Liveblog: Canning, Preserving, Foraging

BlogHer Original Post

Welcome to the liveblog of the BlogHer Food '10 panel "Values - The Old-School Arts: Canning, Preserving, Foraging."

Here's the description:

Sean Timberlake of Hedonia and Punk Domestics

Audra Wolfe from Doris and Jilly Cook

Marisa McClellan from

Surprise guest! Hank Shaw from HAGC foraging specialist

SEAN: Who cans? (Most of audience). Who forages (not many)?

QUESTION: What's the difference between foraging and gleaning?

HANK: I don't forage olives, I glean them -- go to say a park where nobody's using this healthy but neglected tree and pick them.

SEAN: Also after a harvest you can come and sweep the leftovers.

MARISA: I think that's the original meaning of the term.

AUDRA: Windfall means the same?

HANK: Windfall is when your crops are pulled down by a storm midseason, it's damaged goods

MARISA: I always thought that meant downed food from orchards. You can pick it up and eat it though you're not allowed to pluck.

AUDRA: Me, too, it's a bounty.

SEAN: I brought some props, here are standard issue canning jars. Bed and Bath, Amazon, the low-end grocery store but not Whole Foods. Half pint, pint, quart are the common sizes.

MARISA: If you're canning peaches, pickles, beans, use a jar with shoulders and narrow mouth to stack tightly and prevent float.

AUDRA: Whole tomatoes might want a wide mouth, pickled okra too. If your goal is to display at a state or county fair, use a narrow mouth. Though not for peaches.

HANK: I have big hands so anything like pickles gets a wide mouth, narrow mouth gets sauces and other pourables.

SEAN: I have tons of quart jars from freecycle. Lids have rubberized gaskets that make contact with mouth and seals. When they're sealed you can pick them up by the lid. Then there's the screwtop that keeps the lids in place. There are also Tattler lids -- hard plastic with rubber gaskets, reusable and BPA free. Traditional lids have a BPA lining and can only be used once for canning. Don't recan with them.

Weck jars from the bakery opening in Maiden Lane next year, they're European, adorable, expensive.

Comment - AMY - slightly different process too.

MARISA - Slightly, I taught a Weck jar class, which I hadn't tried before, but I have done similar with vintage baling wire jars with rubber gaskets (which you can still buy and they still work fine). You don't have the satisfying ping upon sealing. You do simmer the rings. When you're canning with conventional jars you simmer to soften the sealing compound. I find it more nerve-wracking. With conventional lids you can poke at them while they cool. With Weck jars you have to wait until they cool, take the clip off and only then find out if it's sealed. The little tab on the gasket will point down when it's sealed but you can't tell for sure.

How the panelists came to canning

MARISA - I grew up canning. I'm a child of back to the land hippies, they never bought a farm but they lived in Santa Cruz, dumpster dived for greens to feed their chickens, we always gardened. I grew up in LA and Oregon and there's just a lot of fruit in both places. My mom knew how to can and so that's what we did. I had an obsession with jars before I started canning. I just liked jars. And I started food writing, I was the editor of Slashfood, it was time to start a food blog and I just guessed I'd start a food blog about canning and it's taken over my life. But I also like knowing what's in my food, having control. I like having a taste of summer. I live in a tiny Philadelphia apartment with tiny freezer space. Now, holiday gifts are the easiest.

AUDRA - My parents have a working farm so I grew up with everyone canning on both sides of my family. One side was more everyday, other was more artisanal and that grandmother would sell her products. I got interested in canning and needed gifts. Then I had a lot of chicken stock and no freezer space. And finally I was on a reduced salt diet for a while and consumer products with reduced salt were not good. California has amazing veggies year round but not where I live. My husband and I also wanted to do more local food when we could. Canning dehydrating fermenting freezing, playing around with root cellars. I found Barbara Kingsolver inspiring.

HANK - I don't come from a canning family but I come from an area of NJ with a lot of Italians, when you walk into an Italian's house there is supposed to be antipasto immediately, something to eat. I adopted that tradition, I always had pickles etc. I only can those things I can do better than the store and those things I really want to keep. I don't do jams or pickles but I do tomato sauce and some of the real precious things like foraged sea beans. Stuff like that that I won't have a chance to get for a while and responds to that treatment. But I don't want 50 cans of dillybeans, I won't eat that, but I will have 42 jars of red sauce cause I eat it.

AUDRA - someone asked me about 20 year old peaches and I said "No don't eat it." But someone from the USDA told me they tested a 50 year old can and it was fine! Perfectly safe!

