Monday, December 18, 2017

DIY canning equipment

Ever since we started gardening, Brian and I have used a variety of methods to preserve our excess produce (when we were fortunate enough to have any). Winter squash, of course, are easy to store; we just stash them downstairs in the cool confines of the laundry room until we want to use them. Freezing is the next easiest method, and a search our freezer on any given day is likely to turn up bags of rhubarb, containers of tomato sauce, and cubes of pesto that we've frozen in the ice-cube tray. Over the years, we've also experimented with packing fresh basil in salt or olive oil, drying cherry tomatoes in the oven, and making jars of ice box dill pickles that keep for several months in the fridge.

Until recently, though, we'd never actually tackled the toughest of all home preservation methods: canning. For one thing, it's a much more involved process than any other method; a quick search on "how to can" just led me to this page from the National Center for Home Food Preservation, with literally dozens of different fact sheets on the various tools and techniques involved. There's a lot that can go wrong—and the consequences of a mistake can be deadly.

Recently, though, Brian was moved to try a pickle recipe that called for actual canning. It didn't look too complicated: load the veggies into the jars, pour the boiled pickling mixture on top, then seal the jars and process them in a hot-water bath for 15 minutes. The worst that could happen would be that the jars didn't seal properly, and it would be pretty easy to tell if they hadn't—in which case we could just treat the resulting pickles as ice box pickles and keep them in the fridge.

The problem was the equipment. These days, it's fairly easy to find canning jars and lids at supermarkets, and we have a large stock pot that's big enough to process small jars in a boiling water bath. However, there are two additional, specialized pieces you need for canning: a rack to keep the jars off the bottom of the pot, so water can circulate properly, and a pair of wide, curved tongs for lifting the jars out of the hot water bath. Brian was naturally reluctant to invest money in these for a single canning attempt that might turn out to be his last.

To see if there was any way to mock up reasonable substitutes for these two pieces, I did a quick search on "DIY canning equipment" and came across this handy "home hacks" article on Kitchn. It said you can easily convert a pair of ordinary kitchen tongs to sturdy, jar-gripping tongs suitable for canning with some rubber bands. Just wrap several of them securely around the blades of the tongs, fitting them into the grooves. Brian tried it with our basic kitchen tongs and found that with this addition, they could lift a full half-pint jar with no slippage.

The article also suggested a way to make a canning rack out of aluminum foil by twisting it into ropes, then weaving them together to make a circular mat that fits your stockpot. However, the resulting jerry-rigged rack didn't look very sturdy, and it seemed likely that it would only be good for a single use. Brian figured that if he was going to go to the trouble of making something from scratch for this canning experiment, it might as well be something that he could use again if he decided it was worth pursuing canning any further in future. But on the other hand, there was a chance he'd only use it once, so he didn't want to buy any new materials for it.

So he disappeared down into his tinkering workshop, from which a series of mysterious banging sounds soon began to issue. When he finally reemerged, he was carrying this ingenious device, cobbled together from several lengths of perforated steel hanger strap. He'd bought this stuff so long ago that he couldn't even remember what it was initially for, but it came on a fairly big roll, and there was lots of it left. He simply made a series of rings from it, ranging from very small to almost the circumference of the stockpot, and lined them all up together so that he could thread a single bolt through the holes in all the circles at once.

As you can see, this DIY rack fits neatly in the bottom of the pot and supports a quart jar on top, with a good couple of inches to spare. The multiple layers of sturdy tape are strong enough to hold up the larger jars, and close enough together that even the smaller jars can't slip through. It can hold at least three quart jars or four little pint jars at a time.

As it turns out, the pickling process didn't go off entirely without a hitch (though that's a story for another blog entry). But the DIY equipment itself performed admirably. Best of all, neither of the pieces took up much room when we were done with it. The canning rack can be stashed right in the pot, ready to go in case we decide to use it again. The tongs, stripped of their rubber bands, are back in their usual place in the drawer; should we decide to take another crack at canning, it will be a simple enough matter to get them wrapped up again. Much better than spending money on a whole new piece of equipment that we then have to make room for.
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