Preserving your summer produce can save you money this winter

Every August, AJ Zozulin knows he’ll be canning tomatoes.

“It’s easy to track the seasonality,” he said. “Oh, it’s my birthday? We’re canning tomatoes for 18 hours.”

The bounty of short summers in Minnesota also produces a perennial problem for gardeners and CSA farming subscribers: too much food, not enough time. The rush is on, especially now that home gardens will soon be under threat of the first killing frost.

The overwhelmed sighs — or scuttling around pantries for canning pots — echo throughout the state as resourceful prep-steaders and urban farmers find ways to preserve or pickle or ferment the berries, cucumbers and cabbage otherwise taking up space in the refrigerator.

We’ve got some advice from the experts on how to start preserving produce now to save money later.

Preserving your wallet

Canning is on the rise in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic, as more Americans seek a shield from inflationary pressure in the checkout line. Google Trends reveals searches for “canning” and “Ball jar” spike every August.

With the additional ingredients, processing and shipping, canned goods from the store can zap your wallet more than home-canned items. According to Tasting Table, for example, the inflationary price increase of apples was 6% between 2021 and 2022, while the price of canned vegetables spiked more than 12%.

Preserving food can also prevent you from wasting it and, thus, money. Each year, Americans throw away 119 billion pounds of food, totaling more than $408 billion, according to Feeding America.

Everybody can can

First, decide whether you want to use boiling water and a bath canning pot (which you can nab for under $100 on Amazon) that comes with a rack to hold up the jars or a pressure canner (under $300). A USDA-approved pressure canner works for high-acid produce, such as fruits and tomatoes, and low-acid foods, such as meats and veggies. But a traditional pressure canner is only for low-acid foods.

Next, find those fresh tomatoes (there are many farmers markets around Minnesota for those without their own stash). Then get preserving jars, some citric acid and salt.

With the supplies ready, the kitchen part is straightforward. Sanitize the jars using hot water and dish soap, washing the lids and bands, too. Prep the tomatoes — eight to 11 medium-sized ones fetch you about 3 pounds — by scrubbing them clean and dipping them into boiling water for a minute.

Using tongs, lift the tomatoes from the hot water and put them into a cold water ice bath so their skins slip off (some also find etching a small X into the bottom with a knife pre-blanch helps with peeling). Then, trim away green areas on top and cut out the core.

At this point, your route can veer, depending on whether you’ll be “raw” or “hot” packing the tomatoes. For a “raw” pack, you’ll place the tomatoes in the jar, leaving a half-inch headspace. Pour more hot water over them, add the teaspoon of salt, then the half-teaspoon of citric acid. Remove air bubbles by gently tapping the jar on the counter, wipe the rim clean, apply the lid and band and adjust until finger-tight.

Finally, place the jars back into a boiling water-bath for up to 40 minutes per pint and remove the jars. A day later, check the seal. (If the lid flexes, the seal is not set.)

A month, four months, even six months later, unscrew and pop off the lid to use those tomatoes for your salsa or spaghetti sauce while you’ve got a foot of snow outside on your lawn. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, you should generally consume home-canned high-acid foods, such as tomatoes, within a year.

In a pickle

Canning — which doesn’t involve cans at all, but glass jars — isn’t the only way to preserve foods. There’s also dehydration, freezing, pickling and fermenting.

Freeze that sweet corn by tossing the cob into a Ziploc and stuffing it in the freezer. Leafy greens, too, can stay fresh in the freezer after blanching. Foods with a lot of moisture — like tomatoes — are a no-go, though.

Pretty much anything can pickle with some vinegar, water, salt and sugar. Barb Schaller, a champion canner and food preservationist living in Burnsville, has won four blue ribbons at the Minnesota State Fair for her pickled beets, though she’s never tasted them.

“I think pickled beets — really any kind of beet — are disgusting,” Schaller said.

The daughter of Austro-Hungarian immigrants and the youngest of 13 children, Schaller said she peeled tomatoes as a girl for her mother to can. She only started canning when her husband threatened to drastically prune a favorite plum tree of hers, which threw plum goo all across the yard.

Soon after, a jar of Schaller’s homemade plum jam appeared. But she often also pickles produce from the big-box grocery stores.

She’s stacked up countless ribbons for her bread-and-butter pickles. Family tradition dictates that she cans the bread-and-butter pickles in the fall and waits until Thanksgiving to eat them, after the cucumbers have soaked up six weeks of brine.

Safety first

It’s important to note that none of the aforementioned methods of preservation forestall bacteria indefinitely. The National Center for Home Food Preservation, for example, encourages using pickled eggs within three to four months.

Some recent canning podcasts and books have even tried using the Instant Pot or other small pressure cookers for pressure-canning. But this adaptation is a big no-no with the USDA and other safety experts.

“Don’t confuse pressure canner with pressure cooker,” said Becky DeLaCruz, a University of Minnesota Extension certified food preservation consultant in Hennepin County.

A Utah State University study found electric pressure cookers might not fully destroy harmful bacteria for canning low-acid foods. And this bacteria can cause food-borne illness.

There are more than 100 reported cases annually in the U.S. of infections of Clostridium botulinum, more commonly known as botulism, a “rare but serious condition,” according to the Mayo Clinic, that can be life-threatening.

The whole point of food preservation is to eat quality foods that, well, stay safe to eat, said DeLaCruz. Refrigeration slows micro-organisms that can cause decay. Freezing, too. But canning actually eliminates bacteria by removing oxygen.

DeLaCruz notes that any foods with low acid need to be pressure-canned in traditional stove-top canners. For higher-acid foods, it’s safe to use water-bath canning.

And in the end, make sure you store everything in a dry, cool place, not in a damp garage or under the sink.

“When we talk about great-grandma’s recipe, I say we have got all this research and science behind us now that shows us these are not safe procedures,” DeLaCruz said. “Just because nobody got sick in your family and/or died is lucky.”

Pantry staples

Whether it’s living through the pandemic or for years down in Florida, where a hurricane could cut her off from the grocery store, DeLaCruz said canning has provided her with shelf-stable foods in a pinch.

“If you’re able to grow your own produce or get it from a trusted farmer, and you preserve it, you know exactly what you’re putting in the jar,” DeLaCruz said.

For Zozulin, keeping home-canned goods on his walled-in, three-season porch has meant not just an opportunity to use summer’s plums in a jam for friends in February but also a chance to shine on our state’s biggest stage: at the Minnesota State Fair. In August, Zozulin won a blue ribbon for canned tomatoes.

“I’m still a little star-struck,” he said. “We have big plans to enter a lot of stuff next year. I mean, there are so many categories, like the dill pickle category: There’s one with garlic and one without garlic.”

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