Home canning in a scarcity environment

Magpie's picture

With spring well underway here in the southern hemisphere, preserving is on my mind. New Zealand is in a very different place with respect to home preserving than where I grew up (Pacific Northwest), and I thought I'd share some field notes.

New Zealand joined the US canning craze in the early 1900's. The Australian Glass Manufacturers Company (now the New Zealand Glass Manufacturers Company) was founded in 1920, and home preserving took off to such an extent that, by the 1960's, New Zealand was estimated to have the highest rate of (glass jar) home preserving in the world. Few preserve in New Zealand today, while there has been a bit of a preserving renniassance in the US. Part of this is because NZ trails somewhat behind popular trends, and part is because the early growth of renewed interest in NZ (during the Great Recession), happened 4 years after NZGC stopped manufacturing preserving jars (Perfit and Agee are the local equivalents to Ball and Kerr).

When I arrived in New Zealand in 2014, I had never considered what would have happened if Ball went out of business, but I have a pretty good idea now.

All ring-and-seal preserving jars in New Zealand are either over a decade old or imported from overseas. Jars from Italy are very pricy; jars from China are labeled "for decorative purposes only". Due to increased demand, a North American company now makes "Perfit" jars; they are available at the grocery for a mere $6 each. A pack of a dozen new lids is also around $6. Used Agee jars have climbed in price from $0.20/each in 2006 to $2/each today, even at thrift shops and the local recycling depot. To get jars for less, you need to have connections with someone whose grandmother used to preserve, but is too old to do it these days. People give away jars to close friends only, and with the understanding that they are not to be sold.

In the interviening generation, skills to do safe home canning have been lost. New Zealand didn't invest in public home preserving education like the US did, and with a weaker jar-making industry, there was less pressure for people to move away from thrifty practices, like re-using jars from store-bought items. Oven canning and the overflow method are far and away the most common methods employed to preserve jam, despite their relative low safety and high failure compared to water bath canning. Farmer's markets have an abundance of folks selling home-made jams and chutneys in re-used pasta sauce containers with single-piece lids.

Home preserving in actual preserving jars is rare, as the jars are expensive and considered a luxury item. People who use them have their friends in the US ship them lids (Agee takes the standard Ball/Kerr wide mouth). Only these folks do water bath canning anymore, and very few of them. Pressure canning is almost unknown, as pressure canners are a rarity--either antique (and correspondingly expensive and potentially dangerous if not well-maintained) or a pricy import. Despite this, I have heard of numerous people canning beans and meat (this has a high risk of botulism). Food safety in general isn't much of a concern because it hasn't really been a problem to date: for example, food-borne botulism, the bugbear of home preservation, had its first case in New Zealand in 1985 (2 people), and the second in 2015 (1 person). Compare this to Oregon, with a similar land area and population density, which has had 9 cases (4 outbreaks) of food-borne botulism since 2000. However, if C. botulinum has colonized more of the local soil (and there is a strong possibility that it has since its introduction), current home preserving practices will put a lot of people at risk.

On the other hand, overflow canning is a lot less hard on the rubber seal than hot water bath canning, and so the lids can be reused up to 10 times before they stop sealing. Some very thrifty folks I've spoken with even re-use lids with rust spots after "patching" them with clear nail polish. Some even still use (and reuse) parrafin, or cover the jars with cling film, though these preparations typically only last a few months.

Because so much knowledge has been lost already, folks are very reliant on advice from anyone who knows anything about food preservation. The result is that poor canning practices are spread around because they worked fine for so-and-so, or so-and-so's grandmother. I have told several people about the boiling water bath method, and not only had they never heard of it, they thought I was nuts. At the same time, they are shocked when I tell them that my seal failure is <5%, and that my jars are nearly always still good after 12 months.

