Preserving a Way of Life
Infusing Canning Traditions with New Flavors
In past eras, pickled, canned and preserved foods were the foundation of meals during winter months. Whether taking advantage of an overabundant garden or finding creative ways to bring new flavors to the same fruits and vegetables, canning was a way of life. Today, as more people are paying greater attention not only to where their food comes from, but also to what they do with, this old tradition is making a comeback.
While there are many styles and techniques for preserving foods – from raw and hot packing to pickling, preserving and fermenting, the general concept is pretty simple: Prepare food, seal it up (with heat, in most cases) and store.
There’s something magical about taking even just a few ingredients and packing them into a jar, then waiting while they transform into something different. It’s a physical reminder of how time changes things.
I wanted to give it a try, but was hesitant. How involved would it be? Did I need lots of special tools and ingredients? Most importantly: Would I make myself sick? (Side note: The Internet is a scary place … whatever you do, don’t search “botulism” around the time you start canning.)
Questions (and potential health risks) aside, my stubborn streak meant that I wanted to try things on my own the first time. I like to figure things out as I go. Sometimes that means finding out that my intentions didn’t add up to the desired results. In other cases, I’m pleasantly surprised that my plan worked. In this instance, I came across both scenarios as I used recipes from a few blogs and the usual social media suspects.
Among the easiest and least involved was a recipe for small-batch refrigerator pickles from Illene Sofranko, founder of The Urban Canning Company, a St. Petersburg-based cannery. Illene’s creations have become progressively more popular as folks discover her unique pickles, mustards and jams, many of which incorporate local flavors – think mustards with beer from Green Bench Brewing Company and jam made with roselles (otherwise known as Florida’s cranberry) from Inspire Seeds. Illene produces her goods at The Kitchen 24 – a commercial kitchen in Oldsmar introduced to her by Tiffany Ferrecchia of Tampa Bay Markets – and demand has necessitated a little help in the kitchen, a role filled by Lauren Grothe. Recently, the two went through 25 lbs. of beets in one day to make Ginger Spiced Beets.
Illene obviously knows her stuff, so after my initial trials, I consulted her for more on the art of preserving foods.
She commiserated with me about my initial fears, admitting that even after canning for years, she psyched herself out with a family recipe for pumpkin jam from the turn of the century. But she always goes back to what her Uncle Ray – who schooled her in the art – taught her: “People get nervous about the quantity and think they have to make a ton. But making five or six jars takes just one to two hours,” she explains.
She also assured me that you don’t necessarily need any fancy tools for pickling and jamming, though a canner with a rack, a hanging ladle, a funnel and canning tongs make the process easier. Beyond that, the bottom line is the importance of sticking to proven recipes, Illene insists, since the timeframe for boiling or pressure canning (and therefore the proper seal for safety) depends on the acidity of the food being prepared.
As I researched and tried my hand at canning, I’m happy to report that I suffered no ill-effects. In fact, I learned that it’s actually pretty straightforward. And while canning isn’t so much about saving money and surviving anymore, it can bring us back to our roots. From supporting local agriculture to cutting food waste to simply creating unique flavor profiles, there’s a lot to feel good about when you make something yourself.
“We are so far away from what it takes to make something from start to finish by hand. If it can’t be done in 15 minutes, most people don’t have the patience,” Illene laments. “But you can really taste the difference.”
Try these recipes – one super-easy for beginners, one a bit more adventurous (in flavors and process) – courtesy of Illene Sofranko at The Urban Canning Company.
THE LANGUAGE OF CANNING
Head space: The amount of room between your food and the top of the jar. A general rule of thumb: one inch of space (or to the bottom thread line on the jar) for pickled recipes; one quarter of an inch (or to the top thread line) for jams and jellies.
Finger tight: Referring to how the jar is sealed; the top should be turned by hand with one twist until it feels secure. Avoid re-gripping and forcing it tighter, as air needs to be able to escape during processing to create a tight seal.
Canner: Basically a specially designed pot for canning. Two types of canning equipment recommended for fresh preserving include a boiling water canner for high-acid foods and a pressure canner for low-acid foods.
Boiling water method: Used to process high-acid foods, this method transfers heat to the food by boiling water surrounding the jar for the time specified by the recipe.
Cold pack: Filling the jar with raw ingredients prior to pouring hot brine over them.
Hot pack: Simmering the vegetables or fruit prior to filling the jar and processing.
Pressure canning: A method used for low-acid foods like vegetables, soups and meats.
Put up: How many cans you make. Small batch canning is usually around a half dozen at a time.
Check out these local businesses for inspiration (and some tasty preserved foods).
The Urban Canning Company: Pickled foods, jams, jellies, and mustards. Spanning the region, you’ll find Illene at fresh markets and pop-up locations like Squeeze Juiceworks, Rare Hues, Local Public House and Provisions, Green Bench Brewing Company and Brew D Licious. facebook.com/TheUrbanCanningCompany
Sunshine Canning: Sarasota-based company selling jams and pickled foods, and offering classes. sunshinecanning.com
Brimstone Originals: Specializing in gourmet pepper jellies, find them at the Saturday Morning Market in St. Pete, stores like Mazzaro’s and Whole Foods, and restaurants. brimstoneoriginals.com
Jay’s Italian Olive Salad: Delicious on muffuletta sandwiches and bruschetta, you can find this olive salad at their St. Pete location, fresh markets or online. jaysmarketplace.com
Our Lady of Perpetual Pickles: More canning than just actual pickles, sold at markets throughout the area. facebook.com/perpetualpickles