11 February 2014

Halfway through our home-canned vegetables, and not dead of botulism yet

As winter trundles along, the household has worked about halfway through the jars of green beans and carrots and soup mix that I home-canned in 2013. I've found it super-easy to cook up some pasta in broth, dump a jar of vegetables into the pot, and have soup on the table in under 15 minutes. Or I'll start some beans in the slow cooker in the morning, drop in a quart of vegetables and some seasonings when we get home from work and school, and have soup once it's all warmed through.

It has become clear to me that my pressure canning efforts in 2013 left my menu planning options skewed toward the soup end of the spectrum. I could be disappointed at the lack of variety, I guess. But the soup has been awesome when we come inside from the lousy, snowy winter days we've been having this year.

With half the jars gone off the shelf, two things come to mind. One, I am loving the result of the corn kernels in the soup mix quarts. I'm reminded of how much I loved canned corn when I was a kid, growing up on the standard American dinner of meat, two veggies, and a starch on my plate. I'm going to keep an eye out for a deal on sweet corn this summer and I hope to do at least one good canner load of pints.

Two, I wish I'd done winter squash again! It was a real treat to have those six quarts on my shelves all last winter. And it would have been nice to have another option on the vegetable shelf: in the end, there's really not much difference between a pint of green beans and a pint of soup mix.

But my point, and I had one when I started this post, was to talk about botulism. The risk of killing everyone at your table with botulism is the terrible bogeyman of home canning vegetables and other low-acid foods. When you open your jars, you can't smell it! You can't see it! But if it's there, it'll paralyze and kill you all! Scary!

What's the actual risk, though? I mean, if you keep a reasonably clean kitchen, start with excellent-quality foods, use laboratory-tested recipes, and follow your canner manufacturer's instructions? As it turns out . . .  the risk is pretty darn low.

And it's been steadily low and dropping in the past decade, at least in the U.S. For example, in 2011, the CDC collected 140 cases of botulism poisoning nationally (PDF). Of those 140, only 20 were cases involving food. Of those 20, 8 were cases involving "pruno," or prison-made home-brew alcohol. Of the 12 cases left over, only two involved home-canned food.

In 2011, there were more cases of botulism resulting from injecting drugs than from consuming home-canned food.

Nowadays, some 20% of American households put home-canned foods on their pantry shelves, and 65% of these dedicated food preservers home-can vegetables. I'm sure these numbers range from off-the-grid homesteaders to tiny-batch hobbyists; but whatever their level of commitment to putting food by, if there are 115,226,802 households in the U.S., and a fifth of them home-can foods, and 65% of that fifth home-can vegetables, and we average 2.61 people per household, then over 39 million Americans are consuming home-canned vegetables every year. Of those 39 million, two suffered botulism poisoning in 2011; neither case was fatal.

So your risk of botulism poisoning from home-canned food is about two in 39 million -- very close to just one in 20 million. By contrast, there were nearly 50,000 reported cases of Salmonella in 2009 (PDF), and 621 cases of Listeria in 2011 (PDF).

There have been outbreaks, and the risk is real. But botulism is very rare and it doesn't just happen out of nowhere. When it happens in home-canned foods, it's because of a lack of care and education. In the outbreaks reported at that NIH link there, "home canners did not follow canning instructions, did not use pressure cookers, ignored signs of food spoilage, and were unaware of the risk of botulism from consuming improperly preserved vegetables." Arguably, Salmonella and Listeria are harder to avoid than botulism, since they could come to your table in, say, prepared food from a deli, or even fresh fruit from the supermarket.

The take-away here at Rowhouse Livin'? Stay healthy (or, in our case, appreciate and cultivate the general good health that we're blessed to have). Eat well. Exercise some. Keep a clean kitchen. And keep on home-canning vegetables.

30 January 2014

Canning jar breakage: the checklist

Last week, Marisa at Food in Jars referenced an older post of hers discussing the sad, sad situation of a home canning jar breaking in the canner. I thought I'd add my two cents!