However, despite my pontificating about water-bath canning and food safety, I later found myself unable to put up all the food I wanted to because I lacked the jars. After a lot of effort (and money), I had enough jars to do a fraction of the pickles, diced tomatoes, and tomato sauce I usually did (~40 pint jars), and none left over for jams and bottled fruits. Given the choice between making do with local methods and going back to industrially produced products, I gave in and did overflow canning in re-used store jars for my jams and bottled fruits. The high sugar and acid of these preparations is typically sufficient to prevent C. botulinum from growing, and the acid is not so high as to eat away at the lid, which is important as the liquid is touching the lid for this canning method. The jars sealed (though with a 10% failure rate while I was experimenting to find the optimal method), and there hasn't been too much trouble with them. When the seal fails in the pantry, yeasts tend to get to it first, as we have so much sourdough yeast around all the time, they get to everything--even the food in the fridge goes sour before it goes moldy half the time. We scrape off the yeasty stuff, re-boil the jam for at least 10 minutes (this de-activates the botulism toxin, rendering it harmless, if present), and then stick it in the fridge to be used next.

I have also experimented with water-bath canning in re-used store jars with good success. The theory is that it is a bad idea as the jars are designed to be used only once, but this simply means that they might break in the water bath. If you are careful to not let them knock together too much, there is little danger. Lids used for water-bath canning can be used again in overflow canning, but I have not tried re-using them in the water-bath. Having seen how robust the rubber seals are, I'm sure they'd work at least a second time with minimal seal failure. Of course, the lids wear out after a while and have to go to the metal scrapper, but then one is left with more jars than lids! The solution to this problem for older local women is to order new lids for store jars from the place that supplies the local packing plants; as this is a small country, big businesses are more willing to work with individual citizens, and it is about half as expensive as buying a new wide-mouth lid.

The whole experience has been very eye-opening. Canning is touted as an essential survival skill in some circles, but it is really very fragile. People are still making it work in New Zealand, but it would be very difficult indeed to get everyone home preserving again, as the local infrastructure (knowledge as well as manufacturing) has been compromised.

How does the canning scene look from where you are?

ClareBroommaker's picture

Sorry about the photo size and poor quality. Just wanted to show what fermented, then boiled Romano beans look like. I did these during the summer during a "plumbing scarcity environment," which is to say the leak in the sink drain that we'd fought for 20 years finally got the best of us.Otherwise I would have pressure canned these or dried them. I need the sink for drying because I'd blanch before drying. So fermenting was the quick and easy solution.

In the small bail jar I did these in, I also put a sprig of dill, intending to eat them raw. But they were too tough raw, so I cooked them. I have a couple more jars that were either smaller beans or "frenched" so they may be tender enough as a raw pickle. Then there is a 5L jar of beans I will also use for cooking, as they are larger beans, too.

This is my second year to ferment some green beans. They seem easy, so I think they are a good first vegetable to try fermenting.

I soaked these to remove some salt before cooking.

Growing up in Scotland I knew nothing about canning, I'm not sure if it was just our family or if that was the norm.

In Canada I knew about canning from hearing folk talk but I never tried it till about 8 years ago. There was a lot to learn but I knew a couple of people who were more than willing to teach me.

I only do water bath canning and I don't do too much, mostly because there are only the 2 of us.

I usually do tomatoes, apples and jam.... sometimes peaches and pears if I can get them at a good price.

I have the Ball canning book and a couple of others to help me. I also check the canning websites and I belong to a canning group online.

Not a lot of the folk I know do canning but they all know about it. I find many people will freeze food rather than can.

It's easy to get supplies and I find the prices reasonable....I live in a border city so the Detroit area ofters a larger area to shop from if needed.

My brother-in-law was visiting from Scotland when I was putting up the tomatoes last month and he seemed to know all about it so perhaps it is being done in Scotland now

I think if there is disruptions to the food chain many folk could go back to canning, as long as they could get the supplies, I think most would have the knowledge.

