Tools of the trade

Having written about my food preservation activities quite a bit, I thought that it might be useful for any of you considering doing this yourself to know a bit about what’s required. I have collected my equipment over a number of years and when I started, I managed with the most basic items: a preserving pan, a funnel and a ladle. Since those days, I have gathered more equipment, but this is mostly because I now feel confident enough to try different techniques and preserve more challenging foods.

In the UK we have a very dull approach to preserving. Pick up a British book on the subject and you will find recipes for jams, pickles and chutneys, with perhaps lemon curd and fruit leathers. More recently, dehydrating food has become fashionable, but I’m not keen. To get really inspired, you need to cross the Atlantic (metaphorically, at least) and see what the Americans are doing. In fact it was Willowscottling who pointed me in the direction of the most useful book that I own on the subject: Putting Food By. Apparently this is an American classic, but hardly anyone in the UK seems to have even heard of it. It was because of this book and a discussion with Kate Chiconi that I finally bit the bullet and invested in a pressure canner (again not something people in the UK are familiar with, where most people think it’s the same as a pressure cooker).

So, what do I have in my collection? First there are a few books. As well as Putting Food By, I also like The Ball Blue Book of Preserving. And the I also have two books by Marisa McClellan, which are full of excellent ideas for more small-scale preserving:

Then I have two preserving pans – a stainless steel one and a brass one – as well as a pressure canner.

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pots and pans

If you are making jams and pickles, then the pans are probably sufficient, but if you are embarking on bottled (canned) vegetables and low-acidity fruits, then the pressure canner is an important piece of equipment. I’ve been told by several Brits that I could just have bought a pressure cooker for this purpose, but I disagree. The difference between a pressure cooker and a pressure canner is this:

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getting the pressure right

This is a pressure gauge and without it you cannot be sure that the food you are processing has reached the correct pressure for the right length of time. If you don’t know this, you cannot be sure that you have destroyed all possible sources of contamination – botulism being a particular hazard. I want my food to be safe, so I would not be happy bottling without this piece of equipment.

As well as pressure, you need to check that you’ve achieved the right temperature, so a thermometer is essential, Plus you need tongs to remove hot jars from hot water, and I also have little silicone mitt (the purple thing in the picture below) that is useful for handling items that are both hot and wet.

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some of the essentials

The photo above also shows some of the preserving jars that I use – various sizes, but all have lids and separate screw bands. I do actually use jars with spring clips too sometimes. And to get hot food into hot jars without spilling, a funnel is essential.

There are some other items that I have which, whilst not essential, are very useful: a stainless steel bucket (easy to sterilise and ideal for washing fruit or holding prepared fruit or vegetables prior to cooking), my passata mill (which saves me hours of work with a sieve and ensures that there is minimal waste) and a pH meter (very useful for peace of mind – allowing me to check whether the threshold pH of 4.6 has been crossed).

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not essential but oh-so-useful

And finally, although I haven’t been using them recently, I have a jelly bay and supporting frame, for making clean jellies and juices.

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jelly bag and frame

So, those are all my bits and pieces. Do you have useful equipment you can recommend? Or a particularly good book?

The first of many

I make it a policy not to turn down offers of fresh produce. Far too much food is wasted in this country and I’m always sorry to see apples, plums and pears falling from trees and rotting. In our garden we have one tiny, fairly recently planted eating apple tree – currently growing exactly four apples. If we had more space we could have a bigger cooking apple tree, but there seems little point because we always get given apples.

Just a few to ease me in

Just a few to ease me in

And so, when I got home yesterday after a trip out, I was unsurprised to find a carrier bag of apples on the kitchen counter. These had been given to Mr Snail by our lovely next-door-neighbours, who had been given them by a friend. I know that we’ll have pounds and pounds of apples coming our way next week, but this small bag was still welcome. I considered whether to wait until I had more to add them to, but decided this morning to make a gentle start to this year’s bottling extravaganza.

So I peeled and cored, stewed, bottled and then sterilized in a hot water bath. The result… three jars for the store cupboard and some left over stewed apple for breakfast this week. They are not as exotic as peaches, nectarines or mangoes, but they do form a staple for me throughout the year and, once bottled, require no extra energy for storage (unlike freezing). Plus, I know exactly what the ingredients are (apples and a tiny bit of sugar in the syrup that I top the jars up with)… now, that’s my sort of processed food!

No doubt in two week’s time I’ll be sick of the sight of apples and bottling equipment, but for now I’m just loving all the abundance and generosity.