I've been home canning for over 15 years. I think that's a while, though of course my great-grandmother, whose cellar looked like that Library of Congress photo on Wikipedia that I use as a background image on my computer sometimes, would call me a mere novice. But whatever my great-grandmother would call my skill level, in those 15-plus years I've lost only a single jar in my home canners.

There are four things that can cause a canning jar to break: thermal shock, impact shock, internal overpressure, or a manufacturing flaw. The last is very rare! Anecdotally, I hear complaints that jars aren't made as well as they used to be. But I think the real problems are unintentional mis-use related to the first three problems. Keep reading!

28 January 2014

Checking in during yet another cold snap

It seems to me it's been a few years since we had a winter this persistently cold. I don't think my feet have felt warm since about Thanksgiving, sheesh.

Because my weekend was a little busy, I didn't make it to the supermarket for my usual haul of fresh produce. By today, I have a single apple in the fridge and a large sack of frozen peas in the freezer. Yikes! But rather than head to the store, I'm going to experiment and see how long I can last with my pantry options. I do have five quarts of home-canned mixed vegetables, as well as four pints of a home-canned green bean and carrot mix. (I had five pints, but we used one on Sunday for a quick soup with medium shell-shaped pasta.)

I also have about a pound of mung beans kicking around. Sprouts can be a good way to get Vitamin C when you're out of citrus, so into the sprouter they go!

I admit I'm being a little cavalier with the household's nutrition with this experiment, especially since it'll take a couple of days for the sprouts to be edible. Never fear, though: the teenager is at her dad's home this week, so it's only my diet that may suffer. But I have a feeling I'll do OK. Now, off to make some hot chocolate to tide me over until dinner.

11 January 2014

Surviving the polar vortex . . . and the flu

Well, that was a spate of cold weather, there.

And just before it hit, I came down with the flu, even though I got my shot before Thanksgiving.

On the one hand, I was going to have to cancel a slew of meetings earlier this week since I was on doctor's orders to stay at home in what I like to call my home-office work-cave. But on the other hand, most of my commitments canceled anyway due to the weather or facilities reasons. By Thursday, I was out of "quarantine" and could hobble my way to an event planning meeting. Then I took the bus to Penns Landing to take a gander at the ice-clogged Delaware River and had a healthy walk home.

I was happy, while I was sick, to have a good store of food and nibbles on hand. I'd fallen ill on a Thursday evening and was incapacitated, shuffling back and forth from sofa to kitchen, for about 36 hours. A friend came around on Friday evening with some comfort-food saltine crackers, but otherwise I had plenty on hand to keep myself going. We spent the weekend watching "Mystery Science Theater 3000," and my friend shopped for eggs and fresh fruit. Then on Monday I was on my own again, having arranged for my daughter to stay at her dad's an extra few days. Crockpot to the rescue! I now have a new, no-brainer recipe for sick days and other emergencies.

Ingredients:

  • One can spicy/chili/ranchero beans
  • One can creamed corn
  • 1 - 2 cups cubed winter squash
  • Water to cover

    Method:

    Combine all ingredients in a small slow cooker and heat on LOW or HIGH until warmed through. Serve with bread or crackers. No, seriously, that's it. It's so simple, someone with an axillary temperature of 101 degrees F can do it!

    Let's be clear. I'm not usually of the "open a bunch of cans and dump them in the slow cooker" school of cooking. I think you lose vitamins and can add a ton of sodium to the diet that way. Rather, I put this recipe together to get some nice, hot calories and fiber into myself while I was sick as a dog with flu and unable to do the dishes for a few days.

    Cost: You can get cans of beans and corn for under $1.00 apiece. A small quantity of leftover winter quash, or white potatoes, or sweet potatoes, or cooked rice (watch the liquid content if you use rice) will add about $0.50 - $1.00. The total cost, including cooking electricity, should run $3.00 at the most, and provide 3 or 4 large portions.
  • 10 December 2013

    Snow day at the homestead

    Courtesy of Channel 6
    Got the word as I was clambering out of bed this morning that my daughter's school is closed, so we're settling in for a snow day here at the homestead. They probably didn't need to close the schools -- looks as though the city pre-treated most of the arterial streets, so traffic will likely move smoothly all day -- but I imagine reducing traffic volume makes it safer and easier for everyone involved.