Magpie's picture

Freezing food is definitely a common storage method. A lot of the folks out in the country here in New Zealand will have a freezer for when the slaughter the lambs/cattle/pigs from their property. Back in the US--my mom always froze half of a full-sized chest freezer worth of berries every year. Frozen berries are much nicer than canned ones, but either is better than no fruit in the winter!

I do think that there is enough knowledge and accessibility to canning supplies that the US could see a real resurgance of canning. The only problem I see is that a lot of folks my age (the under-30's) don't necessarily have access to a kitchen. So many people I know live in apartments with just a microwave, which doesn't lend itself to canning much of anything!

You mean some folk live without a stove......is this by choice or just what's out there.

I froze strawberries one year...we picked so many and I could only do so much jam. I made strawberry sauce with the frozen ones-so good.

I grow and freeze green beans and that will last me until the next harvest...usually.

I freeze my tomatoes as they ripen until I have enough to do a batch in my canner.

I do use my microwave for drying herbs, Basil is best done that way, also Mint. However Parsley and Oregano dry best in the oven overnight with the light left on.

I still haven't tried fermenting, I suppose that should be next on my list

ClareBroommaker's picture

With microwave ovens, one can dry some herbs for preservation. As herbs in pots are one of the things apartment dwellers are most likely to grow, they would have at least an option for quickly drying ang putting away a small comfort --flavor. (Of course, leafy herbs dry just fine passively hung to dry or spread on trays. It just takes longer.))

Wow, that's a lot of berries your Mom freezes! Often when I have gone to online forums with questions about food preservation where canning was not appropriate, the answer would only come back, "Just put it in the freezer." I often wonder how much freezer space the average person has when that can be the answer to question after question....That is an exmaple of why I like to ask some of my questions here, among people who understand the desire to preserve food in a low energy way.

I had that problem all summer, till we were running out of room.

We freeze a lot, but you are correct, there is only so much freezer space, so it's not the answer to everything

Magpie's picture

Your comment about freezer space reminds me of my grandparents place. They had a small dairy farm (and eight children!) On the farm, near the house was an outbuilding called "the jam room". It was probably 10x20', and housed two full-sized chest freezers and the rest was shelving for canning jars. Grandma would make sauerkraut in a bathtub, I am told, and put up jam in quart jars because anything smaller wouldn't make it through a meal.

Despite being a relatively poor family through the 40's-60's, they were able to afford the electricity for these two freezers. They didn't have many other appliances, and all the clothes for everyone were either made on the farm or hand-me-downs. Freezing may still be possible for some time, but I have the feeling that people are going to have to choose to prioritize it at the expense of other luxuries. Here in NZ, the electricity is some of the most expensive in the developed world, despite being some of the cheapest to produce (majority hydro/geotherm.) and I have not even seen a full-sized chest freezer. A "big" freezer here is about half the size of a typical American chest freezer. Most people don't do electric food dehydrators, either, because they just cost too much to run. The folks that do seem to plug them in in their offices at work!

Living here has definitely opened my eyes to how different things can be. Folks try to use less electricity simply because it's way too expensive to burn through it like is so common in the US. I've certainly learned a number of tips and tricks that folks don't practice or know about back in the states. Being amongst the right group of people is really valuable that way--I know I've learned a lot from this forum as well, and have been looking at some of the things that used to do unthinkingly with a more critical eye.

I found this post really fascinating and informative - and totally not something I'd given great throught to. I've had the tab open for the past few days hoping to come and re-read and (maybe) add something.

I'm not (yet?) into canning lots of stuff - mostly fruit surplus lends itself to canning without a pressure canner and I'm not a big consumer of sugar so don't gravitate toward making jams/jellies/preserves.

Now, tomatoes, on the other hand are something I use and should be canning.

That said, my first thought when I read your original post (and I haven't had a chance to read the subsequent ones) was "and what about non-canning methods of preservation?"

