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Gardening in winter hardly seems ideal to those of us in cold climates, but for Craig LeHoullier, the season of snow brings the first opportunity to plan his summer tomato crop. A tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange and author of the recently published book “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time,” LeHoullier is an expert in the field, having developed, introduced and named almost 200 tomato varieties.
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Over the past 30 years, LeHoullier has brought a number of heirloom tomato varieties back from the brink of extinction. Perhaps his most notable contribution is the Cherokee Purple, a tomato that came to him as an envelope of seeds sent by John D. Green and is now one of the most popular varieties in the Seed Exchange catalog.
LeHoullier’s love for heirloom tomatoes began as a hobby, but after retiring from his career as a chemist and project manager in the pharmaceutical industry in 2007, this passion blossomed into a second career. LeHoullier lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, Susan, and is known within the heirloom tomato community as NCTomatoMan.
I caught up with LeHoullier before the launch of his book tour and got his advice on how to successfully grow heirloom tomatoes in my own backyard.
Winter gardening: prime time for research
LeHoullier says he gets about a monthlong break between digging up the last of his dead tomato plants each fall and the appearance of the first seed catalogs, when the real work of planning the garden begins. This lull in the action is prime time for research. Online sites such as Dave’s Garden, Tomatoville and GardenWeb can provide a good starting point for new gardeners. LeHoullier recommends searching for “garden discussion groups,” “tomato discussion groups” and “top 10 tomatoes” to begin your reading.
Determine your gardening goals
LeHoullier points out that gardening is a personal experience and that “Each one of us will choose how much of our lives we’ll pour into it.” Growing great tomatoes requires figuring out what kind of gardener you are — or would like to be.
LeHoullier suggests that you think about what you want to get out of your tomato garden. Before you place your seed order, consider whether you want to garden because you want to grow food; because it’s a good hobby to work off a few extra pounds; or because you want to use it as a teaching tool for your friends, family or children.
Ask yourself: Do I want a high yield? Am I looking for huge tomatoes to impress my friends? Do I want an incredible flavor experience? Or do I want to grow something that I’ve never seen before? The answer to these questions will help you focus your research on the tomato varieties that suit your gardening goals.
Figure out what kind of tomatoes you like to eat
Tomatoes come in a wide variety of colors, flavors and sizes. Most of us have not tried many of the thousands of tomato varieties that exist in the world. LeHoullier believes that the best way to know which tomatoes you should grow is to decide which tomatoes you’d like to eat. Visit farmers markets and stores such as Whole Foods to try tomato varieties you’ve never eaten and notice which flavor profiles excite you.
Get to know your gardening climate
Understanding your growing season is crucial. If you live in a warm climate where summer lasts more than 150 days, then the maturity date doesn’t matter much. But if you’re in a colder climate, pay close attention to the maturity date of the tomatoes you want to grow. Talk to friends in your neighborhood who are avid gardeners and vendors at local farmers markets to see which tomato varieties grow best for them.
Seeds vs. seedlings
LeHoullier says that “At a basic level, people will want to understand that growing tomatoes from seed opens up the world for you to try different colors, sizes and shapes.” That said, starting tomatoes from seeds can be a tricky proposition. Consider your capabilities and experience with growing tomatoes from seed. If your tolerance for failure is low, begin by planting seedlings.
Hybrids vs. heirlooms
Although LeHoullier says he “won’t make the blanket statement that some make that heirlooms are always more disease susceptible and difficult to grow than hybrids,” he does allow that heirlooms can be finicky and that “every tomato — including the hybrid varieties — has its own personality and foibles.”
Start small (Do as I say, not as I do.)
After you’ve familiarized yourself with the seemingly endless choices in the tomato world, it’s time to get planting. Showing restraint is key, especially for new gardeners.