    Although I didn't make it to the supermarket yesterday, I think we're good to go for a day in. I have about two quarts of soup leftovers sitting in the fridge. I've tossed it all in my smaller slow cooker and we'll have something piping hot for the daughter to tuck into once she's done shoveling the sidewalk. And other than soup, we have the usual complement of lunch fixin's and dinner options we would have had on any ordinary Tuesday, snowstorm or not. I'm reminded that I have some peaches in the freezer; maybe I'll declare the house too cold for civilized living, and bake them into a pie or something this afternoon.

    05 December 2013

    Care and feeding of canning jars

    Recently, Marisa at Food in Jars mentioned that she's moving away from using her canning jars for tasks other than canning -- tasks like storing leftovers, carrying sack lunches, and drinking beverages. And for good reasons! She writes:
    [I]n recent years I've learned that it can be hard on canning jars to constantly employ them for everyday use and then turn around and can in them. That's because when you eat out of jars and bang them around, it can weaken them and eventually lead to breakage in the canning pot.
    I'm 100% in agreement with Marisa, for my usual home economics types of reasons. Understand, it's not that canning jars are hard to replace when you lose them to breakage. Since so many people are home canning lately, more and more stores have them in stock on a regular basis. It used to be that if I needed a box of jars, I would have to plan a surgical strike at the hardware store at the very beginning of the summer garden harvest season. Now, however, I can find a few different types year 'round at my favorite kitchenwares shop in the 9th Street Market.

    Nope, the issue is that canning jars are expensive. I mean, they're not expensive expensive. But they are a specialty item, and it takes time, effort, and cash to replace when they chip or break and can no longer be used for canning. Here's where I'm coming from. Anecdotally, canning jars can last for anywhere from a dozen years to decades. In my experience, two or three dozen of my jars have been used every year for about 15 years. But whether jars last 50 years or 15, you don't want to hasten the likely inevitable day when you hear that ominous thunk in the pressure canner that tells you one of your jars of green beans didn't make it. And one super easy way to hasten that day is to subject your canning jars to unnecessary scratches, bumps, clatters, and thermal shocks.

    Which is exactly what you will do if, for example, you pour 7 ounces of hot dinner soup into a pint jar, screw a lid on nice and tight, slide the jar into the fridge, heat up the jar of leftovers in the microwave at lunch the next day, and scrape out every last drop with a metal spoon. Or fill a jar with ice, pour hot coffee into it, and stir in sugar and creamer for an iced coffee treat. (To be clear! I'm not saying Marisa was subjecting her canning jars to such ungentle treatment! I describe completely made-up, worst-case scenarios to emphasize my point.)

    Now, I do use some canning jars for leftovers and for dry food storage. But I keep myself to some rules:
    1. Keep canning-only jars and food-storage jars separate. After emptying and cleaning a canning-only jar, gracefully and lovingly replace it in the area in the pantry where the jars are stored by size. (I use the cardboard boxes they were sold in. This is not wise if you're in a climate where you get silverfish or other insects that would go after the cardboard, but it works for me.) After emptying and cleaning a food-storage jar, toss it willy-nilly on a shelf for ease of access, and check to see if some item doesn't now need to be added to the grocery list. Store food-storage jars with bands on them, for convenience, but do not do so with canning-only jars, to avoid rust.

    2. Second-hand jars go into the food-storage category unless I am very, very sure about the jars' provenance. Were they loose on a thrift-store shelf? Did I spot them in a bin of free stuff on someone's stoop during sidewalk sale season? Or is it an unopened, completely unused box, albeit dating from the 1980s? I'll can with the last type -- in fact, I did, with my rustic honey-cran sauce this year -- but not with the others.

    3. Food-storage jars may go in the dishwasher. Canning-only jars do not, because dishwashing machine detergent can adversely affect home-canned foods.

