Bryson and Amanda Stewart grew up enjoying home-canned food.
“Both of our moms make salsa,” Amanda Stewart said. “I grew up in Hooper, and tomatoes are a huge thing there, and, of course, we did peaches. His mom did everything.”
“My favorite thing was cereal with canned peaches,” said Bryson Stewart, who lives with his wife and family in North Ogden. “Peaches are still the thing that runs out first at our house.”
Unfortunately, neither of the Stewarts learned how to can from their mothers, a fact that came home to them soon in their lives together.
“Once we were married and bought our first jar of salsa and tasted it, we were like, ‘Oops, we need to learn to can,’” Bryson Stewart said.
So they did, joining a growing wave of younger people who are picking up where their grandparents left off in planting and preserving their own food.
OLD IS NEW AGAIN
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Americans have been eating less and less commercially canned fruit and vegetables, a downward trend that has been steady since at least 1980.
At the same time, however, we’re eating more fruits and vegetables overall — we’re just eating them fresh.
And, increasingly we’re eating home-canned food again. After years of decline, sales of canning jars and equipment have been on the rise, with Jarden Home Brands, which sells Ball Home Canning products, reporting not only higher sales, but also increased interest in its canning demonstrations at farmers markets nationwide and in its website freshpreserving.com.
Reasons for this new wave of home canners likely are diverse: an increase in thriftiness following the nation’s long recession, the popularity of the “maker” movement, dining trends elevating the importance of local and seasonal food.
In addition, it’s becoming more of a family pursuit, with more men joining women in preserving food through drying, freezing and canning.
“A lot of people do it because they like the idea of organic or less-processed food,” Amanda Stewart said, but she and her husband are in it mainly for the taste and the experience.
“You’re in control, you know the ingredients, and you can tweak it yourself,” Bryson Stewart said. “Every year, we fine-tune something else. We used to get mushy peaches, and we’ve developed it to where that doesn’t happen.”
IT STARTS IN THE GARDEN
The Stewarts bottle produce from their garden, supplementing with fresh fruit and vegetables from the U.S. 89 Fruit Way between North Ogden and Brigham City, and from local stores.
The garden grows on a patch of North Ogden land borrowed from a family friend who is a farmer and “likes it to be used,” Amanda Stewart said. “So he tills it up every spring for us, and we put the garden in.”
Bryson Stewart refines his garden every year, learning optimal tomato-planting times and an effective watering setup (it involves a posthole digger and planting seedlings deep) from Hooper farmers, and trying new varieties to see what will grow best.
“It’s really his garden,” Amanda Stewart said, surveying the plants growing all around her. “I can them, but he does all the work out here.”
They plant fruits and vegetables that will allow them to can their childhood favorites, but also pay attention to what grows well in their garden and adapt their canning output accordingly.
For example, after realizing that “jalapeños go crazy here,” as Bryson Stewart put it, they added a recipe for spicy dill pickles with peppers, as well as “cowboy candy,” a sweet and hot jalapeño concoction that Amanda Stewart loves to slather on turkey sandwiches.
And, just for fun, Bryson Stewart and a friend also like to visit the garden some evenings, gather up salsa ingredients and compete to see who can make the hottest blend using the various types of peppers they grow.
“They’ve never made one yet that they can’t handle,” Amanda Stewart said. “They’ll be sweating, but they can eat it.”
A SOCIABLE SEASON
The Stewarts’ canning season, which starts in August right around the time school starts and runs through September, has a schedule determined in large part by Mother Nature.
The tomatoes and peppers necessary for salsa are ready at the same time for about a month, Bryson Stewart said, but those tomato plants keep producing long after the peppers, even into late October.
That means salsa comes first, to use up the peppers while they’re fresh and ripe, and then things like stewed tomatoes, tomato soup and spaghetti sauce. But they don’t have their kitchen tied up all that time in canning.
“We don’t do it inside anymore, ever,” Amanda Stewart said. “We used to stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning some nights because we just needed to get things done.”
Outside, the family and their friends can spread out the operation. They often have four double-burner camp stoves going at a time. That means there can be eight large pots bubbling away simultaneously, some cooking salsa or tomato soup or applesauce, and some processing sealed jars.
This process, along with a few essential tools and techniques they’ve picked up over the years, radically shortens the time it takes to can any particular crop, Bryson Stewart said.
“It takes it from a three- to four-day process to a one-day process,” he said.
Obviously, it takes a few people to watch over that much canning at once, and the social aspect is one of the Stewarts’ favorite parts of their hobby.
“Every year, we invite another family over and teach them how to can,” Amanda Stewart said. “We taught three or four families to make salsa last year. … We have a lot of people telling us, ‘Oh, I had this when I was a kid,’ and they want to know how to make it.”
Their friends and neighbors are always glad to get something that’s home-canned, she said, but it’s even more cherished if they’ve helped make it themselves.
“It’s kind of a pride thing,” Amanda Stewart said. “You grew the stuff, you made it, and when you pull it out all those months later, it tastes so good.”
Producing fresh, delicious food that will bring the taste of summer into winter; sharing your harvest with friends and family; passing on your knowledge to others — no wonder canning is catching on once more.
“It’s so fun to can with your spouse,” Bryson Stewart said. “The time together, elbow to elbow, just teasing one another, and all these memories of looking up at the kitchen ceiling and seeing tomato all over. It’s a good time.”
THE STEWART LIST
These are the items and techniques that help Bryson and Amanda Stewart and their fellow canners streamline the process, which in turn allows them to can mass quantities of food.
And we mean “mass”: Bryson Stewart estimates that the family owns more than 250 canning jars, and last year they canned 160 pints of salsa. Of course, they worked up to all of this over time, and so can anyone else. Just get started!
