You don't have to be a home gardener or even particularly domestic to reap the benefits of canning your own food. All you need is some fresh produce (think farmers' market), a free afternoon, and plenty of glass jars. You simply fill the jars with your favorite ripe fruits or vegetables (and herbs, salt, or sugar, if you like), cap them, and boil them. The heat kills any germs and forces air out of the containers so they seal up as they cool.
Canning emerged in the 1800s as a way to feed French and British soldiers, according to Sue Shephard, author of Pickled, Potted, and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World (Simon & Schuster, 2006). But while do-it-yourself canning is no longer a necessity, it allows you to enjoy juicy tomatoes and berries in winter—without relying on grocery-store produce that's been shipped across the globe. Home-canned food has surprising health benefits, too. "Heat from the canning process can halt the loss of nutrients like vitamin A, carotenes, and antioxidants that happens once fruits and vegetables are picked," says dietitian Roberta Larson Duyff, author of the American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide (Wiley, 2006). Canning also makes vitamin A, lycopene, and fiber easier for the body to absorb, according to a March 2007 University of California, Davis, study.
What's more, sealing your fruits and vegetables in jars eliminates the need for preservatives, says Duyff—and you can control the amount of salt and sugar that's added. (For a low-sugar pear topping, see the recipe at right.) As long as your jars are properly sealed, you won't have to worry about Clostridium botulinum, a bacteria that causes food poisoning. Consult a canning manual, like Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving (Robert Rose, 2006), for more detail, and follow these basic safety tips:
- Choose the Freshest Produce
It should be picked within the last three days and free of bruises.
- Use the Ball or Kerr Jars
These ensure a proper vacuum seal. Check them for any nicks or cracks—damaged jars may break when heated.
- Test the Seals
Once your cans of food have cooled, press on the centers of the lids to make sure the seals are airtight. If a lid springs up when you let go, refrigerate the jar and treat its contents as perishable.
- Store Properly
Canned foods will keep for up to one year when stored in a cool, dark place. Signs of spoilage include dried food or mold around the lid.