SEAN - I came from one of those Italian families, but we didn't can in my generations -- we were in the age of convenience. Until recently I didn't know you could can and when I did I had a wild obsession, wanting to can everything. It does take time to figure out what it is that you do eat and want to have on hand. Otherwise you're canning for canning's sake.

Why is this a current and important trend?

MARISA - Perfect storm for canning right now. 1) Uncertain economy, people don't want to waste. 2) People concerned with local food and not wanting Israeli tomatoes (really?) 3) People concerned about what's in their food.

AUDRA - the first step with eating locally is farmers markets. When you first start buying at farmers markets you don't realize how short some of these seasons are. You have a short window to get the perfect peaches and then they go away for a year. It is depressing! The generation above us, lots of people weren't doing food preservation. The generation before that was, and a lot of them are leaving us, and there's a tie, people are reaching out to that tradition.

SEAN - In her book, DIY Delicious, Vanessa Barrington talks about going to her grandmother's and being struck by the beauty of the cans.

AUDRA - Traditions and heirloom recipes are great but make sure to check the old recipes against current food safety rules and approved guidelines. Waterbathing certain kinds of vegetables and chicken stock is really not ok.

MARISA - Be aware that produce has changed. Many tomatoes have been bred to be less acidic and sweeter, you may need to acidify them.

AUDRA - there was a fab chart on the U of Minnesota website that gave relative acidity levels of tomato varieties. High acid or low acid canning - high acid foods are safe for waterbathing; low acid foods are not safe. Botulism spores will not be killed by waterbathing at 212 degreens; you have to pressure can. But dillybeans, pickles -- the highly acidic solution you pour over them kills the spores. Make sure you vet the recipes you read and make sure it seems safe. Not as many people die of botulism but it is invisible.

MARISA - If you stick to high acid you'll never kill anyone.

HANK - Tomatoes are the debate. They're right at the edge of the acidity cutoff. I take conventional Romas, in Sacto it's a sign of summer to see tomato trucks. I've never acidified my Romas but I use Romas. Would I use a Big Boy? No, I'd throw lemon juice in there.

MARISA - if you pH tested it, you'd probably find it's safe. You can't trust your taste buds. A plum has far more acid than a tomato.

COMMENT - Amy of Winebookgirl - If you really care you can get pH strips and test, it's a line of insanity I haven't crossed, I'd rather throw in lemon juice.

SEAN - Could be a precaution when you are doing serious recipe development. The threshold, by the way, is 4.6.

AUDRA - I'd advise against strips. They're not as sensitive at the 4.6 region that you want. Also if you were doing a pickled beet you're interested in the center of the beet, not the acidity of the solution, that won't help you. Publishing guidelines, people are using a pH probe, pureeing the ingredients and doing it over time. Unless you're recipe developing, it's a big commitment. So start with a published recipe until you know what you can change and why.

Books for first time canners

MARISA - Putting Up (or Putting By, can't remember) is a book that has instructions on pH testing. He recommends pH testing all your products, because he was a commercial producer. He says always can a 4-oz jar so you can puree it and tell that is safe. I only develop recipes in the safe ranges, myself.

SEAN - Stick to the USDA guidelines and you will never fail.

QUESTION - Sarah - guides, authors you would recommend for first timers?

MARISA - a book came out this summer: Put 'Em Up by Sherry Brooks Vinton. It's not glossy beautiful pictures but it is so useful. Lots of line drawings, it's comprehensive, she deals with fermentation. I love So Easy to Preserve from the University of Georgia. It's no frills, anything you ever want to can you will find there. If it's not in there you can't can.

AUDRA - They have a website and the same people who do the National Center for Food Preservation. Put Em Up is arranged by produce rather than types of canning -- not all foods are most suitable for canning. Also a basic, trusted resource: The Ball Blue Book. From the Ball jars. It's conservative and traditional, the recipes may not be as hip as you might want. The Joy of Pickling is common sense safe, in some cases she pushes boundaries of allowable processing. She occasionally endorses low-temperature processing for delicate foods like cucumber pickles. That's on the verge. Don't loosen up anything you see in Joy of Pickling.

HANK - I go dangerous. My favorite book is a compilation of home recipes from Europe on preservation without canning or freezing. Super old school caveat emptor. Preserving Food Without Freezing and Canning: The Gardeners and Farmers of Terra Vivant. There's a fermented tomato sauce, you're making a tomato wine, ferment it with salt for a few weeks and skim off the mold, then cook it to boil the alcohol. It's got a tang. They're old recipes. You kind of have to know what you're doing first. I like the other books for beginners.

