Under pressure

These home canners preserve foods, funds and friendships

Sacramento canner Katy Campi clearly sees the value in home-preserved foods.

Sacramento canner Katy Campi clearly sees the value in home-preserved foods.


For more information and canning how-to’s, visit ww.pickyourown.org.

It’s a bright Sunday morning in fall, and as the smell of garlic wafts through the kitchen, a group of chefs busies itself, peeling, chopping and mincing vegetables.

On the menu for today: marinara sauce made by friends who represent a growing interest in canning, the method of preserving foods by processing them with heat and sealing them in airtight containers.

Each month, these Sacramento canners gather at a friend’s house to preserve food, talk about life and enjoy each other’s company.

Katy Campi, the group’s mastermind, started her own experimentations with canning after some friends served her homemade sweet-and-spicy pickles.

“I was really excited by the fact that they had canned [these pickles] themselves, and they had this really great flavor and I wanted to be able to do that, so I asked them to show me how,” Campi says.

It started with pickles, but soon Campi tried her hand with other fruits and vegetables, mostly picked from her weekly organic farm-produce delivery box.

“I had all of these grapes that were really small, but really flavorful. I decided I wanted to do something with them, so I made some grape jelly and it all kind of took off from there,” she says.

Campi’s efforts soon caught the attention of friends.

“I’d been canning for about three years, and I’d bring jars of things to parties and people would always ask about it,” she says.

So after sending emails to interested friends earlier this year, she launched the first session.

October’s meet up includes six canners including Ivy Griffin, here for the first time, as well as veterans Dana DeMaster, Charles Albright, April Osborne and Guphy Gustafson.

For the next four hours the group prepares and processes tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, celery, sugar and various spices in an effort to create the best homemade marinara sauce they’ll ever taste.

Canning isn’t just an excellent way to create delicious, long-lasting food, however, it’s also part of a growing do-it-yourself trend that places an emphasis on saving money while cutting down on the waste of food. According to industry data collected by the Symphony IRI Group, a market research group, the sale of home-canning products has risen nearly 35 percent since 2008.

Picked up too much produce at the farmers market? Canning is an ideal way to preserve those early fall eatables, keep them tasty and edible all winter—sometimes even longer.

There are two approaches to canning fruits and vegetables: a water bath or pressure canning. Both are good processes in their own way. Water-bath canning is easier, but takes at least twice as long. Pressure canning is less time consuming, but the appliance can cost anywhere from $100 to $300.

For water-bath canning, a jar is immersed in water that sits 2 to 3 inches above the jar’s lid. The cans are then boiled for a specific amount of time, depending on the recipe. A water bath is better for recipes with high acid, such as tomatoes or pickled beans, because they don’t require as much heat to kill microbes—the acid in the veggies or brine will do the leg work to fight off that nasty bacteria.

Conversely, pressure canning allows the pressure to rise to higher temperature to kill bacteria faster. Foods such as beans, corn or squash use pressure canning because they don’t have enough acid in them to kill off microbes. This process is significantly faster because the appliance seals the heat in, creating an ovenlike environment without the drying effects of that appliance.

Campi’s favorite pressure-canner recipe is one for black-eyed peas. Unless you’re eating the legumes fresh, she says, home-canned black-eyed peas are the way to go.

“It will make you want to harm the people that have served you anything else,” she says.

While there is, not surprisingly, an immense level of gratification that comes from a day’s worth of canning, real satisfaction exists in the camaraderie that takes place.

Campi, Griffin and Gustafson started their day early and by mid-morning are already hard at work, peeling and de-seeding the tomatoes. As the rest of the group arrives, the house buzzes with conversation. As Griffin and Campi chop onions, they discuss jobs—Griffin has been busy, studying for an important career-related test recently. While cleaning and cutting fresh basil, Gustafson and Osborne talk about travel plans—Gustafson just returned from Europe and Osborne will soon visit there. Eventually, the conversation turns to different types of trees and their proper care. Finally, the talk veers into even deeper subjects as the canners ponder graduate-school options and teaching credentials.

As the hours pass and music plays on a nearby portable CD player, the vibe feels less like industrious labor and more like a small party. There are people in different rooms, some chatting about work, some about upcoming local music shows. There is laughter and catching up.

Still, the party does have a goal, and no matter how relaxed the atmosphere seems, everyone keeps an eye on the timer, returning to check on the assorted vegetables and their progress.

At 12:45 p.m., more than two-and-a-half hours after the prep work began, the packed jars are finally ready to be set into the two pressure canners. It will take about 15 minutes for the enormous pots to reach their boiling point and another quarter hour for the cooking process to be complete. Everyone waits in the kitchen for the grand finale.

Finally, the cooling process is completed, and the pressure canners release all of their … well, pressure. Osborne places the jars on the countertop, and the group cheers as the lids began to seal. As the jars are properly pressurized, the lids make a satisfying popping sound. Each time a lid pops, a smile lights across someone’s face.

Traditionally, summer is thought of as the proper canning season, but diehard canners don’t stop when the weather cools. This group, for example, is already contemplating new recipes to try out during the winter months. Although the colder season doesn’t yield many canning-worthy fruits and vegetables, some items, such as various squashes, are available through the fall. Pickled eggs are potentially on the menu.

Canning, Campi says, is simple and efficient—anyone can participate, no need to invest in expensive equipment.

Just a large pot with a lid—and a taste for kitchen adventure—will do the trick.