Learn about the culinary, nutritional, sustainability, and cultural benefits of canning produce.
I have so many memories about my earliest culinary experiences. I can smell the coffee brewing in my Aunt Prussia’s charming house in Yakima, Washington, which she served in her old Fiestaware mix-matched cups and saucers (I loved the cobalt blue one the best!). I can remember rolling out sugar cookies at the kitchen counter for the holidays, and decorating them elaborately. And best of all, I remember canning season—like it was yesterday!
Every summer, we’d pack up the station wagon with my aunt and siblings on board and head from Seattle to Eastern Washington, which grows a cornucopia of beautiful fruits and vegetables. We’d pick up boxes of peaches, apricots, pears, apples, and tomatoes. On the way back, we’d open the windows to let in the hot, dusty breeze (no AC!), which would mix with that intoxicating smell of ripe fruit. I was drunk on those smells by the time we pulled into our driveway and unloaded our booty.
The next thing we’d do is start canning all of those beauties in mason jars, so we’d have delicious produce all year long. Of course, this is after we ate as much fresh, ripe produce as we could pack into our bellies. Those sweet, juicy peaches—skin and all, and saucer-wide tomatoes that we’d eat like apples with a sprinkle of salt and pepper…by the time we stationed ourselves at the kitchen counter to start the canning process, I was covered in their sticky perfume! My job when I was little was to help fill the jars with the fruit, arranging them so they would look pretty in the jars—when the canning was done, the jars would be arranged in the pantry like glistening gems all winter long.
My mom canned produce for the winter each summer until she was 85! I would love to take down jars when I visited her in Seattle. One of my favorites was canned tomatoes! We would can the biggest, juiciest, ripest red tomatoes in jars, and then have those wonderful tomatoes in soups, vegetarian chili, pasta dishes, and casseroles all year long.
Canning, which has been passed down through the generations throughout our history, was a way to preserve produce to last through the winter when fresh produce was less available. Humans learned to preserve foods through drying, salting—and eventually canning—so that they could survive during the cold months. Fruits and vegetables have essential nutrients that we need in order to survive—vitamins, minerals, and even phytochemicals—so it was important to ensure that a steady supply of nutritious foods were available. Canning mature, ripe produce means you lock on those nutrients. It is much more sustainable to rely upon canned produce—vegetables like tomatoes, green beans, and corn and fruits like peaches, applesauce, and pears—than it is to purchase fresh produce out of season which has been shipped long distances to get to your market. Plus, you can take advantage of a bounty of produce when it’s available. No food waste necessary! Canned produce also has a very long shelf-life, which reduces food waste even more. And canned foods are also so easy to use in cooking. Just open a jar of tomatoes and dump them into your favorite lasagna or soup, pop open the lid on applesauce and blend it into breads and baked goods, and unleash the power of canned peaches into a fruit cobbler or breakfast porridge.
You can learn more about home canning your own produce with this home canning guide from the USDA, which has everything you need to know about getting started! And don’t forget to try your hand at pickling, which is another form of preservation and canning which can have added probiotic benefits.
Check out some of my favorite recipes that feature canned foods: