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Nature’s bounty

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Photo illustration
(Joe Harpring | The Republic)
Photo illustration (Joe Harpring | The Republic)

Photo illustration
(Joe Harpring | The Republic)
Photo illustration (Joe Harpring | The Republic)

Contrary to popular belief, home canning is not a thing of the past.

The centuries-old art has been used for generations to put food on the table during long, harsh winters. Now, a new generation of 20- and 30-somethings are turning to canning to help pinch pennies, become more self-sufficient and gain greater control over the foods they eat.

Zac Holt of Edinburgh enrolled in his first canning class last summer after he adopted a diet that focused on minimally processed foods as a way to help control his weight.

“You come into it with this expectation that it’s very 19th century, something your grandmother would do,” Holt, 26, said. “But it’s really developed into its own place in this century.”

One of the reasons Holt battled with his weight was the availability of convenience foods and a lack of appreciation for the origins of that food, he said.

“You forget that a lot of canned goods you buy in stores contain things you couldn’t even pronounce with a dictionary,” Holt said. “You look at that and you’re like, ‘What am I eating? Is it real food even?’”

A form of home food preservation, canning uses high temperatures to seal food in jars to keep it from spoiling. Boiling is used to expel oxygen from the jars. As the containers cool, the contaminates that could cause spoilage are locked out. Once preserved, the food remains fresh for up to five years, depending upon the contents.

Columbus resident Laura Garrett has long frozen the bounty from her backyard garden but turned to canning this year when her food supply outgrew her freezer space. It’s always good to know where your food comes from, the 31-year-old said. And, by that, she doesn’t mean the grocery store.

“This is my first year doing it, so it’s going to cost more,” Garrett said, adding that she spent about $35 on canning supplies. “But next year it won’t be as much because I’ll already have the jars and equipment.”

The main benefit of canning is preserving fresh food, Garrett said. She sees home canning as a way of lessening her reliance on commercial products containing preservatives and other chemicals.

Hesitant to try canning on her own for fear of botulism, Garrett signed up for a course offered through the Purdue Extension Service of Bartholomew County.

Garrett’s concerns are not unfounded, as botulism is a very real threat. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, botulism is a fatal disease caused by exposure to a neurotoxin originating from the growth of the C. botulinum bacteria. Even the most minute amount can prove fatal, especially in very young children and the elderly.

Amanda Virostko has canned for three years and said it is part of a transition she’s going through. After reading “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan, she decided to take a more sustainable approach to eating, and that included learning to can.

Canning creates an anaerobic environment, Virostko said. While the lack of oxygen in the sealed container keeps the food from spoiling, it also can create the conditions needed for the bacteria to thrive.

“There’s basically no sign the food has any spoilage whatsoever,” Virostko said. “Just the food safety aspect of canning can be a little intimidating at first.”

The key to avoiding contamination is to follow research-based recipes to the letter and not take liberties with the ingredients, she said. Even the slightest change — an extra pepper here or a little more salt there — could spell catastrophe.

Being vigilant with the sterilization process also is crucial, Holt said. Aside from boiling times, container preparation can be very involved and is almost a recipe in and of itself, he said.

“When you commit to doing it, it’s a whole afternoon kind of affair,” Holt said. “That is the hardest part about it; it’s very time consuming.”

Even for the most skilled canner, keeping track of the numerous steps is another challenge, Virostko said.

“One of my challenges is doing all the steps correctly,” said Virostko, who has shown friends and family how to can at home. “It seems like every time I demonstrate how to can, I find myself making mistakes, like I forgot to wipe the top of a jar. And I’ve had 40 hours training on canning.”

Since Garrett completed the class, which covered canning and freezing techniques, she said she has the confidence to preserve acidic foods, such as tomatoes, apples and peaches, which isn’t as challenging as she anticipated. Not only does she enjoy the sense of accomplishment, Garrett said the finished jars have an aesthetic quality as well.

“I think they’re the most beautiful thing,” Garrett said. “That was one of the reasons I really wanted to can.”

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