Preparing the Food
Canning will not make inferior food taste or look better, so use the best quality and the freshest food you can find. Picking it fresh from your vegetable garden and then canning it within a few hours is the best way to preserve the taste and nutrient level of your fruits and vegetables.
You want to make sure the items you choose to can are mature so they have a great flavor, but not overripe as they will not keep as well. The best fruits and vegetables to can are the ones that ripen directly on the trees or vines as they will be the best tasting. Try to taste a sample of the food before you choose to buy it in large quantity. Size is also something to consider — larger produce does not necessarily taste better, and it often takes more time and energy to cut up. Small fruits and vegetables may not be totally mature and will lack taste. Be choosy when canning and make sure the fruit and veggies are free of blemishes, scars, or bruising.
Freshness is one of the most important ingredients in good canning. To retain freshness and nutrients, it is important to can your food as soon as possible after you have chosen the items you want to preserve. If you are picking fresh items from your own garden, keep them as cool as possible and try to can them within a few hours.
To make keeping track of what you have in your pantry easier, post a piece of graph paper on the door or wall. Each time you place items in the pantry, mark the appropriate number of squares next to it on the list — one square per jar. Each time you take a jar out, cross that square off to make an X. This way you can easily tell how many jars of an item you have in stock.
Sort the fruits or vegetable by size and ripeness when preparing foods for canning. Consistent size will make it easier to pack the food into the jars, and the same degree of ripeness will help give your canning a consistent flavor.
Make sure you thoroughly remove any traces of dirt from the fruits and vegetables since dirt can carry bacteria that are difficult to kill. Washing fruits and vegetables under running water is one of the best ways to wash off any dirt particles. It is best to wash smaller amounts and make sure items are washed after being cut, hulled, and stemmed. Change the water several times if you use a colander or strainers when washing vegetables to make sure the items are clean.
Fruits and vegetables are very delicate, so handle them gently so as not to break the skins, bruise, or damage them in any way. Skins that are broken or bruised are more likely to be contaminated by mold or bacteria. Do not soak fruits and vegetables as they will lose nutrients and flavor. Inspect your fruits and veggies and set aside any that are not perfect for use in jams or soups. Once you have chosen the best items, remove any peels, hulls, caps, skins, and cores. Be especially careful how you handle soft fruits and berries; unless you are making purée, you want them to keep their shape as much as possible.
The part lying under the skin of fruits and vegetables is the richest in minerals. When peeling fruits and vegetables, try keeping the natural shape of the item and peel thinly so as to keep as many of the nutrients intact for canning.
Some vegetables require blanching before you place them into the canning jars. As explained in the last chapter, blanching refers to precooking an item by putting it into boiling water for a short length of time (usually only vegetables are blanched) to preserve its color. Blanching is also done during the canning process so the vegetable will shrink or wilt and fit more easily into the jar. It is best to use a blanching basket, which has a handle for easy lowering and raising the food into boiling water. Most green vegetables need to be blanched for three to five minutes. Check out Chapter 10, “Freezing Foods,” for information on what times specific vegetables need to be blanched.