AUDRA - Can you tell me about oil pickles? Do you dare?

SEAN - I have a batch of zucchini that's an oil pickle but it's a refrigerator pickle.

AUDRA - Have you done traditional oil pickles without vinegar that you just leave in salt and oil on the counter?

HANK - Yes I have done one. One of my most popular catering items are Sicilian sundried zucchini. I will cut them into rings, salt them so they weep, skewer them and place them in my 114-degree Sacto garage until they're like leather. For flavor and maybe safety, I toss them with vinegar, put them in Mason jars and cover them with tons of oil and they sit for a year. Yes they're in oil but they're dry and have salt and vinegar.

AUDRA - people ask me about it a lot, saying they worked for thousands of years, why not now? Well, people used to get more food poisoning and I wouldn't be comfortable serving or blogging them but I'm intrigued by them.

HANK - I confit meat and preserve it in oil all the time, though. I'll layer fat and confited legs in a wide mouth jar and place it somewhere under 70 degrees so the fat is solid. You've cooked the hell out of them and you've strained the juice so it's airtight layer of fat. I have an old fridge I set at 55 degrees where I keep them.

MARISA - homes used to be cooler. Room temp didn't used to be 72. I live in an 1100 square foot apt on the 24th floor of a high rise and don't have control of my climate so I don't ferment much. I can't get my apartment lower than 70 degrees. I can't ferment much more than sauerkraut, I'm jealous of Audra's basement.

SEAN - Speaking of fermentation …

AUDRA - The basic concept is change the ecology of the product to encourage the right kind of bacteria. The most common way with veggies is lactic fermentation, things in the sauerkraut family. They like it a little cooler and you can tinker with the amount of salt. Besides thinly slicing the cabbage its easy. Slice, salt, put it in a jar and remove the air. The cabbage releases its juice so you can submerge it in its water within a day, but it takes 5-6 weeks in the '50s. It's fantastic. The fermentation process enough acid that it's safe for waterbath cabbage. But you wouldn't want to waterbath them if you're fermenting them because you're seeking healthgiving qualitites, water bath kills them, store them in the fridge.

HANK - My favorite fermented pickle is carrot sticks. You get a different flavor from a lacto fermented and a vinegar pickled carrot. It's the only time I reuse the brine. It's pretty strong. Submerge the carrot sticks with a plastic bag filled with the brine. Do it in the winter, somewhere under 70 weeks, once it's sour enough, I boil the brine. I grow different varieties of carrots so my pickles are different colors and real pretty. Sometimes I do colors in different flavors.

AUDRA - Similar to the difference between a half-sour and a dill cucumber pickle.

QUESTION - Steph O'Dea of A Year of Slow Cooking - when you're doing a waterbath, it's in the pot, you're covering them fully and then you're bringing them to a slow boil, right? Is that the process? Can you do that in a Crock-Pot?

MARISA - No. There are 2 reasons to do a waterbath. 1) is to make sure you have enough heat in the jar that the when you remove it from the bath oxygen goes too and your seal is airtight 2) kills the bacteria. Yeast is in the air, it's great, it makes bread rise, but it also can infect a jar. You need a rapid boil that's consistent for the processing time, which the Crock-Pot doesn't do. When you're processing you don't start your timer when you put jars in the hot water until it comes back up to a boil. Crock-Pot is great for prepping what you're putting in the jar. I did lots of slow cooker fruit butters this year. It's good for tomato paste. I break raw tomatoes down in the Vita Mix, then do a slow cook on warm in a Crock Pot, then strain in a food mill then finish the paste process.

QUESTION - Can you can chili and sauce?

MARISA - That is pressure canning but yes. You can even pressure can uncooked beans and they will be soaked and ready to cook when you open -- I'm trying that.

AUDRA - Yes you have to remember the distinction between pressure and water bath canning. A boiling water bath will never get hotter than 212 until the phase change is completed, until it all turns to steam. Similarly that's why you can't bake something to can. Stew in a 350 degree oven will still be 212. In a pressure canner the volume has to stay the same and the pressure increases an in that conditions, you can actually get hotter. If you can't pressure can, you need to then freeze.

HANK - Tomato sauce, tomatoes and salt is it. Real sauce with onions and stuff, you have to pressure can.

COMMENT - AMY - Or acidify your recipe -- pressure canners are a LOT more expensive.

PANEL - Eh, not super expensive, they're in the $80-100s now.

