02 September 2014

More on canning butternut squash: choosing from two different recommendations

Yesterday I made myself super happy by putting up 7 quarts of butternut squash. I followed the USDA's method, while cross-referencing with the instructions given in the Bernardin Complete Book of Home Preserving. And I noticed a minor difference between the two, a difference that is hopefully not as wildly shocking and controversial as the sudden, inexplicable, unbelievable announcement from Ball that you don't actually need to heat up your canning lids before applying them to your jars.

To can winter squash, you peel the vegetable, scoop out the seeds, and chop the flesh into 1-inch chunks. You drop the chunks into a stockpot, cover them with water, bring the pot to a boil, and gently cook the chunks for a couple of minutes. Then you use a slotted spoon to fill your jars and finally top off the jars with liquid, leaving 1 inch headspace.

But what liquid?! There's where USDA and Bernardin differ. USDA (2009) says to simply use the liquid that the squash cooked in. But Bernardin (2012) says to use fresh boiling water! What to do?

If you use the cooking liquid, then you'll be retaining more nutrients, particularly beta-carotene, in your jar. Now, it's not that the pre-pack cooking leaches all the beta-carotene out of the squash, since it does keep its bright orange color and the liquid is only very pale orange. But why not seek to maximize your nutrition here?

Is it a matter of hard water? If the cooking liquid started as hard water, will that give an off-taste after canning and long-term storage, which you would avoid by using fresh hard water instead? That doesn't seem to make sense. Am I missing something else instead? I don't think I am, and I don't think the issue is hard water.

So maybe it's a matter of lowering the density of the liquid in the jar, thereby reducing the risk that heat may not penetrate to the center of the product. The question could be whether the particles of squash suspended in the cooking liquid dangerously increase the packing liquid's density. But if that is the rationale, I don't agree that there's truly a risk here. The squash cubes themselves will be more dense than any liquid surrounding them. Although the jars do end up with with some shredded bits of squash in them, it's nowhere near the amount and density of particles that you'd have in jars packed with purée, which you cannot home-can because of the heat penetration problem.

In the end, I'll have to respectfully disagree with the Bernardin instructions there. I suspect that their concern is the density of the packing liquid. But I can reduce that risk by being careful not to overcook the chunks of squash before I pack them (so that they don't deteriorate into purée in the jar). And I like to try to keep as much nutrition in the jars as possible. Throwing out the cooking liquid -- that is, unless I use it as a soup base outside of the canning project -- would really be a waste.

Are the shredded squash particles in the jar on the left what Bernardin is concerned about? I think that it makes for an unattractive jar, but that there isn't enough of it to dangerously increase the density of the packing liquid here.

And P.S.: Thanks, Mom, for the birthday present of the Bernardin book!

01 September 2014

Happy butternut squash labor day!

I spent Labor Day working for the winter, putting up some butternut squash. I loved, loved, loved having jars of squash on the shelf in 2012-13, so I'm very pleased to have pulled 7 quarts out of the pressure canner early this afternoon. They're cooling on the counter now, and I think I've already heard a few of the lids pop down with their seals.

Speaking of lids, Ball appears to have changed their instructions regarding preparing lids for use. I've followed some bouncing links around the home canning blogs, and some bloggers are freaking out that the website says one thing, while the packaging on this year's deliveries of lids says another. The "new" instructions are to "[l]eave lids and bands at room temperature for easy handling," but the instructions we've been using for decades taught us to heat the lids in water, but don't boil 'em, to soften the sealing gasket compound. Ball's put a little explanation for the change at the bottom of their general instructions for water bath canning, along with a note that, yeah, dudes, chill: it'll take a while for all the old packaging to circulate off store shelves and the new packaging to appear.

Not having yet heard of this wild controversy before I geared up this morning, I heated the lids as usual for today's batch. I've seen some anecdotal reports of increased rates of seal failures when the compound isn't pre-heated. I'm not convinced that I should use the lids I have on hand, which I bought in 2013, without pre-heating them. My jury will be out until I get a pack of lids with the new instructions, I think.

More important, though, than the ridiculous brouhaha over the lid instructions is that my vegetable peeler gave up the ghost early in today's project. Since I didn't want to go shopping on Labor Day, I ended up peeling the squash with my chef's knife. A little clunky, and my knife-wielding hand will be protesting tomorrow, I'm afraid, but the results look pretty darn good.

And cheap, too! Though we splurged on organic, local squash so it was a little more spendy than I usually like, each quart jar will work out to about $3.75 (including lid and energy). Tossing the contents into the crockpot or a saucepan and then adding stuff to make it a soup -- bouillon, pasta, rice, sautéed onion, etc. -- means a $5.00 dinner for myself and the resident teenager. My favorite kind!

07 July 2014

Brandied blueberries must be water-bath canned

This weekend, I mentioned on Twitter that I was canning some brandied blueberries:

The comment prompted a pal to ask:

I responded:

And then I realized that I really, really wanted to go on and give @hellerbee a better, more complete explanation by unpacking the questions he may or may not have known he was actually asking with his tweet. So here goes . . .

16 June 2014

Do the math: Kitchen sink garbage disposal vs. composting service

I am feeling better about the oncoming home canning season now that I've had the kitchen sink disposal unit replaced. It gave up the ghost a couple of months ago, and I hadn't been looking forward to having to deal with the volume of scraps that a batch of home-canned food can produce.