Raising thousands of tomato varieties isn’t for everyone. (Or in fact, for most people.) LeHoullier cautions new growers to start small, in spite of the fact that he has a huge and ever-growing tomato collection. LeHoullier identifies himself as a “hobby collector” — he’s into beer brewing, roasting his own coffee, bird watching, kayaking, and has countless other hobbies in addition to what he calls “the tomato thing.” He describes himself as a “seeker who is never satisfied.” It is this tendency that has led LeHoullier to raise a collection of tomatoes that now hits the 3,000 mark.
One reason that LeHoullier’s collection has grown so large is that he has inherited the collections of gardeners who have become overwhelmed. “People send me entire collections because they can’t take care of them.”
Disappointment is an opportunity for learning
A scientist by training and experience, LeHoullier sees gardening as “an exciting hobby to learn stuff” and reminds us that “Each year, X number of plants are gonna die. Critters are gonna eat another bunch of plants, but that’s great because we learn from it and the next year we try different things to avoid that problem, knowing that other problems will arise.”
The bottom line
LeHoullier asserts some basic goals: Do a lot of searching. Ask a lot of questions. Make an accurate assessment of your interest level. Taste every tomato you can get your hands on. Recognize that there aren’t a lot of hard and fast answers to gardening questions. There are just, as LeHoullier says, “an infinite number of variables for every act a gardener takes.”
Perhaps most important, LeHoullier cheers us on in our tomato-growing efforts by reminding us that, “If you can find them, and buy them, and taste them, and like them, there’s no reason you can’t grow them.”
Main photo: Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, named by Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes.” Credit: Susan Lutz
Canners like me tend to give gifts in cans or jars: marmalade from the backyard tree, red wine vinegar made from the leftover bottles of a special party, goat cheese hand-rolled by the kids.
But sometimes the cupboards are bare. And sometimes you want a little something from Santa yourself. That’s when you need ideas from canners — for canners.
In my experience there are three major styles of food preservers: I call them old school, hipster and science geek. (There are, of course, many other types and hundreds of sub-genres.) The old-school canner likes to preserve the way Grandma did. The hipster is looking for something that preserves with some style. And the science geek is often more interested in the process and cares less that the homemade vinegar tastes good than that the techniques are cool. They each have their own needs when it comes to preservation gear and gadgets.
This is my list for holiday giving, both for presents I’ll be giving to fellow food preservers and, of course, for my own wish list.
Top gifts for food preservers
1. Finishing salt from J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, $9 for 3.5-ounce jar, $25 for 1-pound bag.
Serious canners tend to be obsessed with salt, even the fancy kinds that aren’t actually used in food preservation. I discovered this hand-harvested, small-batch finishing salt at Monticello’s harvest festival in the fall. Chefs and speakers at the festival were wedged together in a tiny booth tasting and admiring the complex flavors of this salt. Made by siblings Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne, this salt is a reinvention of an older tradition of salt processing by their ancestor William Dickinson, who started mining salt along the Kanawha River in the Appalachian Mountains in 1817. I have a case of Dickinson’s 3.5-ounce jars of salt stashed on a shelf ready to be given as hostess gifts. (Truth be told, it’s a case minus two jars, as I’ve decided to keep a couple for myself.)
2. 1.5-liter lacto-fermentation kit from Rancho La Merced Provisions, $42.
Know someone who loves sauerkraut or kimchi? Science geeks and hipster canners will appreciate the clever design of this kit. I received one of these kits as a gift from the maker, chef Ernest Miller, the man who helped relaunch Los Angeles County’s Master Food Preserver program in 2011. Although old-school canners may scoff at the idea of needing anything more than a Mason jar for lacto-fermentation, this kit helps reduce mold issues and produces more consistent results than old-school methods, especially for the inexperienced canner.
3. 2-gallon stoneware fermentation and pickling set from Kirby & Kraut, $136.
Old-school food preservationists with hipster design aesthetics will swoon over the fabric and artwork choices available to grace this 2-gallon crock with fabric top. As someone who currently uses a dishtowel to cover my crock, I’ll admit that this fermentation kit would be an upgrade to my current setup. I find the red/blue chevron top particularly charming.