AMY - Well try the cheap water bath canning first and see if you like canning.

MARISA - Shelf stable homemade chicken stock will CHANGE YOUR LIFE.

QUESTION - Hank what are the flavors you use to pickle your carrots?

HANK - If I told you I would have to kill you.

QUESTION - What would be good ingredients to start with?

PANEL - Bread and butter cucumber pickles, asparagus, dillybeans, applesauce, jams in general.

MARISA - Apple jams are good this time of year, apples are high in pectin so it'll set. Dillybeans are pickled stringbeans. From the Southern tradition people make them with dill. String beans take a lot of cooking to get soft. The other thing to think about, if it's something you're cutting, you're rupturing cell walls, so they'll be softer than a whole vegetable. This is why you'll run into recipes where you'll salt something first, those stay crisper than a pickle that you haven't done anything to. I hear from lots of people who are disappointed with their mushy pickles. They didn't have their pot at a rolling boil, they cut it too thin, they cooked it too long. The texture of a mushy pickle … ugh.

AUDRA - start with applesauce if texture bugs you.

SEAN - Beets, beans, carrots, cauliflower.

AUDRA - Pickled beets are great. And expensive to buy.

COMMENT - Steph O'Dea. What about olives? My father in law cures them with lye, dare I eat them?

HANK - the lye cure is at least 2,000 years old. The Romans did it. I don't normally do the lye cure. Too much lye is a terrible olive. Too little lye and it doesn't cure. I use an old old style - google how to cure green olives and my post is number one. I do a brine or water cure. The water cure is easiest. Slash each olive with a knife, drop it in acidulated water. Fresh olives are fragile, easy to bruise or discolor. Your father in law eats them and he's still alive. The most foolproof is to brine cure which takes 9 months or water cure them which takes a lot of diligence for 2 weeks.

SEAN - I've done brine and water cured olives, but had a mold problem.

HANK - you need the mold, it gives fermentation and flavor. I don't skim the mold until it forms a leathery cap.

AUDRA - I'm curious, for those of you who have canned, what's disappointed you? I wonder if there will be a mini backlash of people who do realize they don't like textures or pickles.

COMMENT - Gudrun of Kitchen Gadget Girl - my big problem is canning what I don't want to eat. I make a lot of jam, my kids eat it and I give it away. Sometimes my jar doesn't seal so I refrigerate it. Then I need to make sure I know where my cans are and eat them.

HANK - Date your jars.

GUDRUN - Then I can't give away older jars or I'll freak people out.

HANK - Put a new sticker on it.

MARISA - You can't write the date with a marker on those hard plastic Tattler jars. Create batch numbers so that if something goes wrong with a jar in a batch you can pull all of the problems. Only if you work in bulk, I did 100 pounds of tomatoes this year.

GUDRUN - Actually don't sticker you jars because you want to reuse them. When you give your jar away ask them to give it back, they're valuable.

SEAN - shows prop jar with a 3 year old sticker that won't wash off.

MARISA - canning jar etiquette -- people have told me they make little poems to gently remind people to give the jar back.

COMMENT - Amy - if it's gone in a wet jar it doesn't leave my house. I do a lot of gifts but don't use expensive jars and lids. I'd love to get it back, but 1 in 10 comes back.

SEAN - If you return the empty jar we'll give you something full in return.

COMMENT - so save the jar dump the lid

SEAN - you can keep the lids but can't recan with them. You can use them for freeze, fridge, dry goods.

MARISA - Don't bother telling people to dump lids, just ask for it all back.

AUDRA - The ring is reusable. When I buy new lids I keep them in their box, is how I keep track.

COMMENT - Are you supposed to take the rings off your jars?

AUDRA - Yes. First, they get moisture underneath and rust more easily. Also, there's a safety issue. If something goes wrong in your jar pressure will build up and you want the lid to come off, that’s your sign that you shouldn't eat it. The ring makes it harder for that lid to pop off. You want it to be easy. That's why some people advise against using wax when canning.

MARISA - if there's something growing it'll pop the lid even with the ring but it will be messier, it won't explode but you'll know sooner.

AUDRA - it happened to me with corn relish, I noticed a wetness and the lid had come off a jar. I don't know if it hadn't sealed or if something else went wrong, who knows. You don't know, you have to be ok with "I don't know what happened but I have to throw it away."

HANKS - I love pickled root vegetables, I do a lot of them. If you don't cut your pieces reasonably small they won't pickle all the way through and you get a nasty punky scent and the center will be nasty. Cut them into quarter sized pieces, that always seems to work for me. I'm not sure how you pickle whole big beets?

