April 21 2010 12:00 AM

MSU Extension Service shows how to preserve veggies safely



When the federal and state governments collapse, posse comitatus becomes the law of the land and the economy devolves to bartering and subsistence farming, you’ll wish you’d learned how to preserve food through canning.

Okay, so maybe you don’t share a Tea Party-ish apocalyptic vision of the near-future, and perhaps you want to explore some ancestral roots. Maybe you’d just like to transform those strawberries in your garden into lip-smacking jam or that ridiculously prolific tomato crop into jars of spicy salsa.

Whether it’s Mad Max or a silver-haired grandma that inspires you, the Michigan State University Extension Office offers loads of information to help make sure your beets don’t give you botulism.

MSU Extension food educator Joyce McGarry (wearing an apron that read “you can do it”) instructed a group of eager food preservers on a recent Friday evening in the Ingham County Health Department Building in south Lansing. She displayed preserving equipment, tools and ingredients and explained the procedures of basic canning and freezing at home.

The first priority of food preserving, McGarry stressed, is safety. Freezing is relatively straightforward — blanch your raw food, bag it and toss in the freezer — but canning can get a little bit trickier.

There are two methods for canning at home: water bath and pressure. Both require jars (canning is kind of a misnomer) that are typically packaged with a twopiece lid. Pressure canning utilizes a heavy pressure canner (different from a pressure cooker) that can get pricey — upwards of $100 — if you can’t find one at a garage sale. Water bath canning also calls for special cooking equipment, but it’s much less expensive, and the process is a little faster as well. The only downside to water bath canning is that it’s only safe to preserve highacid foods such as tomatoes, pickled food or various fruits and berries; with pressure canning, you can preserve just about anything, including non-pickled vegetables and meat.

The MSU Extension Office encourages home canners to call if they have any questions about process, equipment or safety.

“I like people to call before they preserve because if they’ve already done it and it isn’t how the research says, they might have wasted all that time and effort,” McGarry said.

Research published in 1994 resulted in many canning recipe revisions after the discovery that many foods, notably tomatoes, have naturally varying acidity levels. So any literature, cookbooks, recipes or traditions that predate 1994 should be scrapped, McGarry says.

The extension office also encourages home preservers to bring in their pressure canning gauges to make sure they’re calibrated correctly, a free service. Other equipment can be spot-checked as well, and the office has plenty of preserving information for distribution, too.

A group of 10 watched McGarry demonstrate pressure canning at the test kitchen inside the Extension office. They learned tips, tricks, and a bevy of details to help them get started or streamline their own home canning.

Phil Woodard, 55, is concerned about sustainability. He has noticed a trend of consumers becoming more self-reliant and wants to get ahead of the curve. He had more of the Mad Max-type motivation for attending: “We’re coming to a point where we’ll all be growing our own food, we’ll all be farming,” he said.

Rita O’Brien, 25, had more altruistic reasons for learning to preserve foods. She’s a member of Americorps and organizes community gardens in south Lansing. “Folks are Photo by Joe Torok interested in preserving,” she said, and by attending such a class and equipping herself with some basic information, the community gardens she sets up may become bountiful well beyond the growing season.

Mary Kowalewsky, 27, like Woodard, is concerned with sustainability, and she sees canning as a way to both heal the planet and keep her family’s bodies healthy. She likes the idea of the local production of food, so canning and freezing are ways for her to make her local dollar go further.

“I want to tap into what Michigan has to offer,” she said.

But beyond supporting the local economy, Kowalewsky has a much more tangible incentive for knowing what’s in her food: a nearly 2-year-old daughter. Kowalewsky is starting a tradition at home that she hopes her daughter, already curious in the kitchen, will take to heart as she learns about food and cooking. For Kowalewsky, preserving is about conscientious eating.

“I want to be more knowledgeable about what I put into our bodies,” she said. “It’s good for my daughter to know where her food comes from.”