How To: Stock a Cellar

Before the 2014 “polar vortex” hit, with its interminable cold, snow, ice and wind, my pantry was a source of hilarity.

Friends would wander into my basement and gasp. They snickered. They questioned my sanity. Lined up against three walls, the heavy-duty steel shelves packed with jars of home-canned food looked like the contents of a fallout shelter. Or the home of a hoarder. “What do you do with all this food?” and “I see you’re ready for the zombie apocalypse!”

And I’m OK with that. Because I live with the security that my pantry is filled with food that comes from farmers I know, in jars that can sustain us all winter long.

Food preservation is hardly a new idea. The Egyptians even preserved food for the afterlife. Honey, garlic and onions were found in the pyramids, tucked in next to mummified corpses.

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Napoleon put out a call to the French people to create a more suitable method of preserving food. He wanted French families to provide home-cooked foods to his soldiers. “An army marches on its stomach.”

The World Wars brought Victory Gardens and Victory Canning, but following the hotly anticipated Victory Day, the advent of commercially canned foods turned preserving into a hobby, not a necessity.

In today’s locally sourced, back-to-basics world, preserving once again has legs. It’s not hard for beginners to learn. And for some of us, it’s hardcore.

When I was first starting out, I’d put up a few jars each summer. And I relied on just three recipes: my great-grand-mother’s raspberry jam, my mother’s mango chutney and also her heavenly sweet pickle relish. Preserving these foods needed no special equipment and only a few minutes in boiling water to process. Water bath canning is the most common preserving method for high acid (low pH) foods like jam and pickles.

The filled, lidded jars are submerged in boiling water. When the contents reach 212 Fahrenheit, the pressure in the jar equalizes and air is expressed under the lid and a seal is formed, punctuated by a satisfying “ping.”

A quick tally of the grocery store canned tomatoes I used in just one week moved me to add crushed tomatoes to my canning regimen. With some experience under my belt, I began processing 300 pounds of tomatoes for ketchup, salsa, juice and soup, and boatloads of those everyday jars of crushed tomatoes each summer. Tomatoes might be the gateway vegetable to canning’s crazytown, but they are also the most practical jar on the shelf.

Sean Timberlake, founder of Punk Domestics (a content aggregator for the DIY food community) remembers his entry into preserving. “For the first year or two, I made more jam than we could consume. When I started canning tomatoes, though, it all made sense. This was food we used. My husband and I are dedicated to our Friday pizza night, a night that starts with a jar of tomatoes.”

The decision to buy a pressure canner is the beginning of hardcore canning. Timberlake says, “Pressure canning became interesting to me because we have a lot more shelf space than freezer space. Chicken stock on a shelf instead of in bags in the freezer? I could get behind that.”

The idea is seductive. The pressure canner (different than a pressure cooker) is a bulky piece of serious equipment.It heats the contents of the jars to 241 Fahrenheit, the temperature at which botulism dies, making it possible to can low acid (high pH) foods. Once I had the equipment, adding corn, beets, pimentos and poblanos — even chili con carne, salmon and tuna — to the larder was easy. (I know canning fish may seem out there, but it’s ridiculously straightforward — pack a jar with raw fish, cover with water or olive oil and pressure can. This fish is so much better than anything commercially available that it’s now a staple for me.)

All this canning means the wintertime dinner options in my home are much more interesting. And we always have something available to eat, because whether returning from a long vacation or feeling just too darn tired to cook, the shelves offer up easy possibilities. We have
been able to feed ourselves for nine days without a trip to the store — and with some planning, we could do more.

Does it take mad skills? Not at all. Most of these preservation processes were created before refrigerators, candy thermometers, fancy pots and pans and high-end stoves. These are basic techniques that allowed humans to live through winter, the skills that changed us from nomadic hunter-gatherers to an agrarian culture. “None of the greatest achievements in travel, exploration,
and survival could have been possible without the increasing ability to preserve and carry food into places where none was available,” writes Sue Shephard in “Potted, Pickled and Canned: How the Art and Science of Food Preserving Changed the World.”

The winter of 2014 was harsh. Our city was virtually closed down, the roads impassable. Finally, my pantry made sense. We had black bean burritos, roasted corn, potatoes with poblano rajas. A few jars of tomatoes, sausage and pork bones from the freezer meant a divine Bolognese sauce. We enjoyed smoked turkey and gravy with a beet and goat cheese salad. I baked pies, made streusel, filled cookies with jam. There were lunches of tomato soup and grilled cheddar cheese sandwiches and waffle breakfasts with blueberry syrup. I have a feeling that this winter, no one will be laughing at my pantry.

Photos courtesy Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton

How To: Stock a Cellar