4. Pectin jaune from La Cuisine, 8 ounces for $20.
Pectin is gelling substance used to help solidify jams and jellies. Commercially produced powdered pectin is usually made from apple seeds, but pectin jaune is a bit different. Made from the seeds of citrus fruit, pectin jaune will not liquefy after it sets as other pectin can. This unique property makes it the traditional choice for use in pâte de fruits (fruit paste), a delightful French confection that is vaguely similar to — but infinitely better than — those jelly fruit slices that are so popular around the holidays. I found pectin jaune at La Cuisine, an amazing cooking store in Alexandria, Va. Pectin jaune is often available in only large quantities, but this store packages it in 8-ounce bags suitable for small-batch experimentation.
5. Leifheit canning jars, available in various sizes ranging from 1 cup (1/4 liter) to 1 liter, price varies by size. Also available for purchase in six-packs.
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Leifheit canning jars use the two-piece lid system recommended by the National Center for Home Food Preservation, but they have a more unique shape than the classic Mason-style jar. Their diamond footprint allows these jars to fit neatly into the canner, which will appeal to organization nuts and those with a strong sense of spatial relationships. Perfect for the hipster canner on your gift list. Although the jars themselves are reusable, consider springing for a few extra sets of replacement lids and rings, which are safe only for one-time use.
It’s an extravagant gift, but an Excalibur dehydrator is a gift that keeps on giving, especially during the summer harvest season. I’ve been eying this nine-tray cherry red version with a 26-hour timer. There are other dehydrators on the market, but the Excalibur is my favorite because of its horizontal airflow system. When comparing dehydrators, look for an adjustable thermostat, large tray size, mesh screens with small hole size and a timer. Also, be sure to consider how many trays you think you’ll realistically need. I’ve filled up nine trays (15 square feet of drying space) with no problem, but your working style may be different. If you’re going to splurge on a gift of this magnitude, you might want to give the recipient a heads-up so she (or he) can weigh in on color choice and other important features.
But even if you splurge on a beloved fellow canner, also be sure to whip up a batch of apple butter or bake some gingerbread for your nearest and dearest. A homemade gift is often the best gift of all.
Main photo: J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Work’s finishing salt, pectin jaune and pâte de fruit top holiday gift lists for canners this year. Credit: Susan Lutz
by: Susan Lutz
My neighbors and I are savoring the last tomatoes of the season. I’m starting to prepare for winter — and holiday meals — but I haven’t given up on fall’s bounty. This year I plan to serve roasted tomato and corn salad as a side dish for our Thanksgiving meal.
Beside a healthy, happy family and good friends, there’s little I’m more thankful for than ripe tomatoes and sweet white corn. It seems there’s nothing more American than these two dishes. Food historians have found evidence of very few foods that were served at the first Thanksgiving, but one of those foods was almost certainly corn. The corn would have been served as a grain in bread or porridge, not as the corn on the cob we eat today.
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The reason this summer standard will be on my fall table is that I have white corn kernels packed in quart freezer bags stashed in my freezer. (I prefer white corn for its taste and texture, but I’ll admit that this may be a regional preference on my part. I know others who feel just as strongly about yellow corn.) I worked hard during August to ensure that I’d have sweet white corn awaiting me during the cold winter months for use in soups and side dishes like roasted tomato and corn salad. Even if blanching and freezing corn weren’t on your agenda this summer, you can enjoy this salad by using commercially frozen corn.
I can already hear the groans, so I will repeat: This salad is quite good using frozen corn. Freezing gets a bad rap. The naturally occurring sugars in sweet corn begin to turn to starch as soon as it’s picked. So to keep the corn sweeter, you must eat it or freeze it immediately. Commercially processed frozen vegetables, including corn, are processed just after picking, which yields a high quality product. When I run out of my own frozen corn, I buy frozen white sweet corn at Trader Joe’s. Although it’s not as good at the corn picked from my parents’ garden, it’s a solid substitute.