Back to the market

Living in a place where a car journey (or a long walk) is required to get to the nearest shop, it’s good to have a well-stocked store cupboard. When it comes to fresh produce, however, things are a bit more tricky. My success with peach and tomato bottling using produce from the local Friday market encouraged me to make a return trip and seek other produce to add to my stores. So, last Friday I returned home with six mangoes plus a tray each of nectarines, sweet potatoes and mushrooms.

My haul

My haul

We ate some of the fruit fresh, but my idea was to experiment with ways to store these goodies. You can’t safely preserve vegetables or low-acidity fruit using the hot water bath method, but I have a pressure canner and so the possibilities are wide open. In addition, freezing is an option.

A little research suggested that the best way to store mushrooms (other than drying, which I didn’t want to do) is to cook them and freeze them in their lovely mushroomy juice. I decided to use 250ml Kilner jars for this purpose, thus avoiding plastic and using a container that is very versatile.

Ready for the freezer

Ready for the freezer

The nectarines are acidic enough to bottle without using pressure, but the mangoes aren’t unless you use an acidic juice (e.g. orange) as the preserving liquid. I had some beautiful red syrup from bottling the nectarines (the colour leaches out of the skins) and wanted to use this for the mangoes, so out came the pressure canner:

Up to pressure

Getting up to pressure

And I was able to safely preserve my precious mangoes, although I only managed to get two jars once I’d eaten some fresh! The result of Saturday’s activity was this:

A row of jars

A row of jars on my dresser

They’ll actually have to be stored in the dark, but they do make a handsome display for a little while.

Because the sweet potatoes last quite a while without processing, I’ve only got as far as making some of them into soup (a glorious colour) and freezing it, but I have discovered that they too can be pressure canned and so, that’s next on my list of things to try.

The lack of produce from the garden this year is encouraging me to explore other sources of fresh food, which is no bad thing. I wonder what a trip to the market will yield in another month or two?

Playing Ketchup

In normal years I make all my tomatoes into passata and guard it closely so that we can use it instead of commercial tinned tomatoes throughout the year. But this year is different. The huge numbers of tomatoes that I was able to buy cheaply last week mean that I can experiment with something different, namely.. ketchup.

IMGP6194The recipe I wanted to try out (from River Cottage) starts with a litre of roasted tomato passata, which I already have after the weekend’s activity. To that you add cider vinegar, lemon juice, pepper and various spices, plus some demerara sugar. I looked at the list of spices and decided to modify it a bit, I did use the suggested mustard powder, ground ginger and freshly ground pepper, but I omitted celery salt (Mr Snail does not like celery) and ground cloves (they make me think of toothache) and instead added some hot paprika.

In hot water

In hot water

Because of the vinegar, this concoction will apparently keep for a couple of months if you simply put it in a jar, but I want to be sure that my stored produce will last a good long time, so I decided to immerse the jars in a hot water bath for 20 minutes just to be sure. We do eat commercially-produced tomato ketchup and I will be very interested to see how this compares, because if we like it, that would be another processed food that I could cross off my list… and, in fact, there aren’t very many of them left that I still buy.

I’m interested to know whether anyone else makes tomato ketchup and, if so, what spices you put in it.

On the bottle

Three and a half days and almost all the preservation is done….

My kitchen table on Friday morning

My kitchen table on Friday morning

My kitchen table now

My kitchen table now

And in the interim, all this has happened:

And  this:

In fact, I got so involved with the process, I didn’t photograph all the stages. The tomatoes were all made into roast tomato passata, some for the freezer and some bottled (canned). The bottled ones were processed in a hot water bath, which is safe as long as they are acidic enough, otherwise they need to be pressure canned (the threshold is 4.6 and mine were well below at 3.9). I’ve retained some of the passata to make into ketchup, but I need some more jars to store it and those should arrive later in the week, so for now I will freeze it so there is no chance of it going off. As for the peaches, those were peeled (they were so ripe the peel came off without immersion in boiling water) and the stones removed, before being poached in a light syrup and bottled. Again, they were processed in a hot water bath. The left over peel and stones are now fermenting naturally to make vinegar. So, the two processes produce hardly any waste and what is left over goes into the compost.

It’s hard work, but well worth the effort – such a joy over the winter, plus the knowledge that I know exactly what has gone into the food that I’m eating and a reduction in packaging compared to buying tinned goods.

Under pressure

I have a confession… I’ve bought another a new gadget. It’s something that I’ve wanted for several years now, but have been unable to buy in the UK. Finally, however, thanks to the ‘global shipping programme’ available on a certain on-line auction site I was able to place an order from a seller in the US and pay all the import duty and shipping up-front for a very reasonable price.

