Call it a reaction to high food prices, food recalls, and a bad economy. Or just call it retro chic. But there's no doubt canning is newly trendy among people who a couple of years ago probably didn't give much thought to what goes into a jar.
According to a recent survey by Opinion Research, 43 percent of consumers interested in canning are ages 18-34. And since 2009, searches for "canning recipes" on allrecipes.com has increased 61 percent during the summer months, says Judith Dern of the popular website.
But the process of canning, or "putting up" food, is not something to be taken lightly. You still have to make sure the food you're saving is safe.
In time for Saturday's first annual National Can-It-Forward Day, where food bloggers and chefs will do live and web streaming demos of goodies like mixed berry jam and pepper jelly from Seattle's Pikes Place Market, we wanted to get some tips on how to do it right.
We turned to Lauren Devine-Hager, a test kitchen scientist at Jarden Home Brands and editor of the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. Jarden makes the iconic Ball jar, which pretty much has the market cornered.
Here's an excerpt from our interview, edited for length and clarity.
Q: There's lots of beautiful, high-end jars of chutney and jelly in the stores these days. Why should we bother with canning ourselves?
A: What we're finding is a lot of people for either health reasons or dietary reasons need to have control over salt and sugar. There's a lot of people with food allergies now, especially young kids, so parents are looking at all the nutrition labels pretty closely. So people are turning to canning because they know exactly what goes into that jar. Of course, the sense of accomplishment... is something that is unsurpassed.
Q: Are there actually nutritional benefits to canning your own products?
A: You're taking [food] at its peak of freshness and preserving it, very much like commercial processes. But [in this case,] it's control over what you might add to it.
Q: It seems like you have to have a lot of stuff and it takes a long time and an army of people to get it all done. Is that true?
A: That's one of the myths out there...It really isn't that complicated.
Q: What are the basic steps?
A: Basically you prepare your gear. Wash your jars, lids and bands, and prepare your stockpot. The second step is prepare your recipe. Step three is going through the preserving process, so you're filling your jar, you're putting it in your rack, lowering it into the stockpot and bring the water to a boil.
(Note: For a detailed list of equipment and times and recipes, see the National Center for Home Food Preservation. You can buy basic boiling water canning equipment for about $10 on the web or at many hardware stores.)
Q: So, what if I have my grandmother's recipe for bread and butter pickles from the 1930s? Is it safe? Should I go for it?
A: We always recommend you start with a current tested recipe. We do get that a lot. Either check in with us and see if we have one that's very similar. Or reach out to your local cooperative extension agent.
Q: Are the health risks real, like botulism?
A: People always correlate botulism with canning. In all actuality, there's only certain foods that that bacteria even thrive on, and those are low-acid foods... like [certain] vegetables, meats, poultry and seafood...those are the types of foods you always have to can in a pressure canner. It's a totally different method that will get you to a higher temperature.
(Note:The process of canning hasn't fundamentally changed since Napoleon's day, according to FoodReference.com: "Heat sufficient to destroy microorganisms is applied to foods packed into sealed, or 'airtight' containers. The canned foods are then heated under steam pressure at temperatures of 240-250°F (116-121°C)." How long and how hot depends on the food's acidity and density.)
If you're ready for the canning challenge but are not growing your own food, you can still get plenty of fresh produce at the grocery store or even one of the country's more than 7,000 farmers markets. Check out this handy list from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other related websites and apps for more food sources.