the kitchen anymore.”

She sees pickling and preserving as one remedy to our complacency. "If we can define the value of food and get back into the kitchen, people will find joy there, like our grandmothers used to have."

Chef Taite Pearson mixes and pours perfect pickling elixirs in the kitchen at Sego Restaurant in Ketchum, where preserved foods are a key part of his gourmet philosophy.

Perfect Preserves
by Kaz Thea

Chutney A sweet and sour combination of fruits and spices. Apricots, nectarines, peaches and plums work well. Green tomatoes, too. Acidic vinegar helps chutney keep for several months. Additional flavors to add include onions, garlic, raisins, ginger, mustard seeds, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, salt and chili peppers.

Canned/Preserved Fruit The simplest way to preserve fruit. Peel fruit by quickly blanching, then halve or chop to desired size. Pour a hot, sweet syrup over the fruit and fill the jars.

Tomatoes Forever versatile, they can be canned as a salsa (combined with onions, sweet and hot peppers, cilantro, lime, vinegar, garlic and spices), cooked into tomato sauce with garlic, onions, herbs and spices, or roasted slowly in the oven with oil, salt and pepper. Tomatoes can well for later use in recipes such as chili, lasagna, pizza or soup.

Pickling An effective and flavorful way to preserve most vegetables, including asparagus, cucumbers, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, radishes, jalapeños and zucchini, as well as fruits such as plums. Choose only the freshest vegetables, ideally within 24 hours of harvest, as they will deteriorate in the jar if too old. Pickling is achieved with vinegar- or salt-based brines combined with strong herbs and spices such as garlic, allspice, ginger, bay leaves and hot peppers.

Fruit Butter Thick, creamy and spreadable, fruit butters are made from slowly cooking fruit and sugar and adding spices to enhance the flavors. Fruits like apples, plums, apricots or peaches are cooked with apple cider, sugar, cinnamon and cloves. Fruit butters can be used as a fat-substitute in baking, spread on toast, added to an oil and vinegar salad dressing or used as a filling for layer cakes.