It seems, with such difficulty procuring jars/lids and the safety factor of alternatives that spring up in times of scarcity, that other types of preserving would more appropriately answer both times of surplus and scarcity.

Also - it occurs to me to add that in the US at least, mayonnaise jars have the same size mouths as canning jars (and you can still get mayo in glass) and *possibly* may be used for that purpose - disclaimer is that I don't actually know if they're able to withstand heat as I have no idea how mayonnaise is produced commercially and it is never sold in a typically canned in heat (with a pop up seal) type of jar.

ClareBroommaker's picture

I'll have to look again for mayonnaise packed in glass. Actually I do save even the plastic jars from mayo, as they are such a conventient size for all kinds of storage. I still have a few rolls of last year's fruit leather in one plastic jar.

Sugar is a good preservative as in jellies coupled with the acid of fruit, it makes for an environment unfriendly to bacteria. However some molds will easily grow on jellies and jams. Here in the US, sugar is ungodly cheap, due to industrialization as well as government support, I have read. So making jellies and jams could become a real luxury at sometime.

My husband and I find that it is very easy to make way too much jam and jelly. We do have a surplus right now. The berries we picked on Friday have been put multiple times through a sieve, so we have the option to make jam or fruit leather. He is in favor of jam, I am in favor of the fruit leather. Fruit leather doesn't need sugar added and takes up less storage space. It makes a product that can be carried in the pocket for a bite away from home, and doesn't encourage me to eat too much, as jam does. With jam, I'd want something to put it on -- hot biscuit, bread, cracker. Fruit leather can later be cut into tiny pieces to add to muffins, cakes, and cookies, so it has some versatility.

Magpie's picture

Home-canned tomatoes are amazing! Be careful, you won't want to go back to the bland store-bought ones.

Regarding the use of alternate jars: the official word in the US is that jars available in the grocery store are designed for single-use only, and that you shouldn't re-use them, period. The lived experience is, though, that it is very possible to use not only the jars which fit the typical Ball/Kerr rings and lids, but that it is also possible to reuse any glass jar with a metal lid.

As to other means of preserving--yes! I have built a solar dehydrator and used it to do all my elderberries and some sundried tomatoes (as well as herbs and dried apples/pears). A lot of folk here do jerkey or billtang (a thicker, South African dried meat) and smoke fish. Things like apples, potatoes and carrots can be rootcellared for a while. I have successfully stored my seed potatoes from last fall's harvest for use this spring, and I rootcellared apples for 4 months over winter. We've also gotten into sauerkraut, fermented piclkes and fermented Jerusalem artichokes, all of which last for months on the counter in our (relatively cold) kitchen.

ClareBroommaker's picture

I'm already disappointed no one else has responded in the hours since I replied. Well anyway I do have more to say.

First, not having access to canning lids is something I've thought about. I've wondered if I could make seals for both used metal lids and for bail jars out of something that could be scavenged. There is a lot of silicon stuff in kitchenwarr right now, lsuch as hot pads, oven mitts, and oven liners. I'm not familiar with how long that stuff lasts, but seals might be cut from them if they are still hanging around in kitchens at a time when lids become unavailable. Can you get that sort of silicon products there in NZ? I have even though about whether seals could be cut from old bike inner tubes. I wonder if fabric rings or leather impregnated with wax might work. Melted rubber from old shoes to make a new bead around the lids?? There probably is some other kind of material out there that would work.

Another thing, my mother who recently died at age 87 really wanted me to be aware that her grandmother used to add salicylic acid to her canned vegetables. I have seen a person who was trained by the US Department of Agriculture in food preservation acknowledge that was a practice decades ago, but he certainly cautioned not to do it. Salicylic acid used to be a drugstore item. I know it is used in cosmetics a lot, so if we made an effort, we could probably still obtain it. (Personally though, I think drying vegetables is probably safer.)

