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Canning, Drying And Pickling Are Skills All Should Know

Sherri Brooks Vinton

Sherri Brooks Vinton

Let’s take a poll.  If I say the word “canning” what comes to mind?  From my experience, your mental images would fall into one of three categories: grannies, a skull and cross bones levels of danger, or the sleeve tattoos and multiple piercings of hip DIYers. Canning and other forms of home food preservation have an image problem.

The reaction I often get when I tell people that I preserve food is that I’m some kind of fetishist with years worth of jarred concoctions stockpiled in my basement. But preserving for me isn’t old-fashioned, dangerous, hip or kinky. It’s just another kitchen skill that I use to enjoy locally produced foods. Not to diminish the process’ mystique, but most preserving projects are easy, low-tech and budget friendly: flavored vinegars and liquor infusions take just minutes to make, pickling watermelon rind turns something that would otherwise wind up in the compost bin into a tasty treat. We need to demote home food preservation from the top of the pyramid of eccentric cooking tricks to where it belongs — with the same workhorse kitchen skills, like boiling water, everyone needs to put food on the table.

As for my basement? Don’t get me wrong, there’s some neat stuff down there (quarts of tomatoes, some tangy chutneys and pickles, a few fall squashes still hanging on), but “Hoarders” it is not.

Everyone should learn to preserve their own food

Teaching home cooks how to preserve food is often seen as folly, a luxury technique for those who have extra time on their hands. But we eaters are in a cooking crisis right now. There are segments of our population that cannot feed themselves for lack of basic kitchen skills. Expecting people to preserve might seem, initially, like asking the starving not just to eat cake, but to decorate it, too. But preserving foods is a reliable, economical and useful means of preparing seasonal ingredients. It has served the home cook for generations and can do so again.

When I was growing up, my grandmother canned, dried and fermented everything that came out of her garden. She put up her tomatoes, dried her herbs, made tremendous dill pickles and even her own wine. She didn’t do this because she was a gourmand. She did it because she was poor. For her, it was insurance; she was essentially building her own food bank every summer so that when things got tight in the winter, there was not only good food to eat, but some delight to be had as well.

In the early 1900s “Tomato Girl” clubs taught women how to can tomatoes and imparted the business skills needed to turn canned goods into profit-generating enterprises. The women of these clubs grew their own crops and processed, packaged and sold their produce to help support their families.  The clubs were often the doorway to business and educational experiences unattainable to most women at the time.

In an era when economic pressures are driving more of our citizens toward food insecurity, and the increasing cost of fuel will limit our ability to ship food as widely as we do currently, preserving our own food could be part of the solution to a more stable, sustainable and equitable  food system.

Benefits of preserving your own food 

Preserving food is practical. It minimizes waste. Think of how much food is discarded at the farmers market, the grocery store and in our gardens because it went bad before it could be eaten. The famously prolific zucchini doesn’t have to wind up in the compost pile; you can turn it into pickles. Berries that are starting to fade make a terrific sauce when cooked down with a little sugar.   

Preserving food at the peak of its season evens out uneven production, providing for eaters when fields are fallow.

Preserving saves energy. Canned, fermented and dried foods can be stored without refrigeration.

Preserved foods provide income. They can be sold as added-value products by farmers and community gardens. If this business model is out of reach, food swaps and barter exchanges transform preserved foods into a kind of currency that helps eaters stock up on great tasting home-crafted foods.

Preserving protects food sovereignty. Just as victory gardens fed our nation in wartime, community and school gardens can help build our individual and our national food independence.

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a deep DIY kind of a guy or gal to preserve your own food.  (Though I can’t imagine you would earn your “Portlandia” badge without it.)  It’s just a simple thing we can do to feed ourselves.

Photo: Sherri Brooks Vinton. Credit: Chris Bartlett

Sherri Brooks Vinton is the author of "Put 'em Up!" and "Put 'em Up! Fruit."  She travels around the country teaching the simple process and pleasures of home food preservation.  Visit to find a class near you.

  • Leni Sorensen 4·16·13

    Amen! Canning is a wonderful thing to know. I’m across the country from you – in Central Virginia – where I teach ‘rural life skills’ canning (boiling water bath and pressure), bread baking, gardening, raising hens for eggs and butchering meat birds. Visit my blog site www to see our most recent projects on our very small farm.

  • Sharen Y 4·17·13

    I grew up in Central CA and my family canned and froze a lot of the abundant fruits and vegetables that we grew. Canned many tomatoes, jams (also froze some), fruits and also made fruit leather. We used steaming, water bath and also pressure cooking. When I was small there was a local community Canning Co-Op. It was a family outing and brought home hundreds of cans of fruits and vegetables for the year. One of my favorites to can is Pickled Asparagus. Living is Arkansas now and the fruits and veggies are not as accessible but I still can some jams and pickles.

  • sbvinton 4·17·13

    I love hearing these canning stories!

  • Bonnie Story 4·17·13

    BRAVA! Preparing and preserving your own food is like printing money… AND it’s fun. AND it’s great family time. AND it’s critical for our health goals.

  • SBVinton 4·17·13

    Brava to you, Bonnie!