It was Bette Davis who famously said, “Old age isn’t for sissies!” When you’re 15, hearing this for the first time only makes you scratch your head. At 35, it’s pretty comical. But about the time you’re getting that first social security check it’s not so funny anymore.
During my recent first canning experience of this season, I made a mistake that fell firmly into the not-funny category. Fortunately, there was a way to fix the error. It wasn’t fun, but was still a fix.
Getting in the Canning Groove
I have a little hideaway cubby space under the kitchen counter where I keep all my canners and canning supplies during the nine months when they’re not being used. While getting those this year, as usual, I hadn’t thought about canning since last October when I put everything away for the season. Serious canners understand the importance of getting into the groove as quickly as possible when there are 100+ jars of produce to put up before the growing season is over. By the time late October rolls around and the last of the tomatoes are being prepared for tomato sauce, you can get the canning done with half your brain tied behind your back while reading SurvivalBlog and drinking coffee.
Unfortunately, for me, the first canning venture of the season always feel like I haven’t done any canning since the days when telephones still hung on the wall. This year was no exception and I had to start remembering all the key details of home canning trying to get back into the groove.
The First Canning Project of the Year
In an attempt to eat a more healthy diet, I started eating chef salads with eight or so different ingredients including my home-canned pickles and pickled three-bean salad. Triple rinsed to remove the salt, then diced, they make a nice addition to salads and stir-fries. So this year I decided I was going to can a lot more pickles. I planted extra rows of cucumbers and my seven-foot a-frame bean trellis was planted with Baker Creek’s yard-long beans on both sides.
By last week the cucumbers were producing well and the first yard-long beans were just coming on. Combined, there weren’t quite enough to do the two 11-jar batches I like to start the season with so I opted to make my “whatchagot” bread-and-butter pickles. If you haven’t read any of Sandpoint Idaho’s born-and-raised author Pat McManus’s hilarious stories, do yourself a favor and read A Fine and Pleasant Misery. In another of his books he mentions “whatchagot stew” made from whatever you have on hand at deer camp on that particular day. So I do the same with my whatchagot pickles when I need to make the cukes and beans go a little bit further. This year’s first batch had cucumbers, yard-long beans (the purple variety), carrots, kidney beans, and Fuji apples.
My original bread-and-butter pickle recipe came from the Ball Blue Book of Preserving. Most of their recipes however only make 4½-5½ pints (or quarts). My large canner holds 11 pints so I adjust all recipes to make that many jars. And I convert cups to grams so I can weigh everything out instead of trying to figure out what exactly a cup of sliced cucumbers represents. Weighing also helps me to determine how many batches I can get out of a bucket of cucumbers instead of trying to guess how many cups of cukes are in that bucket. As my canning recipes evolve, notes are written all over the page of my Ball canning book and once perfected, they get written into my canning notebook.
As I was getting ingredients together for that first batch of pickles, I spent a lot of time scratching my head trying to figure out what some of the notes meant written all over the pickle recipe page in my Ball canning book. Some measurements looked like I had already adjusted for 11 pints, others not. Some notes had changed as the recipe had evolved. It was frustrating to say the least! I finally thought, why the heck haven’t I gotten this finalized and written in a clear recipe which was a no-brainer to follow? That’s when I remembered I had done that last year. I bought a bound notebook with a bright purple cover and had written down most of my 11-jar, final versions of my recipes.
I was relieved but pretty frustrated by the time I finally had that recipe to work off of. I got back into happy mode and got the pickles going. Everything went well.
When those first jars came out of the canner, they were a sight to behold! Very bright and colorful, clear juice, lots of little mustard seeds mixed throughout, and some of the turmeric and ginger settled in the bottom of the jar. The first jar I opened after they had cooled was perfect: very flavorful and some of the crispest pickles I’ve ever made. I nearly dislocated my shoulder trying to pat myself on the back.
Only one small problem had occurred: After turning the burner off, I had forgotten to take the lid off the canner for the five-minute resting period before removing them from the water. They wouldn’t have cooled as much but while removing them from the canner there were no jar explosions regurgitating the contents and ruining the lid seals, so no biggie. Other than that, everything else went well.
Or so I thought. Even with such things as inconsequential as homemade pickles, pride goeth before the fall and my DIY pats on the back had been for nothing.
