BOOK REVIEW — You Too Can Can But You Must Can Carefully

August 1, 2017

By Katherine Keller

You Too Can Can But You Must Can Carefully
Science is key to safely preserving food in the home kitchen

Christina Ward and her Preservation — The Art and Science of Canning, Fermentation and Dehydration have received a good deal of media attention in Milwaukee, Madison, and beyond, since her book was published in June.

Some of the local interest in the book and in the author herself is surely due to her status as a Milwaukee native but it also coincides with the recent spike in home canning and preserving.

In the U.S., the resurgence of home food preservation began immediately following the 2008 economic downturn. In 2009, the New York Times reported that Jarden’s sales of its canning equipment had increased nearly 50 percent above its 2008 sales. At that time Jarden, now Newell, owned Ball and Kerr brands, both longtime makers of the glass jars used by home canners.

Wisconsin legislators became part of the trend when they passed the “pickle bill” in 2009, which permits the sale of a limited range of preserved foods processed in a home kitchen. Previously, state law mandated that small-scale producers of canned food were permitted only to sell to the public if the products had been processed in state- and city-certified commercial kitchens.

Some attribute the trend for DIY pickles, jams, preserved fruit, vegetables, chutney, kimchi, jerky, and beer to the current demand for handcrafted, artisanal, small scale, and locally produced food rather than the desire to stock the larder more economically. Buying jars, lids, rings, and other equipment is not inexpensive. And if one is buying rather than growing one’s food, it is yet more costly to “put food by.”

Ward’s book joins the contemporary stream of food preservation titles. A quick scan of Amazon’s listings revealed that more than 40 books on the topic have been published since 2009.

What distinguishes Ward’s work is she promises information about the art of canning, fermenting, curing, and dehydrating food, but also, crucially, the science.

Informing her knowledge of food-safe preservation practices is Ward’s certification as a UW-Madison Extension accredited Master Food Preserver. The accreditation is achieved after successfully completing a three-day course taught by university and extension faculty, according to information published by the UW Extension.

For those who preserve their own food, adhering to practices that ensure safe final products is critical because failing to follow the rules can result in serious illness or death. Ward repeatedly warns her readers to strictly follow her recipe’s directions, just as she warns not to randomly use recipes from the multitude of blogs on the subject. Instead, she advises, use recipes published by university extensions or those written by authors like her, who have been schooled in food safety science and practice.

In the first chapter, Ward introduces readers to a short list of deadly foodborne pathogens that poison food.

She follows it with two short chapters about the chemistry and physics of common food preservation methods, with an explanation about how each prohibits, if performed properly, pathogen growth.

The science sections are accessible and easy to absorb. She doesn’t delve too deeply and generally, when introducing a scientific term that may be unfamiliar to readers, includes a definition: “Any substance that attracts water molecules is called ‘hygroscopic.’ Salt and sugar are hygroscopic.”

Ward’s text also includes an overview of the different processes and equipment required for a variety of preservation methods including hot water bath and pressure cooker canning. There are shorter chapters that cover fermentation, curing, smoking, and dehydration. Each concludes with a selection of recipes.

Whether readers want to make chutney, canned fish, peaches in syrup, pickles, relish, jerky, pie filling, kvass, soup, or jam, they’ll probably find a recipe for it in Ward’s book.

The recipes are easy to read and for the most part, easy to follow. Text is set off by a healthy portion of white space. Each of the steps in the technique section is set in bold type, most helpful when perspiring in a steamy kitchen surrounded by a slew of ingredients and a bunch of equipment.

Nuts-and-bolts-information is provided in the header: prep time, equipment, headspace (proper amount of space between a jar’s contents and the lid), processing time, and yield. The recipe header, for the uninitiated, is printed at the beginning of a recipe and provides advice, special instructions, or key information.

In many of Ward’s recipes, yield information is provided relative to various jar sizes — pint, pint and a half, or quart, for example. This saves time when gathering equipment to make a batch of preserves. Experienced canners know that the prep and cleanup often take as long, if not longer, than filling and processing jars.

Most recipes include the weight of the main ingredient, in addition to the volume. For example, 1-½ cups (12 ounces) fresh or frozen peas. Curiously, some do not. The recipe for Nantucket Pie calls for 32 cups of fresh or frozen cranberries. How many readers will know how many cups are in a bag of cranberries?

The 108 recipes would also be enhanced if the main ingredient’s weight and volume were added to the headers.

Ward’s recipes often include helpful supplemental information. A note in the recipe for Beet and Horseradish Relish informs, “Fresh horseradish is pungent. It will smell when you grate it. It can also cause irritation to eyes. Using a food processor is a quick and easy way to grate horseradish.” And in the recipe for Italian Sausage and Peppers: “Choose your jar size first as that will determine how you prepare the sausages. Quart jars fit about 4 whole sausages while pint jars fit 2 sausages that are halved.”

Ward said she’s made and tested every recipe in the book aside from the pressure-canned fish. She’s allergic to fish, so her husband taste-tested it.

The supplemental information provided in the recipes themselves and in the introduction to each set of recipes showcases the considerable depth of knowledge Ward possesses of her subject.

Although the book includes almost no photographs of finished products, there is a 16 page section at the book’s center that features color images of market produce along with a few close ups of peaches, dill pickles, syrup, and jelly in jars. Likewise, there is only a handful of graphics that illustrate technique, so if you’re an anxious beginner or visual learner, consider supplementing Ward’s book with the Ball Blue Book Guide of Preserving or the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. Other rich resources are university extension websites such as those of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Georgia, etc. The University of Wisconsin Extension’s website, The Learning Store, offers a wealth of information.

This noteworthy book possesses a couple of hitches. Some of the material could be better organized and there is a disappointing dearth of indexed material. Ward includes a good deal of information that augments or summarizes her main text but these treasures are scattered throughout the book and often not logically placed, therefore not easy to locate.

The index is only three and a half pages for a book of 394 pages packed with details. When I attempted to use the index, the page number for each of the first two items I consulted was incorrect.

An in-depth index along with an appendix that compiles the key information provided in tables and subsections would enhance the book’s usability. If you find a table or other information you will likely wish to consult again, put a sticky note on that page so you can readily find it when you need it.

That said, Ward’s work is notable for the depth and breadth of her knowledge, in addition to the bright, broad array of appealing recipes. Whether confessing her desire for a return to pickled fruit, advising how not to blow up a pressure cooker, dispensing personal anecdotes and interesting morsels about food history and culture, or sharing her wealth of information about food preservation, the book provides a compelling, authoritative resource for those who would “put food up.”

The information is practical and comprehensible and as such should reassure and embolden novices but also round up the knowledge of the more seasoned and advanced food preservers.

The Art and Science of Canning, Fermentation and Dehydration
Christina Ward, Author
Process Media; Trade Paperback;  $24.95

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  1. UW Daily – August 3, 2017 | UW Daily on Thu, 3rd Aug 2017 1:08 pm 

    […] UW-Extension accredited Master Food Preserver authors book on preserving food in the home kitchen, Bay View Compass, August […]

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