Pilgrims knew their tomatoes
The other summer favorite I intend to serve at Thanksgiving is tomatoes. Although tomatoes were not on the menu at the Thanksgiving meal shared by Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians at Plymouth Colony in 1621, these beautiful fruits are American in origin. In the fascinating book “The Tomato in America,” Andrew F. Smith claims the wild tomato (Lycopersicon) originated in the coastal highland of western South America. It was in Central America that Mayans and other Mesoamericans first domesticated the tomato plant and began to eat its sweet and mildly acidic fruit.
Tomatoes are traditionally thought of as summer fare, but even in November some of my neighbors have tomatoes hanging from shriveling vines in their backyards. Depending on where you live, you may, too. I am not so lucky in my garden, but I am still able to find tomatoes at my farmers market.
At this point in the season, I concentrate on small tomatoes — especially cherry tomato varieties. I let them ripen for a few days on my counter if they’re not yet in their prime and roast them to concentrate their flavor. You can even make this recipe using hothouse-grown cherry tomatoes if you’re so inclined.
The final ingredients are fresh basil leaves, which are also traditionally summer fare, but which come from the potted basil plant I keep in my kitchen and feta cheese.
With a little preparation, the gleanings of the final harvest, and a good freezer, you can let summer make its last stand on your Thanksgiving table.
Roasted Tomato and Corn Salad
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: 60 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Yield: Salad proportions are written for 1 to 2 servings, but can be scaled up to serve as many as you need. The amount of roasted tomatoes will probably be far greater than you’ll want for a single meal, unless it’s Thanksgiving. Extra roasted tomatoes are delicious when mixed with hot pasta and topped with Parmesan cheese.
Note: This recipe offers amounts that are closer to a general concept than a hard and fast rule. Feel free to adjust amounts based on the number of tomatoes you have and the number of people you want to serve. The tomatoes may be roasted a day or two ahead of time, making it possible for a quick “warm and toss” side dish for your Thanksgiving meal.
48 small cherry or Roma tomatoes
2 tablespoons plus an additional 1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons fresh thyme, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
3/4 cup of frozen white corn, defrosted and drained of any excess liquid
5 basil leaves, julienned
2 tablespoons crumbled feta cheese
1. Preheat oven to 375 F.
2. Slice tomatoes in half (lengthwise if using Romas) and squeeze them gently to remove seeds.
3. Place seeded tomatoes in a medium bowl with vinegar, olive oil, rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper, and gently toss to thoroughly coat tomatoes.
4. Cover the bottom of a half-sheet pan (a 12-by-18-inch sheet pan with 1-inch sides) with aluminum foil, parchment paper, or Silpat.
5. Arrange tomatoes in a single layer on the sheet pan, cut side up.
6. Roast for 40 minutes at 375 F, then turn heat up to 400 degrees F and roast for an additional 10 minutes or until tomatoes are lightly caramelized.
7. Cool slightly before continuing to make salad. Or cool completely and place in refrigerator for 1 to 2 days until you’re ready to make the salad. Be sure to keep the resulting “juice” created in the roasting process. You will need it for the salad.
8. Place roasted tomatoes with their juice, defrosted corn, and vinegar in a medium skillet and cook over medium heat until mixture is warm throughout.
9. Gently pour mixture into a shallow bowl and top with basil and crumbled feta. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Main photo: Roasted Tomato and Corn Salad makes an unexpected Thanksgiving side dish. Credit: Susan Lutz
Row after row of tomatoes fairly glowed from the wooden folding tables: pointy tipped Pittman Valley Plums, pale yellow Dr. Carolyns, globe-shaped Nepals and hearty Cherokee Purples. It was a rainbow-like assortment of 100 varieties that bore little resemblance to the bland, identical crimson globes in the supermarket aisle. The crowd was enthusiastic as it tasted, shared, argued and traded information, specimens and seeds.
