Sunday, October 4, 2009

Food Preservation: Do or Die

As part of my Backyard Nest Egg project, I’m back to canning. It’s interesting to me how I’ve come full circle. In the early years of our marriage, three decades ago, I started my first garden and learned water bath canning, in part, to save money. Now, although we’re financially much better off, I’m back to gardening and canning, partly in response to current economic conditions.

I got started canning back in the early 1980s with the help of my friend Pam. Recently divorced from an Army sergeant, Pam was my age, and like me, had a preschool-aged son. Pam refused to get a job before her son was old enough to go to school full-time, so she went on welfare and found other ways to make ends meet. (It probably wouldn’t have made economic sense for her to go out to work anyway. At that time, neither of us had any education beyond high school. Her low wages would have been eaten up by daycare expenses.)

Pam’s dad kept a huge vegetable garden, and in exchange for a share of the produce for herself and her son, Pam did all the canning and preserving. A resourceful woman who grew up in Tacoma, Washington, where we lived at the time, she knew - and taught me - where to pick wild blackberries, apples, and pears from abandoned orchards. We made pies and canned jam and applesauce for our little boys.

From that beginning, I expanded my repertoire to include strawberry jam and tomatoes from my garden. After a few years, however, life got busier; between work and college, I had less time for food production, and besides, we had a little more money. Why go to all the trouble to grow or forage food and preserve it? We had moved up, we thought.

Fast forward to last summer and the start of my Backyard Nest Egg project. I bought a pressure canner and canned pizza sauce made from tomatoes and basil I grew myself. We savored pizza made with that sauce all winter. The aroma when I opened a jar was amazing – nothing like any of the commercially prepared sauces I’d bought over the years. So it was a worthwhile project, even though it was a lot of work.

Moreover, it required saving up enough tomatoes for a batch. This can be a challenge with a backyard plot. Many traditional canning recipes call for large quantities of produce that a home gardener will not have all at one time. I got around that last year by blanching, peeling, and freezing my paste tomatoes whole, as they ripened, until I had enough for a batch of sauce.

So this year I was thrilled to find a book (now added to my “essential reading” list) perfect for the Backyard Nest Egg project – The Complete Book of Small-Batch Preserving by Ellie Topp and Margaret Howard. This book is full of creative and original recipes, including jams and other fruit preserves, salsas, tomato sauces, pickles and relishes – all requiring small quantities of fresh produce and only a water bath canner for processing.

The recipes are less exotic (and more numerous) than those in Eugenia Bone’s book Well-Preserved: Recipes and Techniques for Putting Up Small Batches of Seasonal Foods, but more sophisticated than the traditional Ball Blue Book recipes. For example, their salsa recipes include Papaya Mango salsa, Fresh Tomato and Black Olive salsa, and Roasted Corn and Sweet Pepper salsa. In addition to a recipe for apple butter, they also have recipes for nontraditional fruit butters, like Apricot Honey Butter and Cranberry Maple Butter. (I made the latter last week – it was marvelous; slightly tart, and the hint of maple intensifies the flavor of the cranberries).

The small batch recipes are great not just because I have limited fresh produce at one time, but also because they allow for greater variety. Back when I was making the Ball Blue book jam recipes, I’d end up with 10 half pints of strawberry jam. Unless you’re preserving for a large family, who needs that much of one type of jam? I expect to get raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries from my garden next year. A few small jars of jam from each of these would be perfect for us.

Of course, despite having found such a terrific resource, I had to make things harder for myself. The problem with me and canning is that safe food preservation requires fairly strict adherence to a tested recipe. I love to cook, but I tend to use recipes mostly as "suggestions," or jumping off points for my own creativity. If you get creative in food preservation, you have to keep within certain guidelines.

Some authorities forbid creativity in food preservation altogether, as does the food science professor at our university extension. Last April, I attended a talk she gave via teleconference for master gardeners on food preservation. She stressed that we should use only tested recipes on the university website, or Ball Blue Book recipes, and her mantra (repeated numerous times) throughout the talk was “We don’t want you getting creative!”

More than a few of us were a bit irritated by this. Why go to all the trouble of growing and preserving your own food if you can’t prepare family favorites? Or have the fun of experimenting with your own recipes? The woman sitting next to me frowned, arms crossed, and shifted in her seat. She confided to me that she wanted to try making different fruit preserves with maple syrup, rather than refined sugar.

