Editor’s note: This is the first of an occasional series on do-it-yourself food preparation.
I’ve been a canner for decades, and for many of the early years, that meant no more than a batch of raspberry jam or a few jars of mango chutney, maybe some dill pickles. About six years ago, I began to stock my pantry in a different, more practical way. Some of that change was spurred on by a pledge to eat more healthfully, to buy food grown locally and to reduce trash (plastics, tin cans and foam packaging). But I can’t deny that a good part of my growing interest in DIY happened because I just love a good kitchen project.
Are you ready to up your kitchen game? Over the next few months in Food, I’m going to show you how to create or process more of the grocery items you have been buying. Some projects will be so straightforward and so simple, you’ll slap your forehead and wonder why you haven’t done it before. Others will take time and might challenge you. And each one will put the most delicious homemade food on your table and fill you with a sense of accomplishment.
Please understand: There won’t be even a whisper of finger wagging if you’re not embracing an entirely DIY kitchen life; but if you are trying to make better food choices, if you aim to eat locally year-round and if you want to know what goes into everything on your plate, there is no better place to begin than canning under pressure.
Let’s start with the elephant, a.k.a. the pressure canner: hulking and heavy with gaskets, dials, clamps and something called a petcock. It’s an intimidating, expensive piece of kitchen equipment, but it can change your preserving habits from hobby to sustainable practice. (See sidebar.)
The pressure canner might look like the first stop on the road to DIY crazytown, but once I examined the groceries I was carrying home and considered which of those I could make myself, I found I was using it at least twice a month. We’re talking pantry workhorses: chicken stock, ready-to-eat soup, canned corn, plus canned black, kidney and pinto beans. Once I took on tomatoes, salsas and barbecue sauce, the investment in a pressure canner was a no-brainer.
I’m going to get into some science here; stick with me. Acidity, referring to pH and not to flavor, is the primary reason to use the pressure canner. It’s likely some of your favorite foods are low acid (high pH): onions, garlic, peppers, corn, beans and many tomato preparations such as salsas. Foods with those ingredients need special care for safe preserving. They must be brought to 241 degrees to kill food-borne toxins (such as botulism). Water-bath canning, in which jars are lowered into boiling water, brings the contents of the jars to 212 degrees and is safe for high-acid foods, such as most fruit jams, or foods that are acidified with vinegar, including most pickles. It is impossible to bring the contents of the jar to the necessary 241 degrees without the aid of the pressure canner.
With a pressure canner, you can put shelf-stable stocks (bone broth) and low-acid/high-pH vegetables (chili peppers, corn, beets) on the shelf without pickling. Tuna and salmon are sensational treats when pressure-canned and cured in oil. Your own pressure-canned meaty chilis and soups are microwave-ready staples you can feel good about sending off to your college student.
And for all you tomato gardeners and tomato canners, here’s what I found as the biggest selling point. Using the pressure canner to put up tomatoes is faster. Quarts process for 15 minutes instead of 45 minutes. For those of us who, annually, put up 50 quarts or more (ahem), I swear this gives you back an entire day of your life.
I store this behemoth in my basement and haul it out a few times a month. Making most pressure-canning recipes can be stretched out over two days, if that’s easier for your busy schedule. In the case of dried beans, I soak the beans in the morning. At dinnertime, I simmer them for the required 30 minutes while chopping and prepping. While dinner cooks, I pack the jars and prepare the canner. And by the time we sit down to eat, the canner is ready to process. I leave the whole thing to cool overnight; the next morning, I remove the jars, then wash, label and store them. At this point, it’s an activity that seamlessly blends into the rest of my kitchen life.
Cooking beans via the pressure canner is my favorite way to go. The beans’ essence seems almost enhanced, with a velvety texture and exceptionally fresh, nuanced flavor. In the past month alone, I’ve made minestrone, black bean burritos, cassoulet, hummus and ribbolita.
What I like best about them is their broth. Steve Sando, the effusive founder of online heirloom dried bean retailer Rancho Gordo, agrees: “The bean broth, to a bean person, is just as important as the bean. When you use commercial beans you have to wash it off.”
According to the Bean Institute, draining and rinsing commercially canned beans removes up to 41 percent of their sodium content. Of course, cooked, no-salt-added beans are more widely available now, as well as the new asceptically packaged beans. But none of them includes that creamy, flavorful broth. When you can your own beans at home, it’s possible to enjoy the broth and control, or eliminate, the salt.
No bean recipe, whether it involves cooking up a pot on the stove to eat now or preparing them for canning, can escape a debate: to pre-soak or not to pre-soak. For canning, the National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends pre-soaking and simmering beans before pressure canning. Yet the question of whether to soak dried beans before cooking them remains a sticking point among bean lovers. Some rogue home canners (I’m looking at you, Mr. Sando) are using a new method: half-filling the jars with dried beans, covering with boiling water to a
In unscientific testing of my own, I found that pressure canning using that method gave inconsistent results; the freshness of the dried beans was a factor. Within a few months, canned older beans looked withered and loose in the jar, having absorbed all the glorious bean broth.
I pressure-can black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans and cannellini beans, as well as black-eyed peas, borlotti beans and my personal favorite, Rancho Gordo’s Moro bean, which is a sensational choice for refries. Garbanzos get a workout as hummus or chana masala. Tarbais are cassoulet-ready. Because all those beans take the same amount of time to pressure-can, it’s possible to process several varieties all at once — brilliant efficiency, to my mind. Most pressure canners hold seven quart jars or 19 pint jars, or about 3
Jars of beans fit right into a regular dinner rotation, but go ahead and share them this get-together weekend with two of my favorite no-fuss recipes for any super sports-watching day.
Garbure, a classic recipe from the southwest corner of France, makes the most of all the winter vegetables in the market. It simmers away in a ham-flavored broth until the cabbage melts into a thick and sturdy stew. Ladle it hot over a garlicky thick toast and finish with a scattering of duck confit. For the enthusiastic fans in your house, serve a mountain of nachos oozing with melted cheese, crisped chorizo and those exquisite beans.
Still not convinced? I started canning beans at home for the variety. For years, I cooked up a big pot of beans — typically one pound of dried beans at a time. My husband and I would diligently dig in for days, but the two of us could not eat them all before they turned sour or just bored us to tears. I tried freezing them in smaller quantities, but then I was faced with frozen beans that were not at all useful when I wanted to make dinner right then and there.
Now, I reach for a glass jar of beans, homemade, delicious and just enough for the two of us.
Barrow is the author of “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving,” (W.W. Norton, 2014). She blogs at www.mrswheelbarrow.com. She will joinWednesday’s Free Range chat at live.washingtonpost.com.