Learn How to Can Your Own Food with Tips & Recipes from Pittsburgh Gardeners

By Ciara Crossey + Kelsey Peart
Edited by Lauren Wells
Pittsburgh Canning Exchange

Photo: Pittsburgh Canning Exchange

Canning — the process in which food is preserved in water, vinegar, and spices in an air-tight container, and then sealed by heat — is believed to date back to the 18th century. In recent years, canning has taken on a new popularity, with many health-conscious consumers seeking organic and cost-efficient ways to preserve their food.

Here in Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Canning Exchange, Pittsburgh Urban Gardening Project, and Burgh Bites Food Truck are teaching us how to do just that.

“There’s something magical about opening up a jar in the middle of winter and remembering when you canned it and what you were doing that day, and knowing exactly what is going into your food. It’s also a great way to be able to support local farmers,” says Pittsburgh Canning Exchange co-founder Sara Blumenstein. Like her peers, Blumenstein’s interest in canning was inspired by the Pittsburgh region’s dedication to sustainable gardening, farmers markets, and farm-to-table practices.

Pittsburgh Urban Gardening Project co-founder Brett Wilps says that that canning is less expensive than purchasing food, especially during the winter, when many crops are out of season in Pennsylvania. It’s much healthier, too. “Our goal is to teach people how to live more sustainably and to create a community focused on healthy lifestyles.”

Having grown up in an Italian family where canning was integral, Burgh Bites Food Truck chef and owner Ricci Minella still uses those practices today. “We stockpile 100 gallons of tomato sauce, made with homegrown tomatoes and cucumbers, and 150 gallons of homegrown pickles at the end of the season. We also can roasted garlic, which is a great addition to any dish,” he says.

To be able to can successfully, you’ll need a few basic tools to start. If canning straight from your own garden is not possible, your local farmers market will be able to provide all of the fresh produce you’ll need. Ready, set, grow!

The basics:

1. Canning jars and lids
Home canning jars come in all shapes and sizes, so be sure to choose ones that are appropriate for the foods you are canning. For example, while larger jars work better for pickles, smaller jars can be used for dilly beans and salsas. Your lids should be in good condition and less than one year old to ensure that they’ll seal up properly.

2. Canning utensils
Typical must-have tools include a canning funnel, a stainless steel ladle, a canning jar lifter with rubber grips, kitchen tongs, and plenty of clean kitchen towels.

3. Canner or cooker
The Pittsburgh Canning Exchange recommends a process called “water bath canning” for beginners, though it’s also the process they use themselves. Pressure canners are another option, but are more difficult to master. For more information on water bath canning, refer to this simple, step-by-step guide.

Pittsburgh Canning Exchange

Photo: Pittsburgh Canning Exchange

The recipes:

Ready to crack open those jars? Try these recipes from our experts!

Leena’s Caramelized Onion Jam
By LeenaEats.com; recommended by the Pittsburgh Canning Exchange

Norma Jean’s BBQ Sauce
Courtesy of Brett Wilps, Pittsburgh Urban Gardening Project

1 cup sliced onions
1 cup ketchup for sweeter BBQ, or smoked San Marzano tomatoes for smokier BBQ
1 cup water (or less)
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
Less than 1/8 cup brown sugar (1/4 cup if using smoked San Marzano tomatoes)
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon paprika

1. Combine all ingredients. Cook on low heat until sauce has reached your desired consistency.
2. Sanitize your Mason jars and lids by placing them in boiling water for less than 10 minutes. Fill sanitized jars with sauce. Clean the jar’s rim to ensure that no sauce gets in the way of attaching the lid.
3. Screw lid(s) on tight. Place jars back into the boiling water for 7-10 minutes.
4. Remove jars from boiling water and place in a cool area. Wait to hear the “ping” of the mason jar as the lid seals. If they do not seal on their own, repeat step #3.

Ricci Minella’s Pickle Recipe
By Burgh Bites Food Truck chef and owner Ricci Minella

1 cup water
1 cup vinegar
1/2 tablespoon black pepper corn
1/2 tablespoon mustard seeds
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon salt
Sugar (optional)
Pickling cucumbers

1. Bring brine to a boil in a pot, or until the salt and sugar are dissolved.
2. Chill brine and throw in sliced cucumbers.

TIP: Throw sliced cucumbers into hot brine for a quicker pickling process.

→ Pittsburgh Canning Exchange, canningexchange.org.
→ Pittsburgh Urban Gardening Project, pittsburghurbangardens.com.
→ Burgh Bites Food Truck & Catering, 412.229.7119. burghbitestruck.com.
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