    4. Metal scraping utensils are always OK for food-storage jars. They are never, ever OK for canning-only jars.

    5. Do not use a new, unused lid for leftover or dry food storage. That would be a waste of money (lids seem to increase in price by about $0.20 per box every year). Use one of the used lids kicking around in the utensil drawer, instead.

    6. Do not use any jars for consuming beverages.
    That last rule notwithstanding, I used to use jars for drinks -- I had a half dozen Classico pasta sauce not-quite-a-quart jars, which were a satisfying size for a glass of iced tea, and which fit my hands nicely. But though I have pals who have successfully home-canned with the jars, you really shouldn't; and I got a little weary of the hillbilly look on my dining table. I tossed them in the recycling bin as I replaced them, one at a time, with sturdy pint glasses and a lucky find of some French-made, molded-glass stemware.

    Though when all was said and done, I did keep two 8-ounce Classico pesto jars, for those chilly winter nights when I want to kick back with a wee dram.

    02 December 2013

    Holiday home canning: rustic honey-cran sauce

    We're a day late and a dollar short at the homestead here, posting this recipe the week after Thanksgiving. (Marisa at Food in Jars was more timely with her enviably tasty spiced cranberry jam a few weeks ago.) But cranberries are still on store shelves, and a lot of people will serve cranberries with Christmas dinner in a few weeks' time, so maybe a couple of readers will find this recipe useful still.

    I'd promised to supply the cranberry sauce at my family's Thanksgiving gathering last week. As I set out my canning gear and the sauce ingredients, I found that I was short on sugar. I had some honey kicking around, though, so I improvised a little. Now, usually you want to be wary about varying from a USDA-tested recipe when you decide to home-can and store your final product. But I wasn't worried at all about safety here, because cranberries are so very tart and acidic that you have quite a bit of leeway before you would bring the sauce's pH up to an unsafe level. And they have so much pectin in them that they're pretty foolproof. In short, you can mess around a lot with home-canned cranberry recipes, and the result will almost certainly set up nicely and be safe to eat after keeping forever.

    So that I would have enough sauce for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I started with two 12-ounce packages of cranberries. This recipe can be halved, but doing so would make for a very small batch for canning. The yield as presented here is 2 pints, 1 half-pint, and a few ounces left over for immediate use. The end result is a rustically chunky, honey-imbued cranberry sauce that stands up well with turkey and wild game.

    Ingredients:

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup honey
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 12-ounce packages of cranberries, rinsed

    Method:

    Combine sugar, honey, and water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes. Add the cranberries and bring back to a boil. Cook the cranberries gently for 10 minutes, stirring as necessary. Press berries with a potato masher. Turn off heat and skim foam.

    Fill hot pint and half-pint jars with hot sauce, leaving 1/4 inch headspace, apply lids and bands, and process 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath canner.

    Use immediately, or let sit a few weeks for flavors to blend.

    Note: If you don't skim the foam from top of the sauce, then it will end up in the jars, and you'll have artificially full jars. The foam won't be unpleasant to eat, but the sauce won't be as aesthetically pleasing in the jar or on the table. Your best bet is to let the sauce sit for a moment after you take it off the heat and then run a large spoon over the surface, generously scooping out foam. I like to drop it into a small bowl and use it on toast or an accompaniment to cheese and crackers.
  • 07 October 2013

    CSA home canning: green beans and carrots

    About 5 parts beans to 1 part carrots

    Hauled out the pressure canner again yesterday and put up 5 pints of green beans and carrots. The jars should come in handy for side dishes and soup this winter.

    I had a surplus of produce this week because a friend was out of town and offered me their household's Community-Supported Agriculture vegetable share. Since I follow the Rowhouse Livin' Law of Hand-Me-Downs ("always accept hand-me-downs"), I jumped at the opportunity. I ended up filling my fridge to bursting, but by Sunday it was getting clear to me that it would be impossible to consume everything we had before this week's delivery. I knew what I had to do.