So now (having coveted the ones belonging to several of my friends) I am the proud owner of a Presto pressure canner:

Hey Presto - a pressure canner!

Hey Presto – a pressure canner!

It was described on the Presto web site as an ‘entry level’ canner, since it only has a capacity of 16 quarts (US), but it’s certainly ample for what I need. Selecting an appropriate model took a while since I needed one that I could use on a ceramic hob. In addition, I had to read around to discover whether there was a difference between a pressure cooker (for sale in the UK) and a pressure canner (not for sale in the UK as far as I could find). It turns out that a pressure canner has a gauge so that you can maintain it at a specific pressure for a specific length of time (you can read more here).

Having a canner means that I can preserve all sorts of food in jars, not just acidic things like apples and tomatoes, without the risk of botulism. My first experiment is actually going to be with apples, because I still have lots of them to process, despite my dresser already looking like this:

It's an apple-fest!

It’s an apple-fest!

I will report back soon.

 

Getting a grip

One of the joys of Mr Snail being in a big city is that I can send him off on a quest during the week.

No more boiled fingers!

No more boiled fingers!

Having failed to be able to find any in Aberystwyth (well, what did I expect?), I set Mr Snail the task of buying me some jar tongs last week. First of all, I had to explain to him what jar tongs are and then I had to send him a picture because my verbal description was clearly woeful (either that or he just doesn’t have the capacity to visualise such things). Anyway, a picture was sent, a comment was received about it looking like some sort of surgical appliance and off he set to seek out what I wanted. In fact it only took him three shops, one stock search and one helpful assistant before he was able to splash out £4 on what he thought, and indeed was, just the thing.

Jar tongs, in case you have never encountered them, are designed to remove preserving jars from pans of hot water. For some years now I have, however, been struggling without a set and thus getting boiled fingers. But no more… my preserving activities are going to be safe and scald-free from now on.

Two sorts of grippy-thing

Two sorts of grippy-thing (complete with spots of stewed apple to prove I’ve been hard at work!)

Of course, we went to Lampeter on Saturday and found jar tongs in our favourite hardware/housewares shop for 40p less! Mr Snail was not impressed, but did buy me another useful jar-gripping gadget – a little non-slip silicone mitt that is waterproof, so can be used to hold wet jars, spoons and lids without hot water seeping through. I was delighted even if he was still grumbling a bit.

So now I’m making further progress with apple processing. Other things do keep getting in the way (paid work, for example) but so far I have bottled up 7.5 litres (about 13 Imperial pints or 15 US pints) of stewed apple, which should keep me going for a while. There are still plenty more apples awaiting attention, so the jar tongs are going to get a really good work out over the next week or so… don’t you just love having the right tools for the job?

Lazy Sunday

My bottled peaches and waffles made using an egg from Aliss

My bottled peaches and waffles made using an egg from Aliss

Yesterday was a busy day – volunteering at Denmark Farm (moving piles of bracken onto the compost heaps, clearing out culverts and subduing a rampant silvanberry) as a well as a couple of blog posts, plus celebrating the 50th birthday of Doctor Who in the evening. Today, therefore, has to be much more relaxed. We started the morning with homemade waffles and some peaches from the batch that I bottled in the summer… what a delicious treat, it really was like having a little bit of stored sunshine, as I had hoped. This was followed by some virtual house hunting… my sister is planning to move house (much nearer to us – hurrah!) and so we spent a long time on the phone and online looking at possible houses.

Work in progress.. fingerless mitten in 6-ply Opal Polarlichter Shade 5207

Work in progress.. fingerless mitten in 6-ply Opal Polarlichter Shade 5207. plus pattern notes

The rest of the day will be spent on creativity… Mr Snail-of-happiness has been coveting my fingerless mittens for a while now (they are brilliant to wear if using the computer when the house is a bit chilly) so I offerred to make him some (and thus to delay starting an amigurumi dragon that I spotted on  The Guy Who Crochets blog). The only pattern I have for fingerless mittens fits me, so I’m writing a man-sized version as I go along. Right now the first one is done all except weaving in the ends and I hope to make the second today… so it won’t really be a lazy Sunday after all, just a relaxing one!

Call me Eve

As I mentioned on Sunday, I had an unexpectedly free weekend because a course that I was supposed to be teaching was cancelled. I  filled my Sunday with a fabulous felting course, but I dedicated much of Saturday, in contrast, to the kitchen – baking a couple of cakes (one to take on the course) and making dog biscuits as well as processing apples.

