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Gearing up for local foods in season

Posted on March 1, 2021

LifeColumns

Cassidy Hall

Cassidy Hall

We are about to enter one of my favorite times of the year. You will soon begin to see a variety of foods that are in season at farmers markets, roadside stands and perhaps even in your own garden. 

Foods grown locally tend to taste better and spend less time in transit, and their bright colors indicate delicious flavor and nutrients.

Last year, we saw an incredible rise in consumers seeking to learn how to preserve their own foods through freezing, home canning and fermentation. This was largely sparked by fears of food shortages due to COVID-19. Manufacturers of canning supplies were caught off guard, leading to a shortage in jars, lids, pectin and canners. 

The word on the street is that manufacturers of these products are better prepared this year, and we hope shortages are a thing of the past. If you are anticipating your own abundance or simply interested in learning how to preserve foods grown locally, now is the time to get prepared. 

In an extremely small nutshell, you are going to need freezer bags for freezing produce, a water bath canner for high-acid foods such as berries and fruit products, a pressure canner for vegetables and appropriately sized jars. 

You will want to be sure to get your pressure canner inspected and have the gauge tested for accuracy. This step is crucial for ensuring a safe product. If your gauge is inaccurate, you’ll risk failure to achieve the correct pressure and jars that don’t seal due to incorrect pressure, as well as spoilage of foods and potentially foodborne illness. It is important to note that pressure canners and pressure cookers are similar, but not the same. You may cook in a canner, but you may not can in a pressure cooker. 

To have your pressure canner inspected and tested, call the Wilson County Cooperative Extension office at 252-237-0111 to make an appointment; we only have the ability to test gauges made by Presto and Mirro. All other brands can have the gauge sent back to the manufacturer for testing. 

Presto and Mirro testing services will be offered from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on March 15 and March 29 at the Wilson County Agriculture Center. There is no charge for this service; masks are required.  

In addition to having the correct equipment and supplies, you’ll want to freshen up on the latest information and recipes tested for quality and safety. There is far more to canning than simply placing food in a jar and listening for a pop. In fact, just hearing a pop does not indicate your food is properly sealed and safe. 

You could leave jars with lids in a hot car and as soon as they cool back down, you’ll hear a pop. The “popping” noise means the wax on the lid melted and sealed, but it is the correct canning process that ensures the oxygen is driven out of the jars before they seal, which is paramount to avoiding spoilage. 

Choosing the correct canner is crucial to ensure the temperature inside the jar is hot enough to kill bacteria leading to foodborne illness. This temperature is heavily influenced by factors such as size of the food, texture of the food, initial temperature of the food, acidity of the food, sugar content and whether or not there is the addition of acids, such as lemon juice, for example. 

There are certain foods that are not approved for canning. Items that do not hold up well, such as yellow squash and zucchini, as well as foods that are not safe for home canning due to the inability of heat to properly penetrate to the inside of the jar such as sweet potato puree. 

In terms of freezing foods, it is important to be aware that some foods do not freeze well, and blanching is necessary for all vegetables. Blanching foods ensures that foods are cleansed of dirt and debris, and it stops an enzyme responsible for loss of texture, color and flavor. 

Be sure to check out https://nchfp.uga.edu/ to get up-to-date information and recipes for all things related to home food preservation. Later in the year, workshops will be available through the N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Wilson County Center to learn how to properly preserve foods. 

Be sure you spend this month getting prepared for home food preservation by securing supplies, having your pressure canner inspected and tested and reviewing the latest information and recipes from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.  

Cassidy Hall is area agent, family and consumer sciences for the N.C. Cooperative Extension. 

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