Sources of food
In addition to their garden, the Stewarts also get produce from neighbors who have old fruit trees and grapevines in their yards and can’t or don’t want to harvest them.
“There’d be little old ladies at church saying, ‘I have a whole tree of peaches that need picking,’ ” Amanda Stewart said. “They all had trees and they all had jars, and we inherited picking the trees and using the jars.”
Added Bryson Stewart: “They love to hear we like to can, because they don’t want (the produce) to go to waste.” When they have to, of course, the Stewarts buy produce, like the apples they purchase every year from Pettingill’s, a vendor along U.S. 89’s Fruit Way.
To make it possible to can out of doors, the Stewarts and their friends have four double-burner stoves between them. They like the Camp Chef brand, but any sturdy stove that will stand up to years of use will work. To heat the stoves, the Stewarts use propane, refilling their tanks at Ogden’s Hone Propane because, they say, it’s cheaper than at the grocery store.
Really big pots
The Stewarts like turkey fryers, which are sold in sizes ranging from 30 quarts to almost 50 quarts. Pots of this size can handle mass quantities of food as well as the racks to hold seven or more jars at a time for processing, and they can be found cheaply at thrift stores and in online classifieds now that the turkey-frying trend has died down. However, any large stock pot (at least 21 quarts) will do.
Find some that fit your pots; they’re cheap and come in a variety of shapes. However, you don’t have to use official “canning racks”: Anything that keeps the jars off the floor of the pot and can stand up to a long time in boiling water will do.
There’s a DIY rack made of canning rings and zip ties at www.nwedible.com/get-off-rack-diy-alternative-to-canning/; other online sources suggest barbecue pizza pans, which have holes in the bottom, and even a “very used” circular saw blade (no lie; it’s right here at www.simplycanning.com/canning-rack.html).
Also, don’t expect to lift your entire pot of processed jars safely out of the boiling water with the tiny wire handles on a standard rack. That’s where our next item on the list comes in.
The right tools
The Stewarts consider a few items absolutely essential to their canning process. First is what Bryson Stewart laughingly called the “grippy plier-y thing,” otherwise known as a jar lifter; it’s a scissors-like tool that can get under the lip of a hot jar and securely lift it out of its water bath.
Wide-mouthed funnels are a fairly recent (and cheap) addition to the tool cupboard that make a huge difference in filling jars, Bryson Stewart said, and magnetic lid-lifters (they look like plastic sticks with a magnet on one end) are also inexpensive and handy.
In addition, the Stewarts like a big, long-handled ladle, at least 1 1/2 cups, and an even bigger whisk. Their own whisk approaches two feet in length, has a rubberized handle and is among the only canning items the Stewarts won’t lend out.
“This hangs in our garage, and nobody gets to borrow it,” Amanda Stewart said.
Time and experience
The Stewarts advise canning with an experienced canner the first few times. Experience has taught them to add a tablespoon or so of vinegar to tomatoes when canning them, and another tablespoon of vinegar to the water in which lids and seals are simmering; this will help them seal better, Bryson Stewart said.
They’ve also learned from experience to reheat jars of salsa that have begun to cool before they could be lowered into boiling water for processing; otherwise, he said, “you lose the bottom and you have water full of salsa.”
Time has also taught the Stewarts that some things aren’t worth doing; for example, they lost so much fruit to deer that they now buy most of the fruit they can; and they prefer freezer jam to its canned counterpart.
“You can watch videos and look up things online, but there’s no substitute for being there in person,” Amanda Stewart said.
The United States Department of Agriculture puts out a frequently updated canning guide available for download at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
Jarden Home Brands, which owns Ball Home Canning, features canning guides, shopping opportunities, recipes and the chance to consult with canning experts at freshpreserving.com
Utah’s many county extension offices of Utah State University (extension.usu.edu) also offer advice, recipes and classes for people interested in canning, freezing and drying food.
This recipe from food.com is similar to the one used by Bryson and Amanda Stewart.
Yield: About 9 half-pints
3 pounds jalapenos, fresh and firm
2 cups cider vinegar
6 cups granulated sugar
1⁄2 teaspoon turmeric
1⁄2 teaspoon celery seed
3 teaspoons granulated garlic
1 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
Wearing gloves, remove the stems from all of the jalapeno peppers. Discard the stems.Slice the peppers into uniform ¼-inch rounds. Set aside.
In a large pot, bring cider vinegar, white sugar, turmeric, celery seed, granulated garlic and cayenne pepper to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for five minutes.
Add the pepper slices and simmer for exactly four minutes.
Use a slotted spoon to transfer the peppers, loading into clean, sterile canning jars to within ¼ inch of the upper rim of the jar.
Turn heat up under the pot with the syrup and bring to a full rolling boil. Boil hard for six minutes.
Use a ladle to pour the boiling syrup into the jars over the jalapeno slices. Insert a cooking chopstick to the bottom of the jar two or three times to release any trapped pockets of air. Adjust the level of the syrup if necessary. Wipe the rims of the jars with a clean, damp paper towel and fix on new, two-piece lids to finger-tip tightness.
Place jars in a canner, cover with water by about two inches. Bring the water to a full rolling boil. When boiling, set the timer for 10 minutes for half-pints or 15 minutes for pints.
When timer goes off, use canning tongs to transfer the jars to a cooling rack. Leave them to cool, undisturbed, for 24 hours. When fully cooled, wipe them with a clean, damp washcloth, then label.
Cook’s note: If you have leftover syrup, and it is likely that you will, can it in half-pint or pint jars, too. It’s wonderful brushed on meat on the grill, added to potato salad, etc.