A baker’s dozen of canners, all of them women, turned out to hear a presentation by Mark A. Vosburgh, a Cornell Cooperative Extension-certified master food preserver, at the Montauk Library on Saturday. “Canning food—a hobby that you can eat” was the theme.
Mr. Vosburgh explained that he got the canning bug after winning first prize for his bread-and-butter pickles at the Riverhead County Fair. He went on to score Best in Show at the county fair in Topsfield, Massachusetts, for his Mason jars of asparagus, a last-minute replacement after “my squash didn’t work out very well.”
Canning produce allows you to enjoy healthy seasonal favorites all year long, reduces the waste in trucking fruits and vegetables from the West Coast, supports local farmers and can save money if you don’t count the time it involves. It’s also fun and creative, Mr. Vosburgh said, although you must follow cooking times strictly or run “a serious risk of getting ill.”
Even so, the master food preserver dispelled rumors about botulism run amok and jars exploding in pressure cookers. “If you can boil water you can pickle,” declared Mr. Vosburgh, whose upcoming website will be called “Let’s Get Pickled Together.”
The speaker, who lives in Wading River, explained the distinctions between canning with a boiling-water bath, as is done for pickles, fruits, tomatoes, rhubarb, sauerkraut and other high-acid foods, and steam canning with a pressure cooker, as is done for low-acid foods like vegetables, meats, poultry, seafood and soups. Then there is the distinction between hot pack and raw pack, that is, whether the food is cooked before going into the glass jar.
Speaking of which, perhaps you didn’t know that Napoleon offered a cash award to find a way to preserve food for his military, and that Nicholas Appert came up with glass jars sealed with cork and wax placed in boiling water and won the prize. John Landis Mason invented a practical glass jar for home canning in 1858 but didn’t think much of it and sold it early on to the Ball brothers, according to Mr. Vosburgh.
Canning was used primarily for military purposes until the 1920s, and given the number of Ball glass jars sold in the last six years, it has once more become “very hot,” Mr. Vosburgh said. Here are some tips he offered on Saturday:
• You don’t have to sterilize jars if you run them through the dishwasher’s hottest cycle. Heating them in a microwave is not recommended. Soak lids in hot water to soften the rubber ring.
• Jars should be checked for cracks and chips, which can prevent a thorough seal. Don’t use anything metallic in the jars.
• Wash everything thoroughly, even if it’s going to be peeled. Roma tomatoes are good for making sauce: you can get the skins off by cutting off the top and bottom and boiling the remainder very quickly, then dropping them in a bowl of ice water and peeling.
• Salt isn’t used as a preservative but for flavor and thus is optional. Any noniodized salt is fine. Vinegar should have 5-percent acidity.
• The recipe should tell you how much “head space” to leave above the contents in the jar. Peas, corn and lima beans expand, so pack them loosely. You can squeeze more in by hot packing; in cold packing the contents tend to rise to the top of the jar, “which looks a little funny,” Mr. Vosburgh said. With dill pickles you can insert the top pickle horizontally to keep the other guys down. Wipe the lid in case there are any seeds, say from spices, that could prevent a seal.
• When you remove a jar from boiling water, don’t tilt it to dump water off the top, as that’ll disturb the contents. Set it straight down, upright, and let the water evaporate. Don’t put hot jars on a cold granite countertop; protect it with a towel.
• Remove the bands so you can clean the jar’s shoulders. Mr. Vosburgh suspended a jar by its seal to prove a point. “I’ve never dropped one of them yet,” he said. Don’t eat canned food if the seal comes off easily.
• Keep presentation in mind, whether you’re competing in a county fair or not. Judges look for a consistent size of asparagus spears, for instance, and Mr. Vosburgh likes to mix red and yellow peppers in with the green peppers in his relish to make it prettier.
Speaking of relish, one woman in the audience was eager to find a recipe for India relish, and Mr. Vosburgh leafed through cookbooks to help her out after his presentation. The one book he recommended most, he said, is the “Ball Blue Book: Guide to Home Canning, Freezing and Dehydration.”
Mr. Vosburgh will lead a series of four kitchen demonstration classes offered through Loaves and Fishes Cookshop at the Bridgehampton Inn kitchen this summer, beginning August 3. They’ll cover water-bath and pressure canning; drying and freezing; and jams, jellies and chutney, and finish up with a hands-on class in home canning.