Houston, We Have a Problem
That night while sitting in my reading chair looking over at the jars of pickles on the counter, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t processed them for the full fifteen minutes. I had that five-minute cool-down time before removing the jars from the canner stuck in my head and the fifteen-minute processing time had digressed to a mere five minutes. Water-bath canning doesn’t actually sterilize the contents of the jars like pressure canning does, it only pasteurizes. I figured there was a 97% chance the pickles would be okay. After all, the whole pickling process was discovered as a food preservative long before glass jars had even been invented. But that 3% uncertainty was enough to make me uneasy. There’s nothing worse than having friends and family over for dinner, then having them go home and wake up dead the next morning with food poisoning, the survivors no doubt thinking, “So this is what self-reliant living is all about?”
Fortunately, there was a way to resolve the situation.
Fixing the Problem
By emptying all the jars into the kettle, reboiling the pickles and brine solution to bring everything to pasteurization temperature, then repeating the canning process, the pickles could be brought up to safety standards. So I did that. Unfortunately, the end product was no longer what it had been texture-wise and the aforementioned palate-pleasing crispiness was just a fond memory. When reboiling things like juice and tomatoes the texture remains the same and no one’s the wiser that they’ve been processed twice. Not so with pickles. Pickle recipes generally call for a five-minute boiling time before processing in the canner. This five minutes is just enough to ensure that the center of the pickles reach the pasteurization temperature. Five minutes instead of ten is one of the things that helps keep the pickles crisp.
After reboiling and reprocessing, I had 22 pints of bread-and-butter pickles that wouldn’t be competing at the county fair this year. I was not as happy as the proverbial seagull with a french fry. I thought about how to prevent this brain cramp from ever happening again, as well as improve other aspects of that first canning experience of each year.
Take-Home Lessons For Next Year
Here are the changes I’ll make so I can avoid these problems at the beginning of each year’s canning season.
- Write a note in my Ball canning book that the final version of the recipe is in my canning recipe notebook.
- Store my purple canning notebook right in the canner itself where there’s no way I’ll miss it, not in the canner box with all the other clutter of tools and gadgets.
- Before storing away for the season, tape a 3 x 5 index-card on the canner lid about the required 15-minute processing time. Add to the note that my regular kitchen timer is dedicated to this job only so I’m not switching back and forth between 15 minutes and 5. Move this 3 x 5 card to the counter before filling the canner with water.
- Put a second index card on the counter about letting the jars sit in the canner with the lid off for five minutes before removing them, and dedicating my microwave timer for this job only.
- Put a large asterisk in my canning recipe notebook at the beginning of the line about the 15 minutes so it won’t be skimmed over.
- Add a small column in my recipe book on what tools will be needed.
- Keep all the necessary pickle-canning tools in the canner box with the rest of the equipment. Trying to find the potato masher (to gently push the cucumbers down into the brine as they begin to heat up) and a straining spoon in the heat of the moment makes the job even more time stressing than it already is.
Once I’m back in the groove during the rest of the canning season, these steps won’t be as necessary. At least until I digress into the further stages of my late-onset mental retardation.
I was pretty miffed about one more reminder that my mental capacity isn’t what it used to be. Even more miffed about wasting time having to go to all the trouble of reprocessing the pickles at such a busy time of year. It was too late to do it that afternoon and worst of all, I knew exactly how the reprocessed pickles were going to turn out.
My first thought when I woke up the next morning was about those darn pickles. I wasn’t anxious to get it done with so many other homestead jobs needing my attention first. I procrastinated until the next day, then decided I still wasn’t ready. When the drive belt on my mower broke that afternoon, I decided I better get to it. On the morning of the third day I got up at 4:00 AM and headed for the kitchen to get it over with. What started out as the fun first canning project of the season had turned into a huge negative experience.
Old age isn’t for sissies. As it is, I have to use alarms on my phone as reminders for many things. Instructions are engraved on my kettles like how many pint and quart jars each one holds, as well as the weight of each in case I forget to re-zero the scale when weighing out ingredients. My waffle recipe is engraved right onto the top of the waffle iron, and a note written with Sharpie on the throat plate of my table saw to remind me that the blade-changing wrench is hanging on the wall by the woodstove. At the last changing, with a crescent wrench and vise grips, I had forgotten there even was that special wrench. Igniting and use instructions are written on the wall above my backup wall-mounted propane heater in the well house in case the electricity goes off and renders my electric ones useless. And then there’s the Sharpie note on the face plate of the front door handle reminding me that the set screw is reverse threaded.
Now I’ll have to resort to these same methods at the onset of each canning season so I don’t repeat this year’s canning-tastrophies.
Eating the stewed cucumbers in my salads over the next year should also remind me of this year’s unfortunate mishaps. I’m hoping this experience will be funny a week from now when I’m asking my kids how their canning is going so far this year. I’ll remind them that this is what they have to look forward to. They’re all still at the stage where the “old age isn’t for sissies” quote is funny.
And my next batch of pickles will turn out perfect.