By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Nature is not neat. It produces vines that overtake your house and trees; little creatures that make homes in your ductwork and summer gardens that can appear ready to croak in the heat just before they birth a barrel of vegetables all in the same 5-day time span.

Canned tomatoes, bright, appealing and BPA-free. (Photo

That’s why we have canning.

I don’t fear nature, but I do fear canning. Start reading the literature and you’ll quickly encounter eerie instructions like this one: “Whether food should be processed in a pressure canner or boiling-water canner to control botulinum bacteria depends on the acidity of the food.”

Whoa, is this going to be complicated? Could I kill my family with botulinum? The answers — yes and maybe — might not be what you want to hear.

You do need to know what you’re doing when you can fruits and vegetables. Jars must be sterilized; lids wiped clean and foods blanched and prepped with salt or lemon juice. You will need offbeat tools that they may not sell at the grocery store, like “lid wands” and pressure cookers. Then you will cook the heck out of these veggies in a canner or a pressure cooker to make sure that no germs survive to taint anything while your home-canned food waits in the pantry for weeks and months.

Save those homegrown tomatoes by canning or freezing them. (Photo:

Sound risky? It can be for a novice, though realistically the worst thing that happens is your fine-laid plans to stash away a storehouse of garden goodies is thwarted by some of the food going bad, which would generally be evident when you open it up in November. So you needn’t worry excessively about food poisoning. It’s often obvious when food goes bad. On the other hand, you don’t want the food to go bad.

So step one: Study up and learn the details. It won’t be so hard. Remember your grandma did this and it worked out, as far as we know anyway.

Here are some of the best sources for getting it right when it’s time to “put up” the tomatoes,  squash, cucumbers etc.

* The National Center for Home Food Preservation, based at the University of Georgia,  is a trusted source for learning how to can, pickle and freeze many varieties of vegetables — and a few things we don’t even like to think about like, ugh, pig’s feet. Really, ugh.

Pigs feet aside, the National Center is what you’ll see footnoted as the source on many articles about home food preservation. It’s the go-to source.

The Center draws on expertise from other land grant colleges and enjoys government funding. So take advantage of it. Let the experts walk you through everything from canning tomatoes and pickles to making fruit leathers, a trendy thing right now among self-sufficiency types. (You’ll hop over Colorado State University for that topic). A little advice from the green perspective here, when the instructions tell you to arrange foods on plastic wrap, find alternatives. You can dry fruit on oiled stoneware cookie sheets, for instance. (The verdict is still out on what’s leaching from plastic wrap when it’s heated, which reminds us of another way to avoid plastic issues. Let food cool before storing it in plastic bags, or even better, freeze food in jars. Yes, that’s alright to do.)

The National Center for Home Food Preservation has even added videos to their website. These were made from information in the So Easy to Preserve Book. We found the videos to be helpful, but some are only a fraction of a minute, covering a single step.

* The Ball Blue Book of Preserving. My sister tells me this is like the bible of canning, and even though I only got chokecherry jelly from her last Christmas, I know she preserves a lot more than that. The Ball Book has been around possibly for as long as the Ball jars with which you’ll likely be canning. You can buy it at your local Ace Hardware, and it’s available at used bookstores all over, having been published in a variety of iterations over the years. This book offers recipes for canning and also for freezing foods.

Jams and jellies are naturally acidic, making preserving a little simpler. (Photo:

Canning’s really not so bad, like we said, keep things clean, follow directions fastidiously, boil or pressure boil the jars. If you want to dig deeper there are a gazillion home cooks with blogs, many of whom have experience. Here’s a simple one-two-three on canning raw tomatoes on a blog “Calabria From Scratch.” You can’t go wrong here with a guide, Rosetta, who grew up in Italy and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her family has generations of experience and her blog has great pictures.

However, if canning still scares you, here’s a  good synopsis of the dangers at The basic issue here is that foods need to be acidic to store well and safely. Fruits usually are sufficiently high acid, but vegetables, even tomatoes, may require a little kick to increase their acidity and adequately dispatch germs during the boiling phase of canning.

Still edgy or just not good with boiling liquids? Can the canning and go for the simplest  approach to saving your homegrown or local, seasonal foods: Freeze them.

Many fruits and vegetables freeze surprisingly well. Most berries are quite amenable to this treatment. Just rinse, dry and pop them into freezer bags. They remain ready to adorn your pancakes or cobblers for the next year with almost no loss of texture or flavor. We’ve done this with local blueberries, which are available for about a month every summer, for several years. In Texas, where many producers grow blueberries organically (talk to growers at farmers markets and you’ll learn which fruits grow well without chemicals in your region) we grab several pints for freezing every year.

Freezing veggies is somewhat less rewarding because some will lose texture and taste. However, some adapt well to this treatment. Green beans, for instance, can be blanched and frozen quite successfully. (See this recipe.) So can carrots, broccoli and corn, which can be frozen on the cob or as creamed corn (no preservatives needed). Squash, tomatoes and eggplant, less so, because a mush factor muddles the picture.

If mush ruins it for you, there are work-arounds. Take those tomatoes and cook up a triple size batch of homemade spaghetti sauce or salsa. Cool it, pour it into freezer bags and freeze it on plates or cookie sheets so that the packages freeze flat and are easy to stack. The cooked sauce will hold up better than frozen raw tomatoes, though that’s an option as well. Check out this easy tomato freezer recipe at the National Center for Home Food Preservation. It recommends freezing tomatoes whole. Just wash, skin (or not) by dipping them into hot water, de-core and freeze.

There are only two downsides here. You may quickly run out of freezer space, and the tomatoes will lose texture when frozen; however, if they’re destined for a cooked sauce anyway, this may not be a deal-breaker. Remember, cooked tomatoes are one of the few veggies in which heating enhances their nutritional value, increasing the lycopene that has been shown to have a protective effect against prostate, lung and stomach cancer.

Speaking of nutrition, isn’t that one of the best arguments for freezing or canning your fresh, homegrown or local organic produce? If you garden mainly without chemicals and maintain and enrich your soil, your backyard produce is most likely far more nutrient-rich than much of what you find in grocery stores, where varieties have been narrowed to those that hold up well during transport.

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