By Eugenia Bone
Photography by Megan Schlow and Andrew Brucker
By Eugenia Bone
About 25 percent of all households in the U.S. preserve foods—the majority of whom live in the country and do so for all sorts of reasons: necessity, pleasure, health (a serious canner friend of mine once overheard a mortician say that in the past people used to have to get a body into the earth real quick, but nowadays a human body will hold for two weeks due to all the commercial preservatives it contains).
Home canning reduces your carbon footprint, increases the quality of your dining experience and provides a sense of independence from the industrial food complex—all excellent reasons to get into it. Small-batch recipes can be done in a tiny kitchen, and if the recipes are sophisticated but simple, and complement the primary flavor of dishes that can be prepared over the next few weeks, months or even a year, you can save lots of time on shopping and dinner preparation. Plus, it’s rewarding, relaxing and cheaper than therapy. And, of course, canning is a very satisfying approach to eating during a recession.
What follows are suggested food-preservation techniques—all simple, all safe. Basically, through home preservation we either a) kill all spoilers, or b) retard the growth of spoilers: You can’t get sick from a spoiler that is inert.
This is a way of processing high-acid foods like fruits and pickled vegetables for long-term storage. Because spoilers, including Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that cause botulism, cannot develop in a high-acid environment, foods that have a pH value of 4.6 or lower are safe to water-bath can. High-acid food is packed into clean or sterile glass jars with metal bands and new lids, and the jars are boiled in water for a prescribed amount of time. Successful water-bath canning is composed of two simple stages: killing elements that cause spoilage of foods (enzymes, mold, yeasts and bacteria), and establishing a sealed container where new elements cannot be introduced. These conditions, combined with the high acidity of the food within the jar, ensure that harmful microorganisms do not develop and that the food is safe to store on the shelf. This process is ideal for fruits.
You must own a pressure canner to process foods in this way. Steam builds up in the airtight cavity of the pressure canner, accomplishing the same thing as a water-bath canner, but at much higher temperatures. This technique kills all spoilers. Period. Pressure canning is used when processing low-acid foods (pH 4.6 and higher), like meat, fish and vegetables without added acid.
This is the process by which food is solidified by bringing it to temperatures between 0?F and 32?F, which in turn slows the metabolism of foods and the spoilers that may live on them. Spoilers are not destroyed, but they don’t bloom, either. With proper defrosting and prompt cooking and/or heating, spoilers on foods that have been frozen will never amount to anything. This process is effective for a large variety of foods.
Pickling is the process of preserving foods in a high-acid solution. Spoilers cannot grow in a high-acid environment. This state of high acidity is achieved two ways: by means of salt, and by vinegar (though when you pickle with vinegar you usually add salt as well). Many pickled foods are preserved for shelf life by additional water-bath canning. This process is good for low-acid (pH 4.6 and up) vegetables.
Curing is the art of permeating food with salt via a dry cure or brine. Salt draws water from cells, which dehydrates the flesh. As spoilers need moisture to grow, salt-cured foods provide an inhospitable environment for microbes. Likewise, salt enters and dehydrates the microbes themselves, causing havoc with a spoiler’s ability to survive. Cured foods must be refrigerated. Cold- or hot-smoking food is often performed in conjunction with curing. Smoking adds flavor, kills microorganisms through heat and extends the life of the product. It is an excellent process for proteins.
Preserving in oil
In this process, foods are covered in an impenetrable layer of oil and refrigerated. Foods that are precooked—which kills many spoilers—before being covered in oil and refrigerated last longer than raw foods that have been covered in oil and refrigerated. As air cannot penetrate olive oil, it acts as a seal between the foodstuff and the environment, putting off the growth of spoilers longer than simple refrigeration. The bacterium that causes botulism prefers an anaerobic (without oxygen) environment, but can’t bloom into toxin under refrigeration. The downside of preserving in oil is the food becomes saturated with oil—useful only in recipes to which you would have added oil anyway.