I was at Monticello’s Harvest Festival at the tomato tables of The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, an organization at the forefront of the heritage seed movement. It’s been working with gardeners and seed savers for nearly 40 years to help preserve our garden and food heritage. And there’s possibly no better place to celebrate these goals than the home of Thomas Jefferson, America’s Founding Foodie.
Now in its eighth year, Monticello’s Harvest Festival was founded by Ira Wallace, one of the current owner/workers of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. The festival, hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, is a mixing bowl for chefs, gardeners and seed savers from across the country. For Wallace, it’s a community-building experience. Wallace admits that working in the sustainable food world can be tough sometimes, but that the festival is a great reminder of why she does what she does.
“Some days you feel really lonely and now I’ve found my tribe,” she said.
That tribe is a fascinating one that places passionate amateur and international experts on equal footing. At Monticello, I witnessed amateur seed savers discuss their process with internationally recognized authors. I came home with a vinegar mother — a starter for homemade vinegar — from one of America’s top winemakers.
Seed Exchange impact
For Wallace, that’s the point.
“This is for the people,” she said of the festival, “it’s not a scientific thing.” In fact, the location at Monticello only seems to highlight the ideals of Jefferson, who saw America’s future as a land of independent farmers. You may have only a suburban backyard or an urban window garden, but Wallace pointed out: “We want people to know that you don’t have to have a hybrid plant to have a good garden. Having some of your own seed gives people independence.”
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Craig LeHullier is a great example of the impact of the Seed Exchange. A cheerful man with a graying beard, LeHullier is the father of the tomato variety called Cherokee Purple. In 1990, the Raleigh, N.C., native received an envelope of tomato seeds from a friend in Tennessee, with a note saying this was a single variety grown by a family in Tennessee for more than a century. They thought the tomatoes were originally grown by the Cherokee Indians before that. LeHullier planted the seeds and discovered an ugly purple monster that turned out to be one of the most delicious tomatoes he’d ever tasted.
LeHullier donated his seeds to the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and was given the honor of naming the variety. The Cherokee Purple has gone on to become a favorite across the United States. This is the seed-saving tribe at work: salvaging a nearly lost varietal before it disappears. As LeHullier said: “You gotta give it away so it never goes away.”
This is the essence of the Monticello Harvest Festival — and the thousands of festivals and seed swaps like it across the country. I witnessed Aaron Keefer, the culinary gardener at California’s French Laundry restaurant, in a passionate discussion about heirloom rice with Glenn Roberts. Roberts is the founder of Anson Mills, a South Carolina champion of traditional American grains and milling techniques.
Heirloom rice species are beginning to catch the attention of high-end sustainable restaurants. Roberts said there are important reasons to maintain grain diversity — and you can find it in Jefferson’s era.
Jefferson had been badgering the local farmers for decades, insisting that they expand their rice-planting beyond a single variety. In 1827, South Carolina rice farmers faced a blight — destroying nearly the entire rice crop of the young nation. Fortunately, smaller farmers had saved seeds from other rice species and Carolina rice culture endured. “Diversity was the answer to success,” Roberts said. “At the time, rice farmers failed to listen and suffered the consequences.”
There was a deep knowledge base at the festival, and endless passion for a variety of food-related topics. The excitement of the speakers as they met and interacted was infectious. Here the teachers and students exchanged roles in the blink of an eye. Festival speakers wandered through vendor stalls and attended the lectures of other speakers. Anyone with a handful of seeds was an expert — at least at growing that single plant.
My mouth watered when I bit into a juicy purple globe at the overflowing tomato table — a variety grown by Jefferson himself. Wallace sent me home with a packet of Prudens Purple seeds to grow my own. I was equally excited by the fat Cherokee Purple handed to me by LeHullier.
Back at home I shared it with my husband and saved the seeds in a small envelope. Wallace’s vision of independent gardeners has deep roots — and it’s working.
“The focus is sustainability and bringing new plants to American culture,” she said. “That’s what Jefferson did.”