AUDRA - if they're small. In my family we ate our beets cubed.

QUESTION - the other day I opened a jar of piquillo peppers that were preserved in water with citric acid and salt. Have you done that?

HANK - I have #1 or #2 how to preserve roasted red peppers. I roast peppers so they're good and cooked. Cut them into strips. Throw them on a sheet pan mostly submerged with vinegar. Hit them with salt, layer them in real tight soaking in the vinegar, use a chopstick to get the air out, top it with a little vinegar and 2 inches of oil. That's it, I don't water bath. 9 times out of 10 they'll work fine and you can tell if you don't, they'll be gross. But I imagine they're steam canning, pressure canning - citric acid only preserves color.

QUESTION - Gudrun - you can can in actual tin cans?

HANK - I know one guy in Alameda who makes tin cans for home use, no idea how it works.

MARISA - people did it in the 40s

GUDRUN - what about jars with single piece lids like store jam jars?

AUDRA - a company sent me some to try out. They have a little rubber on the inside. When you buy a commercial jar of say salsa, it's the same principle of canning. The official USDA recommendations don't include them because it's more difficult to tell if something goes wrong. You'll still see a convex lid though. My concerns are that the whole lid is unusable because the side is attached, you'll have to toss them each time. They look nice!

COMMENT - they're hella hard to get out of the canner, I use a jar lifter. I had to go in with a silicone glove.

AUDRA - or these are lids for regular Mason jars, just with a one piece lid, they work in jar lifters.

MARISA - there are different ones that don't work with a jar lifter.

SEAN - if you get jars that do not seal, you can reprocess the food right away with a new jar and lid.

AUDRA - not for stuff like cucumbers that will be too soft .

COMMENT - Amy - I just put the jar back in and it reseals.

AUDRA - I had a problem this summer with Kerr wide mouth pints in a pressure canner.

Is this just a fad?

MARISA - The frenzy will die down but the interest is there. We're canning differently than we used to. People are going to find that home canned products taste better. You find a couple things that become your thing. You don't have to get through the winter. Sour cherry jam is impossible to find but it's amazing. That kind of canning will stay around.

AUDRA - I do want to last through the winter because I want to buy at the farmer's market. I think other forms of food preservation are getting short shrift at the moment. You have fermenting, infusing, dehydrating, freezing, root cellaring that people can branch out and explore and eat locally more easily.

HANK - I personally have gone through what Marisa described. I can never have too much fire roasted pickled jalapenos, tomatoes, red peppers, and I will spend the time during the ball game and can, that's part of the rhythm of my year, it's not just a fall thing. In terms of foraging, that will probably go away. Foraging is hard. People have a hard time wrapping their mind around it. Those people who do a lot of it now will come back and realize that it's a hell of a lot of work, that they're eating because it's fun and a find. The long-term ternd is people will continue to pillage blackberry bushes and can that, and figure out exactly what a morel looks like and go look for them each year.

SEAN - Fair point. There's a phase of discovery and the frenzy may pass but people who have gone through it are still doing it and will end up passing it on. I had my first foraging experience and have been harvesting fennel pollen and seed.

HANK - cut the baby wild fennel heads and infuse them in Everclear. Also the best ghetto root cellar in the world - fill your crisper with playground sand, your root cellar will last 3 times longer buried in the sand sideways, like they're growing in the ground.

QUESTION - your go-to recipes that you really love. As a beginning canner I have recipes I loved and some that were "meh." How do you get to those go-to recipes? It's a lot of work to make something and be not that into it.

MARISA - look at what you already eat and pick things you can replicate. Cut the recipe in half or quarter so you're not committing to 10 jars. It is trial and error; people have different tastes. I am making fruit butters instead of jams. They're lower in sugar, and you're cooking it down so long you're making less per fruit than you would jam.

SEAN - I make a lot of strawberry jam for my husband and apricot jam for me. 42 quarts of tomatoes gets us through exactly one year. We know this. Everything else is trial and error. If you're not into it going into it, then maybe you don't want to do it?

QUESTION - Steph O'Dea - where do you store 42 quarts?

SEAN - Basement.

AUDRA - keep track, keep a canning journal, and you'll probably not get it right for a year or two in terms of quantity. You need to eat as much of your canned goods as you eat, don't skimp, so when you run out you know how much more.

Your liveblogger is Honeybeast. Check back during the panel (2:30pm - 3:45pm October 9) for the liveblog!

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