My husband still remembers being sardined into his mom’s minivan between his brother and sister, the backseat folded down and piled high with fruit and vegetables from Eastern Washington. The orchard-fresh, abundant goodness made the trip over the mountains more than worthwhile. The heavenly smell of ripening peaches filled the air as they drove, and the kids all had bellyaches by the time they got home from eating so much fruit. His mom would spend the following weekend canning all sorts of produce and filling pantry shelves.
Tucked away in my own heart are memories of late-summer afternoons watching the pressure rise on the canner, mom preserving green beans, jar after jar, year after year. And, of course, Thanksgiving is never the same without grandma’s sweet pickles.
And though we are a long way from canning being a winter necessity, we can still reap the benefits of preserving summer and fall abundance.
So many of us feel all thumbs when it comes to canning. Even though I have been canning for 13 years, I still get a bit overwhelmed at the thought of handing my kitchen over to the mess canning brings. I always find myself getting in the groove of processing a recipe riiiiight as the last box is emptied, or the last jar is filled. It’s so frustrating to think of how I could have made things simpler…after the fact! This year, I am determined to make improvements to the process at the beginning, rather than waiting until the end.
Today I want to share with you three secrets that turned my week-long canning mess into a one-day canning extravaganza. I have canned peaches every year for the past 13 years. It normally takes me about a week to get through three boxes (75 pounds). This year, with six kids (one being a 4 month old baby) I was a bit nervous when I brought four boxes of peaches home with me. With just a few seemingly simple improvements, I was able to can 100 pounds of peaches in one day, all before dinner. Changing just a few things made such an enormous difference!
You might not be canning peaches – maybe it’s something else. But my hope is in walking you through my thought process, you can apply some of it to your own kitchen and save time and stress. These three puzzle pieces were game changers for me this year already!
Secret 1: Plan Your Meals Before You Start
Just like with any other large process, you don’t want to have to stop half way through and decide what you are going to feed everyone. It’s so tempting to just get started on your big project. Before you know it, though, you will be elbow-deep and stove-top heavy in produce and jars, and stopping the process to feed people will be cumbersome at best. At the very least, it will stop your flow. Get the idea down, and if possible, get the prep work out of the way. It will pay you back in spades.
- This is the day to keep things simple! Maybe even paper-plate simple. (I won’t tell anyone.)
- Speaking of plates, give a quick-clean to your kitchen. Send the Lego men back to their castle and the shiny rock collection back to the great outdoors. Take that pile of papers to your desk to deal with later. Clear counter tops will make you a happy mama.
- Often, you can pull out part of what you are making and turn it into a meal. Spaghetti sauce can go over noodles, salsa can top some simple bean burritos. Just have a plan, and do what you can ahead of time.
Secret 2: Think About the Flow of the Process
There are many steps to any canning process. If you will stop and really think through the flow, you can find ways to save minutes and steps for each little piece, and that will translate into a more efficient process in the end.
To do this, really think about each step in your process. What are the steps involved in this particular instance? What will you need to use your stove for? What will you need bowls for? Think each step through, paying attention to the flow of the food and jars and people. Then try to see if you can shorten the steps from one piece of the process to the next, or minimize bending by bringing in a chair. Each tiny improvement will pay you back with each batch, and that will multiply into minutes (or even hours).
I made you some bad drawings to explain what I mean.
This is the process I have used in the past for canning peaches. I would put the fresh peaches on the counter, and then walk across my kitchen to dip them in water for one minute. Back over to my sink, I would soak them in a bath of water, and then skin them there. The other sink would hold skinned peaches, and I would slice them and put them into jars from that point. I would walk back over and get the syrup, walk back over to the sink and get more jars, fill the canner, process, and then start the whole thing over again.
This year, I switched things around a bit. I started by putting my peach box on a chair next to the stove. Then I could just reach over and start them in the boiling water. From there, I had a bowl of ice water right next to the stove, where I could put the peaches immediately. I transferred the cooled peaches to my little kids for peeling, and they transferred those to their big brother for slicing and jarring. We worked in one line, rather than the back and forth I used to do when working by myself. I also made a point of trying to keep my sink free (see tips below).
Also, clearly I need drawing lessons. I mean, look at that chair!
- Try to keep your sink free of produce. You will probably want it to wash extra jars or lids, or fill up pots of water or dump out pots of water, and keeping your sink empty will make this much easier.
- Use notecards. Once you have figured out your process, tape notecards around your kitchen to remind you of random little things (like how many minutes you need to process the jars, or the ratios for your syrup, etc). This is the first year I’ve tried this little trick, and it is so great. Above the bowl where we had peaches being treated with Fruit Fresh I wrote “1 tsp FruitFresh to 1 gal water” and left the teaspoon right there in the FruitFresh. So simple, but then it is out of my brain. This pays you back in two ways. First, you don’t have to keep that information in your head OR check it again and again by looking it up mid-process. Secondly, an older kiddo, friend. or husband can always jump in and see how to help.
- Anticipate “road blocks.” Anything that can get in the flow of your produce process and stop things is a road block. For example, not having enough clean jars ready can be a road block. Not having enough rings or lids washed and ready. During canning, if you notice yourself having to stop for some reason, analyze what happened and see if you can fix it for the next batch.
Secret 3: Pay attention to the little people in your house
When my oldest son was just 1, I would stay up and do my canning in the middle of the night. I was so nervous that I would be in the middle of something crucial and he would need me at the same moment. I was not an experienced canner back then (is that even a thing?) but it made me nervous enough that I would just put him to bed and start. Oh man, that made for some loooooong days! I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that. Better than that, would be having a mom’s helper for a day or two. We really do need to sleep at some point :)
This year, I made a point of making room for my kids and turned them into my own little peach-processing army. My older boys are old enough to keep the more dangerous parts of the process going (like slicing peaches). Younger kids can peel peaches that have been cooled. We pulled in the piano bench so there were no stool fights (do those happen in your house?) or teetering on top of chairs. I find that my anxiety is already pretty high on canning days, and so keeping things really low-key is helpful.
Ahead of time, think about what part of the process your kids can help with. If they are really little, it might be moving apples from the large box into a smaller bowl. Little kids can peel the skins off of peaches or tomatoes. They might be big enough to snap the ends off the beans or sort out the ones with spots. Bigger kids can slice fruit with a bit of training, or fill jars. There is usually something they can be part of, if you think hard enough. Sure, they probably won’t hang out with you the whole time, but have a plan for them anyway.
- Bring things down to their level, when possible. We used an old piano bench, but a folding chair, etc, would also work.
- Use lots of towels. Just expect lots of dripping elbows and sticky fingers. Few processes, in my opinion, invite such crazy amounts of potential stickiness and puddly-ness as canning does. Get out old bath towels and lay on the floor under where you will have little guys peeling skins off of peaches or stirring something, or goodness, eating things! Just know that you will be a happier, easier-going mama with a few large towels to keep your floor dry and prevent slips and falls.
- Expect some casualties. Expect to have peaches bit into. Expect to have the older kids snitching already sliced peaches. Smile and have fun with it all. Or maybe you are better at this than I am- I have to remind myself that the goal is to have food in the pantry AND a happy home…and to not take the former at the expense of the latter.
With just a little bit of thought and adjustment ahead of time, you can cut your canning time down dramatically. Play with the process, try to save yourself some steps, and have fun.
Do you can? What tips and tricks have you found to make this whole process easier? I would love to know!