    The haul included about 2 quarts of string beans and a bunch of red-skinned carrots. I carefully washed the beans and chopped them into uniform pieces. Then I peeled the carrots and sliced them. I tossed it all into a large stockpot, covered with water, brought to a boil, and simmered for 5 minutes. I packed them into pint jars and added cooking liquid, leaving 1 inch headspace. Then into the pressure canner they went.

    Timing: Carrots (pints) require 25 minutes, and beans (pints) take 20 minutes. The rule of thumb is to go by the time for the vegetable that takes the longest, so I processed them at 10 pounds pressure for 25 minutes. By which I mean I processed them at 240 degrees F plus a little bit, for 25 minutes and a little bit. That way, I have some wiggle room if the temperature starts to fall and I don't catch it right away.

    I still feel that I haven't done much canning this year. On the other hand, every time I run something through the pressure canner, I end up with meal-type foods, as opposed to condiments, sauces, and jams or fruit butters. So it goes a lot further for stocking my pantry for easy dinners and emergencies. We haven't had much of a hurricane season this year, but it ain't over yet, and we're overdue for a harsh winter. As I mentioned earlier, I'm sad to have missed my usual small-jar products this season, but our shelves really are filling up. Just not with the sweet treats I usually produce too much of.

    01 October 2013

    CSA home canning: two-day habanero hot sauce

    When the CSA delivery gives you habanero peppers, make 20% habanero hot sauce.

    If you are not familiar with home canning, please see the National Center for Home Food Preservation. This recipe does not substitute for a complete set of instructions on safe home canning practices.

    I didn't have an actual recipe for this, so I based my work on a tested recipe for pepper relish. It yielded just under 2 pints.

    One wide-mouth half-pint, three 4-ounce jars; another 4 ounces
    ended up in the fridge for immediate use

    Ingredients:

  • half a medium white onion, finely chopped
  • 4 cups finely chopped sweet peppers
  • 1 cup finely chopped habanero peppers, seeds retained
  • 3 tablespoons canning (non-iodized) salt
  • white vinegar to cover

    Method:

    Combine the onion, peppers, and salt in a large, non-reactive pot. Bring to a boil and simmer 10 minutes. Take off heat, cover, and let sit overnight.

    Heat again to boiling. Taking care with the fumes rising from the pan, crush the peppers with a potato masher (or use an immersion mixer). Heat through. Take off heat, cover, and let sit overnight again; or start the canning process.

    To can, bring the sauce to boiling again. Simmer 10 minutes. Then pack heated sauce into hot jars, leaving half-inch headspace. Carefully release air bubbles from jars and add more sauce, if needed, to bring back to half-inch headspace. Clean rims of jars and apply lids and bands. Process pints, half-pints, and 4-ounce jars 15 minutes in a boiling-water bath canner.

    Let sit at least 6 weeks before opening for use.

    Note: Handle the habanero peppers safely. Some people hold the pepper with a fork while chopping with a chef's knife. Most people advise wearing rubber gloves. I'm a hippie who hates disposables, so I pinched the habaneros by the stem and used a 5-inch kitchen utility knife. I scraped the seeds and chopped pieces into a prep bowl, then dropped the stem end into the trash, without using my bare fingers anywhere on the peppers' flesh. The cutting board went straight into the dishwasher.
  • 25 September 2013

    The summer of not canning

    I have not been canning much this summer at all. I'm a little disappointed, but I think there were some important reasons why my shelves aren't groaning they way they usually are by the end of September.

    A few factors:

  • The clean-out of the estate of my close friend's elderly aunt, who passed away in July. We've been back and forth to South Jersey most of the every-other-Saturdays when I don't have custody of my daughter. So essentially, half of my Saturdays have been claimed with this ongoing task.

  • The other Saturdays, when my daughter is with me, I like to have her spend time with her grandparents, at their home in the outer Philadelphia suburbs. So on most Saturdays this summer, either I've been hanging out in South Jersey, or I've been at my parents' house -- and my canning projects aren't exactly transportable.

