It's canning time in the South.
With gardens now yielding ripe vegetables, some conscientious consumers are opting to can their own food instead of buying processed versions.
Canning or freezing one's food gives people a sense of accomplishment, said June Puett, an agent with Hamilton County University of Tennessee Extension office.
"Nothing tastes better than homemade jam or canned tomatoes in vegetable soup in the winter," she said.
But there are precautions to take when canning or freezing food, Puett said.
First, proper equipment is key, she said. The type of equipment needed depends on what is being canned.
"Low-acid foods, such as meats and most vegetables, must be processed in a pressure canner which has a dial or weighted gauge," Puett said, noting that the devices cost $50 and up.
"A water-bath canner -- the big enamel pot with the rack that hold jars in place -- is used for high-acid foods such as pickle products, jams, fruits and salsa. Tomatoes can be processed in either canner, but don't forget to add bottled lemon juice to raise the acidity to a safe level. Water canners are available for under $20."
Canning or freezing one's own food does not necessarily save money, she said.
"It isn't cheap. Consider your electricity costs, jars, new lids, product [if you don't grow your own] and additional ingredients such as sugar, pectin and pickling spices," she said.
Still, canning or freezing one's own food gives people control over the quality and additives in what they eat, Puett said.
Food safety is a priority when canning, she said.
"There are several steps to follow to ensure safety: starting with optimal quality product, sterilizing the equipment and using proper techniques. That's why it's so important to use USDA tested recipes and instructions," she said.
And, importantly, the shelf life of canned goods is only one year, Puett said.
Beware of "cooktop stoves" when it comes to canning.
"Most smooth cooktop stoves cannot be used for canning. Consult your manufacturer," she said. "Many have cracked due to the extreme heat, or they may not reach the correct temperature to maintain the required heat to safely destroy the toxins."
According to the National Center for Food Preservation, sterilizing the equipment is a priority. A national survey conducted by the Center in 2000 revealed a high percentage of home food processors are using practices that put them at high risk for foodborne illness and economic losses due to food spoilage, the center reported.
And don't always believe what you read on blogs and some Internet sites, Puett said. Instead, turn to the experts for information, she said. (Recommended websites are listed on Page E1.)
"I've read many postings that are absolutely unsafe. You don't want to alter or make up your own canning recipes," she said. "It's way too dangerous."
Canning season is actively underway, she said, explaining that peaches and cucumbers are the most prevalent foods presently being canned.
"Expect local tomatoes around the first of August," she said.
As an alternative to canning, many people opt to freeze food.
"These require less equipment and time," she said. "They can be frozen for a year and the jams are safe to store in the refrigerator for three weeks. Tomatoes and green beans are the most popular, but many people are trying more adventurous relishes and fruit combinations.
"Freezing is easier. Blanching is the most important step," Puett said. "The disadvantage is the storage space. Most people don't have the chest freezers that our parents did."
The Hamilton County University of Tennessee Extension will offer a Food Preservation Class on Oct. 18, 6-8 p.m., at 6183 Adamson Circle. The cost is $20. Call 855-6113 for reservations.
Yield: About 8 pints
6 lbs of 4- to 5-inch pickling cucumbers
8 cups thinly sliced onions (about 3 pounds)
1/2 cup canning or pickling salt
4 cups vinegar (5 percent)
41/2 cups sugar
2 tablespoon mustard seed
11/2 tablespoon celery seed
1 tablespoon ground turmeric
1 cup pickling lime (optional -- for use in variation below for making firmer pickles)
Wash cucumbers. Cut 1/16-inch off blossom end and discard. Cut into 3/16-inch slices. Combine cucumbers and onions in a large bowl. Add salt. Cover with 2 inches crushed or cubed ice. Refrigerate 3 to 4 hours, adding more ice as needed.
Combine remaining ingredients in a large pot. Boil 10 minutes. Drain and add cucumbers and onions and slowly reheat to boiling. Fill jars with slices and cooking syrup, leaving 1/2-inch head space. Place jars in a canner filled halfway with warm (120 F to 140 F) water. Then, add hot water to 1 inch above jars. Heat the water enough to maintain 180 F to 185 F water temperature for 30 minutes. Check with a candy or jelly thermometer to be certain that the water temperature is at least 180 F during the entire 30 minutes. Temperatures higher than 185 F may cause unnecessary softening of pickles.
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Source: June Puett