Have a canning party

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 7, 2010; 10:47 AM

About once a year I have what I consider a pretty great idea. This summer, it was a canning exchange, a hot-weather version of the holiday cookie swap: Throw a party and ask each of your friends to make a batch of pickles, preserves, jam or chutney. You bring maybe half a dozen jars of one kind, but you go home with a seasonal medley that lasts through the coldest months.

Brilliant. Except for that nagging little voice inside my head: Please, please don't let me kill anybody.

Canning is all the rage among food lovers. There's a host of canning blogs and new cookbooks to choose from, including "Put 'em Up" (Storey), "Canning for a New Generation" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) and "The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook" (Andrews McMeel). Late last month, a new national organization called Canning Across America kicked off a series of demonstrations and workshops to help promote the art of "putting up."

Newbie canners are seeking guidance because with canning, the casual approach doesn't work. Canning is time-consuming; mess up a batch of jam and you've wasted an afternoon. It also can be expensive. In the old days, people canned because they had an abundance of peaches or tomatoes. For some gardeners, that is still true. But for many, it's a different story. When you're paying $3 or $4 a pound for peaches and tomatoes at an urban farmers market, you don't want to screw up.

Then, there's the "killing your friends" issue. Books on canning prescribe special equipment and precise times and temperatures to avoid mold or, worse, the potentially deadly toxin Clostridium botulinum. Their stern admonitions often suggest that if you vary from The Rules, things could end badly.

"I get so stressed out canning food that sometimes if the littlest thing goes wrong, I just burst into tears," one aspiring canner posted to the online food forum Chowhound. "This is something I want to enjoy in the worst way, but the fear of messing it up and killing my family with botulism is killing me!"

The truth is, sickness from eating homemade pickles or preserves is pretty rare. Most jams, jellies and pickles - the most popular kinds of preserves - contain enough lemon juice, vinegar or naturally occurring acid to prevent botulism. According to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 263 cases of food-borne botulism were reported between 1990 and 2000. Most were caused by home-canned foods. But 103 of those cases occurred in Alaska, and in every instance where the culprit was identified, it was a native Alaskan food such as fermented whale skin, blubber, beaver tail or seal flipper.

Still, fear of canning remains fierce, even among highly competent cooks. My circle of food-writer and otherwise food-obsessed friends was jittery about an exchange of goods: Would an Indian tomato chutney be a good candidate for canning? What happens when a jar doesn't seal? Translation: Please don't let me kill anybody.

The best answer to everyone's questions seemed to be a canning lesson in which we would learn the basics. I invited Marisa McClellan, who blogs about canning at FoodinJars.com and teaches canning lessons in Philadelphia. A few years ago, McClellan was just like us, intrigued but intimidated by canning. Now, at 31, she makes hundreds of canned foods each season, including sweet-and-sour pickled red onions, pickled jalapenos and rhubarb-rosemary jam.

"Fifty years ago, everyone knew how to can," McClellan told our group on a hot August morning. "The goal of this class is to leave any fears about canning behind."

While demonstrating two recipes, McClellan delivered an overview of correct procedures. First, we learned how to sterilize jars. That can be accomplished by running them through a regular cycle in the dishwasher or by submerging the jars in boiling water for 10 minutes. The step is always good to take, McClellan noted, but you can skip it if your recipe calls for boiling the filled jars for at least 10 minutes to process, or seal, them.

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