Main photo: Ground zero for heritage seed savers: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Credit: Susan Lutz
Across the lane from Napa Valley’s French Laundry restaurant lies a 3-acre farm that produces many of the fresh vegetables that have helped give the three-star restaurant its reputation as one of the best in the world.
Presiding over the rows of tomatoes, beets, melons, cucumbers and microgreens is culinary gardener Aaron Keefer. “We’re right across the street from the restaurant,” Keefer says, “and there’s this beautiful space that people are allowed to walk around. You can come up to the garden and see the stuff you’re actually eating. It’s funny how detached people are from what food actually is. People say, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen a potato grow before.’ ”
Keefer will preside over a different garden for a day when he gives the keynote address at the eighth annual Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. Keefer has become a fan of the president who has been called “The Founding Foodie,” and whose revitalized Revolutionary Garden at Monticello continues Thomas Jefferson’s legacy of raising heirloom fruits and vegetables. Keefer says his garden at The French Laundry mirrors Jefferson’s 2-acre garden at Monticello in many ways.
Keefer is always experimenting with new vegetable varieties in the garden and believes that vegetables — and the farmers who raise them — have become an exciting new resource for chefs. He explains, “I think that it’s coming around now and vegetables are really becoming the star of the flavor profiles on a plate. Every single starred restaurant out there — and really even other people — are using their relationships with farmers to get new inspiration and to create these new dishes for themselves.”
At home in the kitchen and the garden
Keefer is not only a resource for chefs, but also a liaison between the garden and the kitchen at The French Laundry. As a former chef, Keefer is uniquely qualified for his job as culinary gardener. As Keefer puts it, “I think it definitely helped me to be in the kitchen, even though it’s a completely different animal, but I think the thing to take home from having both careers is the communication. I know what’s going on on both sides of the equation, and I’m able to meld them together a little better.”
Eleanor Gould, Monticello’s curator of gardens, believes that The French Laundry “captures Jefferson’s spirit of innovation and experimentation.” The focus for both gardens is curiosity and passion.
Jefferson felt strongly about gardening. He grew 330 herb and vegetable varieties in his 1,000-foot-long garden terrace at Monticello and raised 170 varieties of fruit on his property. He encouraged others to garden with similar passion by hosting an annual contest with his neighbors to see who could harvest the first peas each spring. To further fuel his neighbors’ passion for gardening, he made sure one of them won the contest — even if his peas were the early champions of the season.
Keefer also shares Jefferson’s passion for the soil itself. In 1792 while serving as secretary of state in Philadelphia, Jefferson wrote a letter to his daughter Martha who was caring for Monticello’s garden in his absence. Jefferson told Martha that the only way to rid his garden of insect-infested plants was to cover it with a heavy coating of manure. When I mentioned Jefferson’s obsession with soil to Keefer, he echoed Jefferson’s sentiments, saying, “That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about the soil. You can give your plants chemical-based fertilizers and they will grow. Just like if you give your muscles steroids, they will grow. But it’s not the same.”
Keefer believes that the flavor in vegetables comes from the cycle of life in the soil. “When you take a handful or two of really truly rich organic soil, there will be millions of microorganisms and fungi in there. And those are the things that create the nutrition for the plant. They need the life in the soil to break it down for them so they can uptake it and somehow that creates a completely different flavor profile.”
The lesson of Jefferson
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Jefferson didn’t have access to chemical-based nutrients — and chances are he wouldn’t have wanted them. Gabriele Rausse, director of gardens and grounds at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, contends that what made Jefferson a truly revolutionary gardener was his belief that everyone should eat a diversified diet — a rare occurrence in 19th-century America. Now, America has begun to catch up with the founding farmer. Rausse says, “Today I look at the market and I think of what Jefferson had. I compare it to when I came to America 40 years ago, and I think finally they are listening to Jefferson. There are artichokes and chicory at the market now. People are starting to figure it out, but it took 200 years.”
Keefer’s revolutionary approach to gardening mixes the great traditions of heirloom farming techniques with the innovations of West Coast cuisine. Jefferson would have approved.
