I've mentioned before that we have an especially large garden this year. It's much bigger than anything I've ever attempted before. So I anticipated that I would need to store at least as much of that food as we eat fresh. To that end I finally acknowledged that I would have to seriously consider canning as a storage method. I weaseled out of this last summer because we had a new chest freezer and a much smaller garden. What little preserving I did went into the freezer because I knew I wasn't set up for proper canning. But the chest freezer filled up alarmingly fast with a side of lamb and a side of pork, some fresh summer vegetables, as well as apple cider and apple butter from our own tree. And then this spring I stockpiled lots of homemade no-knead bread so I wouldn't have to bake any over the summer.
That's the rub with canning: it really needs doing during the hottest part of the summer. And where I live summers are formidable. But with a stiff upper lip, I placed an ad on craigslist looking for canning supplies such as tongs, jars, and a pressure canner. I lucked out right away with a call from someone who wanted to give away two old pressure canners. Free is my favorite flavor, and it's always in the budget! Even better, there was a pair of canning jar tongs included in one of the boxes. Then I picked up about 70 canning jars for just $5 from another caller.
So far, so good. But I still needed to buy the disposable canning lids, a canning funnel, and a magnetic thingamajig to fish hot lids out of simmering water, all of which set me back $27. And since I have no idea how old the sealing rings are on the (quite old) pressure canners, I decided it was a safe bet to replace those. I ordered two new sealing rings for $20, including shipping. So far I'm out $52 for my canning set up. This is not a huge amount, but neither is it insignificant. At least not to me. True, most of it went to buy things that can be used again and again. But even so, I look at that figure, and it's money that is now gone forever. I know it will be a complete waste if I do not follow through with some serious labor. Just to break even, I need to put up a quantity of food whose ingredient costs are at least equal to $52. Any food canned over and above that amount means money saved; I'll start earning a return on money spent out of pocket, and on my own labor in gardening, cooking, and canning. After inventorying my jars, I find we have 57 quart jars and about a dozen jars of other miscellaneous sizes. If I filled all those jars, I think we'd be in the black this year on the canning front.
I've decided that salsa, tomato sauce, borsch soup, and possibly beef stew would be my main canning projects for the summer. Our garden is well stocked with salsa ingredients, and my husband eats a ton of the stuff as a snack food. Tomato sauce is always good to have on hand, and I have a simple roasted tomato sauce recipe that's very quick to prepare. We love borsch soup, that hearty Russian classic that is as good warm in the wintertime as it is refreshing and cold in the summer. We have cabbage and beets from the garden, the primary ingredients in this soup. I put some away in the freezer last year, but it got eaten up pretty quickly. So this year I plan to put up at least three gallons of the soup.
I watched my mother can strawberry jam and dilly beans with the water bath method when I was a child. I vividly remember the steamy, sweltering kitchen. But she never used a pressure canner. So I have no mentor to help me figure out the pressure canning process, which frankly makes me a little nervous. But I do like to read, and I have good reference books on canning as well as the owners' manuals for those free pressure canners. I feel that learning to can is a valuable frugal skill. So I'm going to tackle it, even if I'm a little nervous about it, and dreading the additional heat.
Wish me luck. And if you have any advice, please feel free to leave it in the comments! I'll post updates of my experiments, whatever triumphs or failures are mine, along with recipes that work well, if any.