There are mixed opinions on whether a sink disposal is a good idea, whether economically or environmentally. When the city of Philadelphia partnered with a manufacturer in 2012 to install some at no cost to test how effectively their use diverted solid waste from landfills, an environmentalist blog posted an article, with inflammatory and offensive language, calling the effort "greenwashing." One concern is a claim that a household could use 700 extra gallons of water every year to run the disposal. Another is that the solids don't just disappear, but are trapped at the entrance to the wastewater treatment plant and landfilled anyway. So Philadelphia residents should pay a local composting service to come around weekly to gather their kitchen scraps.

I'll counter all three comments. First, that 700 gallons figure seems really high to me, as well as not actually sourced. It doesn't replicate my experience or practice. Unless I have something truly horrifying going down my sink (say, after a fridge clean-out), I generally run my sink disposal only when I'm finishing up hand-washing dishes. The eggshells from breakfast, vegetable trimmings from lunch, and breadcrumbs from dinner all sit in the drain until I flush them through the disposal with a sinkful of dirty dishwater. So I'm not usually running any extra water down the sink disposal over and above what ended up in the sink from washing up after dinner. But even if I am doing a separate run of the garbage disposal, such as during a canning project or a dish that generates a lot of waste, I'll try to run the disposal minimally, clearing out just enough that the sink remains useable, and leaving the last for flushing with dishwater. With this kind of practice, I don't see how I could possibly be using 700 extra gallons of water every year to run my disposal. The article there links to an eHow item about the environmental impact of disposers, but the eHow figure is unsourced to any actual citation. In our home, I would have to use almost 2 gallons of water daily to match that wild-sounding claim. My kitchen faucet is a pretty standard piece of hardware with a flow of about 2 gallons per minute. So for me to use 700 extra gallons of water per year, I would have to run my disposal for nearly one minute per day, every day, with the faucet going. I make my disposer work like that on an apple butter canning day, maybe, but certainly not every day.

Some more realistic math, then. Most days I use my disposal at the end of the washing up, so in those cases I'm using zero extra gallons of water. I would guess that I run the disposal three more times per week, for about 20 seconds each time. That gives us 52 weeks X 20 seconds X 2 gallons per 60 seconds, or just under 35 gallons. That's less than a tenth of that clearly spurious 700 gallons figure.

The second comment goes to the problem of what to do with the solid waste that even a disposal unit leaves in your household's wastewater. I do know that down the road apiece, the Delaware Solid Waste Authority collects and burns for electricity the methane off-gassing from the Cherry Island landfill. Since I don't think that Philadelphia's solid waste goes to Cherry Island, the Green Philly Blog author may have a fair point. In fact, however, Philadelphia does recycle biosolids from city wastewater and uses biogas to generate electricity for one of its plants. Perhaps these measures weren't in place when the blog author was writing.

As for the last comment, that people should hire a composting service, I find that residential compost service costs $15.00/month. But running my disposal is far, far cheaper: Philadelphia water is about $0.04 per cubic foot; a cubic foot is about 7.5 gallons; so water costs about $0.04 per 7.5 gallons, or about a half-cent per gallon. If I use the disposal three times per week, for about 20 seconds each time, then (as we saw above) I'm using just under 35 gallons per year. That costs me just $0.17 per year -- I can find that kind of change on the sidewalk on the way to the supermarket. At this point, brighter minds than mine can look at my disposal's specifications and the electric company's current rates to add in my electricity costs. But I think I can safely say it doesn't add up to $15.00/month.

I'm a day late and a dollar short, so to speak, in addressing that particular author's views against sink disposals. The issue didn't really come up for me, I guess, until I had to decide whether to replace the one that broke and couldn't be repaired. In the end, the blog article hasn't convinced me to move to composting -- and it's not just because of the cost of a service, but also because I can't do any gardening here at the homestead, for architectural reasons. I'm super happy to have a disposal again, and I'm happy to see that I can pay for its use with my "see a penny, pick it up, all the day you'll have good luck" jar.

15 June 2014

We live!

We're still working hard here at the homestead, but clearly we dropped the ball on updating the blog. We would have kept it up; it's just that it was a miserably cold and long winter.

But the farmers market has started up again, and so my shelves are starting to fill up with preserves again. So far, we've done a batch each of strawberry and rhubarb jam. And we're far enough into the warm weather that I've had time to infuse and bottle up about a liter and a half of Rowhouse Livin' gin. Of last year's canning work, I have one last pint of green beans and carrots left, as well as some cranberry sauce and some stray jars still kicking around from 2012.

I've talked to my favorite farmers market vendor about buying an entire flat of tomatoes when they come in -- some 20 or 25 pounds. While I didn't have much success last time I canned tomatoes, I think I understand where my technique went wrong, so I look forward to doing it again this year. Then I'm going to put up some pints of sweet corn. Last year's soup vegetables included corn kernels that stayed crunchy even after the pressure canning process, which of course gave me the bright idea that I should do a canner load of pints of just corn. Finally, I'll be wrapping up the canning season with some winter squash and apple butter, both of which I didn't manage to do in 2013.

Next up: blueberries are starting to come in. And I'm reminded that I haven't done raspberry jam in forever.

I'll be back with photos and blog entries soon! I promise!

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.


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


    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.