I commiserated; I was dismayed by the salsa recipes. They hardly contained enough chilies to accurately be labeled “salsa,” in my opinion. For example, one recipe called for 8 quarts of chopped tomatoes and just four jalapeños and four “long green chilies” (huh? Is she referring to Anaheims here, or what?) I use that many chilies with two or three cups of chopped tomatoes in a fresh salsa.

I emailed this professor later to ask for advice on adapting recipes. I wrote that her salsa recipes were “awfully low” on chilies; how might I safely add more? I also asked:

Is there a way of determining the pH of a food product to find out whether the acid content is high enough for safe water bath canning? For example, can pH paper be used? Alternatively, can you give a ratio of acid (vinegar, lemon juice) to low acid vegetables (e.g, ___ cups) that will produce a safe product
for water bath canning?

She replied that she could not give such a “formula” and that:

There isn't a way to test pH that will work. That said, you can always substitute hot chili peppers for green peppers, celery, onion or other low-acid ingredient in salsa (not tomatoes, however).
She added her usual warning:

If you are a creative cook, this would indeed not be welcome news, however, to do things incorrectly puts the health of you and your family at risk.

This irritated me again, perhaps unreasonably. Obviously, we attended the food preservation talk, and I asked her advice via email, because we wanted to safely preserve food. Repeated warnings about risks to our families had the feel of trying to put the fear of God into children to induce unquestioning obedience.

Moreover, although she stressed science for safety, the measures in her recipes do not seem scientifically reliable to me. How much is a cup of chopped onion, for example? Doesn’t that depend on how finely or coarsely you chop it? (Yesterday, I actually found online a University of Georgia paper with guidelines for safe ratios
of tomatoes to low acid vegetables for salsa by weight, which makes more sense to me.) She presents a conversion chart on her website for chilies that equates one medium jalapeño to “about” one quarter cup chopped chili. I don’t know where she gets her jalapeños, or what “medium” means to her, but I’ve never managed to come up with more than about 2 tablespoons of chopped produce from one jalapeño.

I finally selected a recipe from Small Batch Preserving, but even those recipes use fewer chilies than I would prefer. And, they also use variable measurements; for example “2-4 jalapeños,” no size (medium? large?) given. So I set about carefully making substitutions. By our food science professor’s calculation, 4 jalapeños, the max allowed in the Small Batch Preserving recipe, would amount to a cup of chopped chilies. So I measured out a cup of chopped chilies. This required eight chilies; four jalapeños, and four Anaheims. I didn’t chop them finely, either. I made no other changes to the recipe.

I prepared the recipe and canned it. There was some left over, not enough to fill a jar, so we ate it that day. It was terrific, with the right amount of heat and a wonderful sweet aftertaste from the orange juice. I thought the vegetables would be mushy from the pre-cooking and processing, but they were perfect.

However, our food science professor had done her job well. I’m now afraid to serve the canned product, lest I murder my family. I emailed our professor once again to ask:

Can you recommend a company in Wisconsin where I can send home-canned product to test for safety of the recipe? Thanks.

She replied:

It would be helpful if I knew a bit more.... Are you canning food for sale and need a recipe approved?

Or are you canning food for your home use?

I emailed back that it was for home use. Her blunt response:

The approved recipes for homes are either in
the Ball Blue book or from the National Center for Home Food Preservation:

We don't recommend anything else for home canning.

That’s it. Nothing more. I can’t tell you how angry this made me. It also clarified for me that this was, at least in part, about control, not just food safety. I can understand not being able to give formulas, and the problems with pH testing, although I had to research that myself to find out why. (Turns out the pH of the finished product is affected not just by the acidity of the ingredients, but also the density, which we cannot measure at home. No explanations were forthcoming from the good professor; just rules that we are expected to blindly follow, else someone might die.) But I can’t understand the refusal to recommend a food testing lab to someone who is trying to ensure safe food preservation.

Surfing the net, I learned I was not the only one with this problem. I found a great thread discussing safe salsa recipes for canning and the difficulty of getting someone to test recipes. One guy reported that a lab he contacted directed him to the local public health department, which, in turn, refused to test anything unless someone had already sickened or died! Others had been able to get their local university extensions to test their recipes. (Lucky them – they’re not dependent on U of WI.)

I’ve found a lab locally, but they haven’t replied to my email. I'll pester them by telephone this week, and, inspired by the experiences of others I’ve read online, not stop until I find someone to test my recipe. Meanwhile, I plan to goose-step on into the kitchen and rigidly follow a recipe from Small Batch Preserving when I can pizza sauce this afternoon.

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