  • I thought I would be canning up a storm with our CSA fruit share. But it turns out that our fruit share never measures up to a full canner load of fruit. Don't get me wrong: it's not skimpy, and we aren't being cheated. We get plenty of fruit for the week, and the peaches this year were glorious. But the fruit individually comes in small quantities: six pears plus a half-pint of kiwiberries one week, and five nectarines plus a watermelon the next. This is not cannable. This is lunchbox or picnic material, but it's not canner material, not on its own.

    So four take-aways. One, we're looking into doing a double fruit share next summer. It'll still be very small-batch canning, which I think is more hobbyist than money-saving, but will still scratch my itch for putting jam on my shelves. Two, this is going to be a strange winter. I didn't do rhubarb, strawberry, or blueberry jam (not counting the syrupy mis-step at the end of June) -- I always get at least one of those, my holy trinity, in by the end of July. I didn't do my Rowhouse Livin' gin, either (though I did make a rhubarb pie for myself for Mother's Day). I have maybe a half-dozen jars of jam left over from 2012, but that stock is being rapidly depleted. Late winter and early spring, 2014, are looking bleak!

    Three, seriously, this estate work is taking up a ridiculous amount of time, and I'm not even one of the executors. The elderly aunt was so very generous in her financial planning, but her tangible assets were left in multiple locations and her financial assets were left in numerous accounts across several institutions. One of the greatest gifts we can give our heirs is to leave our affairs organized for them. There are so many vehicles and instruments available. The time you spend with a lawyer now will be a gift of time to your heirs after you're gone.

    And four, apple butter season approaches, and the daughter reminded me just the other day that we haven't gone apple picking for a few years now. I think I'm counting down the days until my next custody Saturday. Maybe early 2014 won't be too bleak, after all.
  • 23 September 2013

    Grab-bag pressure canning: mixed vegetables for soup

    After a weekend getaway to the woods in August, I came home to a fridge full of CSA vegetables that needed to be used up before I hauled home the next CSA delivery. The vegetables were still in excellent shape, so I pulled out the pressure canner and went to town.

    There are two rules of thumb for pressure canning mixed vegetables. One, chop the vegetables into pieces of uniform size, so that they heat and cook evenly. And two, put whatever grab-bag of vegetables you want into the mix, but set your timer for the vegetable that takes the longest time to safely can.

    Examples, all in quarts: If you're canning a mix of potatoes (40 minutes), green beans (25 minutes), and carrots (30 minutes), then bring the canner up to pressure and keep it there for 40 minutes. If you're canning a mix of potatoes, green beans, carrots, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, and whole-kernel corn (maize) -- I told you it was a grab-bag -- then it needs to process for the time it'll take to safely deal with the corn, which is 85 minutes.

    But it's a little more complicated than just that rule of thumb. You also have to take into account that, when you pack chopped, mixed vegetables into a jar, the product is more compact than it would be if it were just one type of vegetable. To illustrate, when you pack asparagus into a jar, you stand the spears upright and slide them in like a packet of pencils; but when you chop them more finely and add other stuff to the mix, you get more mass in the jar. (Think BB's or ball bearings, versus marbles.) And thus it will take more time to heat the jar through. So the National Center for Home Food Preservation adds an extra 5 minutes to its own instructions for mixed vegetables, even though no single ingredient, individually, requires more than 85 minutes to process.

    As I've mentioned before, I don't like to argue with science. So while my instinct said, "85 minutes," my hands said, "90 minutes," and I sure did heat up my kitchen that day. According to Facebook:
    4:12 p.m.: Off to run a significant percentage of CSA veg thru the pressure canner. See you on the flip side.

    4:58 p.m.: OK, 4 quarts of mixed CSA vegetables for soup in the canner, set to process for 90 minutes because I included sweet corn. At least it's not too hot today.

    6:35 p.m.: Stupid corn. It's a million degrees in here now!
    And the result:

    Photo taken with my antiquephone: sweet corn, carrots, green beans,
    zucchini, onion, and tomatoes

    Each quart jar there will make for a very quick soup this winter: add water or broth, heat to boiling, and add cooked pasta or rice. Sprinkle parmesan on top or serve a little cheese on the side, throw some bread or rolls on the table, and that will warm you up in November or February. I'll get three if not four portions of soup out of each of those jars. Looking forward to it already!