An abundance of apples

An abundance of apples

Some unexpected visitors arrived as I was up to my elbows in apple peelings. Mr Snail-of-happiness made them coffee and entertained them whilst I continued with the apples, and gave them lemon drizzle cake still warm from the oven. They did spend a little time with me in the kitchen, and seemed intrigued by my mountains of apples. ‘Do you really need all those apples?’ one of them asked. A question that rather took me aback because it wasn’t something I had really thought about. I answered ‘Well, they didn’t cost me anything and when I have them I eat them every day for breakfast’.

IMGP1596On reflection, however, this seems like a rather lame answer. It is true that I find it hard to turn down free, healthy, fresh food and that I like cooked apples, but this only brushes the surface. I could have talked about all the food miles we would save by making use of this sort of resource; about these apples not having been exposed to pesticides; about the joy of sharing an abundance; about the value of home-produced food; about the way it is possible to preserve a harvest without industrial processing and the use of artificial additives; about the satisfaction of opening the dresser to see rows and rows of bottles and jars packed with delicious food; of the exchange of plants and seeds and crops that these apples are linked to… I could go on. But, perhaps it’s for the best that I didn’t inflict this sort of evangelism on a friend – I think it might have been off-putting… and we all know the trouble that an enthusiasm for apples can cause! Perhaps simply saying that I’m saving money by using free food is all most people want to know! And perhaps that’s one of the answers that would encourage others to enjoy this sort of abundance.

Storing the sunshine

PV panels are one way to collect the sun's energy

PV panels are one way to collect the sun’s energy

Solar energy can be collected in all sorts of ways: you can use it to heat water, you can have photovoltaic cells installed and generate electricity, you can have a sun porch and enjoy passive solar heating, or you can grow plants. Green plants use sunshine to convert water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates… that’s how they grow and that’s photosynthesis. So, any plant cultivation you do means that you are collecting solar energy (and making use of a greenhouse gas, but that’s a whole other story) and it doesn’t require a bank of batteries to store it.

The trouble is that in temperate climates we experience seasons. Some periods of the year are sunny and some not, some are hot and some are cold, so our plants are not able to photosynthesise the same amount all year, nor do our solar panels generate the same amount of electricity. Here in the UK we are currently in the middle of summer… and a rather nice one too. The sun is shining and the fruit and vegetables  are growing well (at least they are it we give them some extra water). As a result there is every likelihood that, in our garden at least, we will soon have more produce than we can consume immediately.

Of course, an abundance in the garden means an abundance on the farm too, so seasonal produce is likely to be cheap at a time when we don’t really need to buy it. The answer is to stock up on the sunshine now, or at least the products of the sunshine, and keep them so that you can enjoy them later in the year. The best fruit and vegetables in this respect are those that can be stored as they are harvested – potatoes in paper sacks, beans dried in the air and stored in jars, onions hung in strings and winter squashes ripened in the sun then kept in the cool dark attic. However, many crops require a little more work.

In the middle of processing the apple glut of 2011

In the middle of processing the apple glut of 2011

I posted the other day about bottling peaches, and ages ago wrote about dealing with the High Bank apple glut in 2011 (another is promised for this year). And, thus, I store the sunshine: bottling and freezing are the two main routes I take for produce that will not keep unprocessed. I know that many people make preserves, but we honestly don’t eat much in the way of jams and chutney, so it seems a waste to make these in abundance.

In many ways, freezing is the easier option – there is little chance of produce going off (unless your freezer fails) and there are many things that need no or little preparation before they are frozen. For example, raspberries can go straight into the freezer and, once defrosted, can be eaten as they are. Other things, such as runner beans or mange tout, require blanching before freezing (i.e. plunging into boiling water for a minute or two) and cooking when they are required, but these are very simple processes. Some vegetables and fruit do not freeze well: courgettes, for example. However, even these can be fried in olive oil and frozen for subsequent use in Bolognese, casseroles or on pizza.

But, part of me balks at storage that requires continuous energy input, so I really like being able to keep at least some of my harvest in bottles and jars. Of course, there is an initial high energy requirement for sterilising jars, boiling syrups and then heating the processed product in the jar to ensure that it keeps. But, it is possible to time these activities to coincide with the solar panels producing at their maximum rate so that we are using sunshine even more in the process. I only bottle fruit – there is too much risk of botulism with vegetables as they are much less acidic.  I use proper preserving jars and ensure that I follow the instructions (particularly minimum temperatures and timings) to the letter to prevent contamination and spoiling of the food and I find the whole process remarkably satisfying.

Once I have the dresser in the kitchen packed with jars of preserved fruit, I find myself peaking in just to enjoy the sight of all those bottles of sunshine that will be cheering many a dreary February day.

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