Traditional food preservation techniques, like making jam and pickles, are experiencing a renaissance leading to an explosion of recipes on the internet and filling local home kitchens with mason jars, long tongs, and large pots filled with boiling water.
Unfortunately, not all recipes you find through a Google search or scrolling through Pinterest are safe. The internet is filled with dangerous methods like canning food in your dishwasher. And, the canning methods you learned from Grandma may lead to food-borne illnesses because acidity in food has shifted over the years.
The food preservers program at the Washington State University Clark County Extension in Vancouver has helped people put up food safely for 30 years. Volunteers teach a series of food preservation classes in the summer and fall and also answer a hotline. The program’s website lists resources and safe recipes. The extension’s Master Food Preservers Program is for those interested in learning more and volunteering to teach others.
Sandra G. Brown ran the food preservers program in several different counties in Washington over her 38-year career. When she started, every county in the state had a program. Currently, food preservation programs exist in only two parts of the state, including the local program that serves Clark and Cowlitz counties.
Last season, 20 to 25 students registered for the entire eight weeks of the extension’s “You Can” food preservation class series. In the past, eight to 10 students signed up. The students range in age from recent retirees to people in their 30s looking for a nutritious and thrifty way to feed their families local produce year-round.
After retiring from a demanding job, Judith Seifert completed the Master Gardeners program and the Master Food Preservers program at the WSU Extension. Seifert and her husband, Paul Goodwin, have created a highly productive 6,000-square-foot farm in Battle Ground. Nothing goes to waste.
Seifert is known for creating unusual products. She has a shelf of delectable powders made from dehydrated skins of tomatoes, potatoes, celery, carrot, dill pickle and peaches — things that would normally go in the garbage. Her zucchini “gummy candy” are chewy, dehydrated strips of zucchini colored with sugar-free Kool-Aid or blackberry juice that are a convincing alternative to the candy aisle favorite.
Her pantry (or “cantry,” as she calls it) is stocked with enough food to feed a village for the winter. In the summer, when the garden is bountiful, the couple spends $26 a week on groceries. The left side of the cantry has dried herbs and innovative powders. To the right from floor to ceiling are jars of soups and stews ready to be heated up and thickened with her potato-based thickening powder. Everything that grows in this garden gets frozen, dehydrated, pickled, canned, powdered, sent to the food bank, to the worms, or the cows who live down the road.
“I would never eat someone else’s canned food unless I knew how they made it, because Pinterest is out there,” she confided.
Botulism naturally occurs in soil here because of our moderate climate. The spores grow in an anaerobic environment (i.e. jars). It doesn’t smell and you can’t taste it or see it. This creates the danger of food poisoning which is especially hazardous (and potentially deadly) to young people, old people, and people compromised immune systems.
“A sealed jar isn’t a safe jar,” Seifert explained.
She recommends taking classes and carefully following tested recipes to ensure safety.
“After all these years,” she said, “I still have a recipe in front of me.”
She takes notes and checks off each step of the recipe as she goes.
Even in winter, her garden yields treasures. Persimmons cling to bare branches, apples dot almost barren trees, and green beans dry in their shells on the vine ready to be plopped into minestrone soup.
“We asked the Earth to provide for us,” Seifert said, “and it did.”