Main photo: A garden at Monticello. Credit: ©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello, photograph by Robert Llewellyn
The process of canning food can seem daunting at first. There’s a long list of equipment to assemble, complex instructions to follow, and the nagging feeling that if you do it wrong you may inadvertently spoil the fruits of your labor. I’ve done my fair share of canning, but after moving four times in the past five years, I’ve been repeatedly thrust back into beginner mode. Even for an experienced food preservationist, canning food in an unfamiliar kitchen is like being a newbie again.
With each move and each misplaced box of Mason jars, I have returned to basics. And nothing is more basic to a well-stocked kitchen than canning. I enter my new kitchen like all first-time canners — open to many possibilities as I begin to work in unfamiliar territory. With these tips and strategies you’ll stay organized and ready to preserve that bushel of fragrant peaches you couldn’t resist at your local farmers market.
5 best canning tricks for beginners
1. Create a canning center somewhere in your home.
Nothing will derail your project faster than an inability to find your tools. The location for your canning center doesn’t have to be large or fancy. It doesn’t even need to be in the kitchen. For the past year, I’ve kept my canning supplies in two giant plastic storage containers. One container corrals my canner, various small tools and my favorite canning recipes. The second container is full of canning jars stacked in their original storage flats or carefully wrapped in packing paper. Choose any color you like for your system. (My containers are bright blue — unlike any other storage container I own.) Just make sure that you can identify your canning supplies at 20 paces, even in a crowded storage room or basement.
2. Be a jar hoarder and an equipment re-gifter.
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I hesitate to tell anyone to be a hoarder, but it is necessary to have a selection of jar sizes on hand if you want to can a variety of foods. Whether you’re new to canning or you’ve purged your home of jars before a cross-country move as I did, you’ll need to stock up on jars. Look at your favorite recipes — or recipes you want to try — and see what kind of jars (and how many) the recipe requires. I hoard every canning jar that comes my way. I also watch for sales at my local hardware store and big box stores. Canning jars start going on sale in late summer, especially in stores that consider canning a summer-only pursuit.
You can free up space for your jar stash by purging your home of unnecessary kitchen equipment. I get rid of any tool I haven’t used in two years and generously gift my friends and neighbors with tools I no longer use.
3. Test your equipment before you want to use it.
If you don’t use all the burners on your stove on a regular basis, check them to make sure they’re operational — especially the largest front burner. Check all glass canning jars for nicks and cracks. Be sure that metal rings are free of rust. It’s easy to break a thermometer or discover that the batteries have corroded inside your favorite kitchen timer since you last used it. The time to discover these problems is before you have a flat of ripe strawberries sitting on your kitchen counter. If the tools and jars look OK, wash them in hot soapy water (except electronic devices, of course) and let them dry thoroughly before starting your project.
4. Allow twice as much time as you think you need for the process.
It’s amazing how long it can take to read directions, especially for a beginner. Recipes are usually written for experienced cooks, and I’ve found that they often underestimate the time required. Read the amount of work time suggested by your recipe and double it. This will give you time to hunt down missing tools and still finish your project before you need to pick kids up from school or make dinner. If you finish early, congratulate yourself and use the time to make yourself a cup of tea after all your hard work. The dirty dishes can wait.
5. Conduct a test run.
I do a dry run of every canning project as I start to boil water in my canner. (This is yet another reason to double the time required for any recipe.) It may seem silly — especially if you’ve already read the directions once — but it’s easy to make mistakes or take the layout of your kitchen for granted while working under pressure. You won’t realize how far away your stove is from the closest available countertop until you try to unload a dozen boiling jars from a steaming canner. And potholders always seem to run away just as the timer goes off. A dry run will help you work out the kinks in your process and put the tools you need in the place you’ll need them.
Main photo: Using the best beginner canning tips yields homemade apple butter, sweet pickles, rose water marmalade, tomatoes and green beans, even on busy days in cramped kitchen quarters. Credit: Susan Lutz