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Adventures in Canning
Features - The Craft of Cooking
Written by Kim Bingham   
In my childhood home, canned vegetables meant something emblazoned with the Jolly Green Giant. My mother, while a fantastic cook, was not a canner. We didn’t grow vegetables and we certainly didn’t “put up” any harvests. 

I’m an adult now, with my very own home, including my very own garden full of things begging to have a shelf life through the winter. I wanted to know that time-honored tradition of canning. I didn’t want to read about it and do it on my own. I wanted an expert to show me how not to kill myself by canning the wrong way. 

Meet Robin Cohen of the blog, Doves and Figs. She’s a cook, writer, media consultant and most importantly, the woman who taught me how not to land in the hospital after a botched canning jar. She teaches a few classes a season as part of Arlington Community Education and once I saw she was doing another canning class, I was on board.

So I grabbed my apron, my car, and my dear blogging friend, Brian, of The Gringo Chapin (because he feared sickness by canning as well) and off to Arlington High School we went. 

I walked in a canning newbie, and walked out with not only the tools to do it on my own, but a lovely Concord grape jam and some amazing pickled vegetables. 

In a little home economics room (do they call it that still?), nine of us began our class on canning by chatting with Robin about the general process. We were going to learn how to can using a water bath method. It’s important to note that if you know as little about canning as I did that there are two methods: water bath and pressure canning. Pressure canning is a little bit more involved, requiring more specialized equipment to can less acidic things like tomato sauce and salsa.

Water bath canning is what you probably watched your grandmother do. She created jams, jellies and the tastiest pickles you probably have ever had the honor to eat. We continued our excursion in our class chopping vegetables, and peeling the most beautiful and wonderful tasting Concord grapes I’ve ever worked with. 

We cleaned and then submerged our jars and lids in simmering water and got down to work. In a massive pot we combined things like apple cider vinegar, peppercorns and a bit of fennel to make the brine for our pickled veggies. We took our simmering canning jars and Robin instructed us on how to fill them with a rainbow of veggies in just the right amount. Too much or too little of either brine or vegetables could cause an issue with the jar sealing. We popped on a lid, loosely tightened the cap and into the big water bath they went. 

On the other side of the room, we filling another huge pot with grapes, juice, cinnamon sticks and a whole lot of sugar; the smell is intoxicating. As those grapes started to come together, Robin patiently explained why such a huge amount of sugar was needed, why you can get away with not using pectin, the differences between jams, jellies and conserves, and why it’s best to leave the jars out overnight (moving them could loosen the seal). 

The best part about this class was being able to ask the most basic of questions, and the small tips and tricks Robin employed to make sure the product was on the right track. I now know to listen for the “pop” when the jars come out of the bath, how to test the seal with only my fingers, and how to make sure the jam is going to come out a great consistency my using a cold bowl and again, my finger. 

Could you learn how to can from one of the many books out there? Sure, you could. Will you get to see someone like Robin, in action, passing on to you years of experience, failures and successes? You can’t get that out of the book. 

I left the class with a whole lot of extra confidence that I could pull this off at home. It just took the mystery out of the canning process for me. Now you’ll have to excuse me, I have some freshly baked bread that needs to be slathered in the most wonderful Concord grape jam I have ever tasted, and oh yes...I made it.


1 Comment

  1. Great article on Robin! Robin is one of the nicest people in the area and so deeply committed to local food. And I'm not her PR person but just wanted to mention that she also won Best in Show at Topsfield Fair this year for her pickles!

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