    23 August 2013

    Estate clean-out: clothes & textiles, papers (2/2)

    Yesterday, our take-away lesson was that only one-twelfth of the clothes and textiles in your house are useful or interesting to anyone in your family, so you should clean your stuff out early and often. Today, we're talking papers.

    Lesson two: You need to keep almost none of the paper that you're keeping. This means on paper but also electronically. Get rid of it!

    In my lawyering work, I regularly counsel non-profit organizations on corporate governance. A big part of that work involves preparing and implementing policies about retaining and shredding operational documents. Documents range from innocuous everyday correspondence to incorporation paperwork, employee records, property records, leases, applications for grants, and so on. There are generally accepted practices for handling just about every scrap of paper that enters a non-profit's office, and my job is to facilitate proper handling.

    You're not a non-profit organization, and I'm not your lawyer. But here's a general guide for what to do with the paper that comes into your home.

    Your overall strategy should be to touch paper only once. Bring your mail in and sort it immediately. Toss the junk mail. Open bills, toss the inserts, and file the bill and return envelope for paying. If you get paper confirmations of online payments or check deposits, open and file immediately, or consider opting for e-mail confirmations instead. Set magazines wherever it is you'll sit and read them. Put the doctor's appointment reminder postcard next to your computer, phone, or calendar. Designate a spot for merchandise catalogs and clear them out as quickly as they pour in.

    Make a date with yourself quarterly or biannually to get rid of the accumulated magazines and catalogs. You can always find a back copy of a magazine at your library or on the magazine's website, and it's not your job to be the magazine's archivist.

    As for the "document retention and destruction" end of paper management, I was going to type up a huge list of the types of papers you will likely encounter, and a chart telling you how long to keep them before throwing them out. But it turns out that there are plenty of other guides online, including one by the entity that can audit you when your taxes don't look right. This "Managing Household Records" page is very good [1]. I like it because, essentially, the only time you can go to jail for not handling paper correctly is when you mess with the IRS. So a guide from the horse's mouth, so to speak, is going to be reliable and complete for most people's purposes.

    On to the nitty gritty. A huge category of papers we had to handle at the deceased elderly aunt's house last weekend was monthly statements. We saw statements from bank accounts, health insurance, life insurance, homeowners insurance, vehicle insurance, phone bills, utility providers, credit card issuers, and so on. Really, every entity under the sun that would send a monthly or quarterly statement to the elderly aunt, she would keep the paper. For years. For decades. We found canceled checks from 1971, township tax assessments from 1981, long-distance phone bills from 1991, investment statements from 2001, and hospital bills from 2011. She had retained paperwork that she should have discarded as soon as her checking account reconciled with the bill payment -- in other words, she kept paper for 40 years that she could have ditched after 40 days.

    Six copier-paper boxes' worth of it!

    Don't get me wrong. There are things you should keep forever, and things you should keep a few years. The usa.gov page there includes a handy chart. Most usefully, in my opinion, is the entry for your filed income taxes and associated paperwork. Keep them for 7 years after filing -- this has to do with your risks of being audited, and how far back you can file amended returns. But it's just 7 years!

    The oldest tax return we found at elderly aunt's house was filed in 1965. That's some scary math.

    Finally, a note about scanning and going so-called paperless. OK, so you've scanned in the incoming paper and shredded it. Now you have an image or a PDF of the paper and you have to put it somewhere. Disk space is super cheap, and you get a lot of free space on various cloud computing storage services and gmail. But you still need to manage this garbage so that you don't have the electronic equivalent of an overflowing file cabinet. Name the file folders intelligently, and calendar time for yourself, regularly, to go in and delete the outdated files. You don't need 5-year-old paper credit card statements; and you don't need 5-year-old electronic statements, either.

    Get rid of it! Your groaning file cabinets (or filesystems) will thank you for it.


    [1] Ignore the broken PDF link; though I found a good copy here (PDF), I think it's overkill and may be overwhelming for someone initially attacking a clutter problem.