Oh, Yes You Can Can—But Should You?
It’s harvest time and many of us, especially those with access to free produce from home orchards and gardens are “putting up” jars of canned goods. There are many reasons why people can: to avoid waste, to have control over the contents and quality of their canned goods, and because they believe the results of home canning taste better than what they can buy at the store are just a few. One of the most frequently cited reasons is to save money, which is certainly possible although how practical it is for you is another matter.
Canning is one of those mysterious arts that, up until recently, I didn’t have the nerve to try. Maybe it’s because the Bon Vivant botulism case occurred near where I lived and at a time when I was particularly susceptible to media generated hysteria (I was 13). Botulism contamination is extremely rare in a commercial setting, less so in a home setting, yet easily avoidable if one follows recommended procedures. Still, home canned goods that are unsafe are a concern for many people. If you have trouble reading a thermometer or like to have your cat (gerbil, boa constrictor, etc.) sit on the counter while you cook, you may want to skip it.
In the last few years, since I’m not working outside the home and I have an avid desire to spend less, I decided to give it a try. Last year, I put up about 12 quarts of pickles, tomatoes, pie filling, and jam. The produce was from my garden and from that of a friend but my set up costs for equipment more than wiped out any money I may have saved. This brings up a good point. Saving money by canning is a long-term proposition. The more you do it, and the longer you do it, the more you will save.
Have You Got the Goods?
If you want to save money by canning, the most important factor is sourcing your produce. It’s got to be free or lower in cost than what you can buy at the supermarket to make canning cheaper than buying commercially canned goods. A case in point: I buy canned tomatoes for a family dish we eat frequently called Irish Spaghetti. It takes about three pounds of tomatoes to fill a quart jar. Since my garden has not produced anything close to the amount required for a single batch of canned goods, I purchased 22 lbs of tomatoes from Dan’s Produce for about $10 (in season) which yielded seven quarts of canned tomatoes for about 5 cents an ounce. The cans of tomatoes I normally buy for this recipe are currently selling at Safeway for six cents an ounce, if I use my Safeway Club card. So, my seven quarts represent a savings of $2.24. Factor in the cost of running the gas stove for several hours to sterilize the jars and lids and then can the tomatoes, and the savings are even less spectacular.
Tools of the Trade
Set-up costs are a consideration. If you add in the cost of the jars, lids, and rings I used canning my tomatoes (which I already had from last year), a little more than a dollar a jar, I would actually have spent more on my canned goods than I would if I had purchased the store-bought variety. People tell me you can find jars and other supplies at yard sales for next to nothing, but that takes some dedicated effort. A friend alerted me to a steam canner at a yard sale once, but it looked like it might be damaged, so I passed. Blowing up the kitchen would no doubt cost a lot more than buying my own.
A good source of information on the myriad array of home canning equipment available is Lehman’s. A favorite vendor among the Amish community, Lehman’s has pretty much everything you need to jump neck deep into the Urban Food movement and possibly drown. Marie Antoinette who is said to have kept a farm near Versailles so she could play milkmaid would have loved these guys. Yes, they even have milking equipment. (Tip: Check zoning laws before purchasing lactating livestock.) A quick look at their prices can be off-putting, but the basic equipment (home canner, jars, and a few simple tools) can be picked up at grocery, hardware, and even big box stores like Target.
The initial investment of the canner, jars, and tools is greatest the first year. In later years, you mostly pay for the lids, which typically are not reusable, and replacing broken or cracked jars or adding to your jar supply if your output increases.
The Bottom Line
My garden is small, and the output due to weather conditions here on the Isle of Style and Gracious Living has been disappointing for the past two years, so for me, the savings have been slim to none. On the other hand, canning in moderation is kind of fun and it makes me feel virtuous, so at least I’m saving on entertainment. It gets better if you have a friend, like I do who has a veritable orchard of fruit trees on her property and is willing to share in exchange for my help with canning her yield.
It is time-consuming, and I should report that my husband and son hate it because it turns the house into a steam bath, often at the hottest time of the year. Does the food taste better? I think so but that’s pretty subjective. If you’re looking only to save money, and don’t have a ready source of free produce, it’s probably not worth the effort. If you like having control over what goes into your canned goods, need to keep busy, and or if you just like doing this sort of thing, it’s worth a try. There are books you can buy, but if you’re just getting your feet wet, check out websites like Backwoods Home Magazine for tips and instructions.