I remembered it was Kilner brand jars I saw at Ace Hardware this year. Those are a brand from the UK, and people there say that canning supplies are expensive. They were not cheap at Ace either.

For years there were few jars with grocery store products that fit canning lids. Older cooks may have old mayonnaise jars or commercial sphaghetti sauce jars. But until about a year ago all the spag sauces looked like they were in canning jars, but they really would not take a canning lid. The threads were a mismatch. Mayonnaise jars have not been glass for probably 25 years. I do have a few good ones that I bought from other people, paying as I would for any other used canning jar.

If I had no access to the supplies I want, I sure would have to prioritze which things to can, which to save some other way, which to only eat in season.

I also think that I need to learn to save food in other ways so that I can set the example for people younger than me. After all, they are even more likely to not have all this manufactured stuff. A neighbor a half generation younger than me asked me how I dried the plums she ate at my house three years ago. Especially since she has children, I really was happy to explain to her how to do it. Then, naybe her children will learn, too.

Now guess what astonishing luck I had today? We went berry picking and stopped at a thrift store on the way home. There I found a box of those reuasble plastic lids I had mentioned. The brand is Steig Tattler. The box was old, perhaps 1970's. The lids had yellowed, but they did not seem brittle, nor did the dozen rubber seal rings seem brittle. For $2.99 I bought them. I was imagining canning the berries we'd just picked with them, but really, I think I will make fruit leather. Last year I used these autumn olive berries for both jelly and fruit leather. But anyway, I thought that was quite a coincidence. I've never seen those Tattler lids in a thrift store before today.

Magpie's picture

There is a Tattler making re-usable lids today. I am not sure if it's the same one you ran into, but I have a few Tattler lids stored at my mom's place back in the US. These lids are a 3-part system, a ring, a lid, and a rubber gasket that goes between the lid and the jar. They are supposed to be re-usable for 20+ years. I only used them for two before heading off overseas, but they seemed to be up for the task. There is a bit of a difference in methodology using these lids versus the regular metal ones (it may take you 2 or 3 batches of jams to get all the jars sealing), but I recommend them.

I have found rubber gaskets here in NZ. Some specialty shops sell them, but they are sized for a particular kind of (Italian?) jar, and have the little pull-tab on them. I got some for some bale-top jars I bought at the local recycling depot.

I have a lot of dried willow bark, I wonder if canning in willow tea would act as a preservative? It would certainly give the stuff a beautiful red color. I have noticed that when I make willow tea, even if I forget a cup of it on my desk for a week, it never has any mold or bacteria growing in it. Of course, I would still boil whatever I canned in it for 10 minutes to be safe!

There are a number of types of older products that were made to fit the standard screw-band lid here in NZ as well--not sure what they were, but they're more common than the Agee jars, and now worth nearly as much! It doesn't help, I suppose, that a significant portion of New Zealand's remaining preserving jars were destroyed in the 2010-2011 Christchurch earthquakes. I believe there is at least one kind of pasta sauce available that fits some kind of canning jar ring, but as I dislike the overly sweet/salty commercial preparations, I've never had occasion to see if it could fit the standard canning gear.

You're right about saving food in other ways! This situation has really got me thinking about other preserving modalities. We've done a lot of fermentation (sauerkraut lasts for months on the countertop, and fermenting Jerusalem artichokes stops them from giving you gas!), and have built a solar dehydrator which has worked very well. We did all our own sundried tomatoes and elderberries (very good cold remedy) this past year, as well as herbs for winter and carrots for soup stock. I helped a few friends dehydrate food for long camping trips as well. Going to try dehydrating bullion cubes this summer, as I found a 50+ year old recipe on how to do it.

ClareBroommaker's picture

My spouse and I do can, but I only know one other person who does and she limits it to jams and jellies. For jams and jellies, I am comfortable with a much looser protocol. I have memories of my grandmother making jellies poured into tall drinking glasses, then topped with melted parafin wax. The jelly and the wax cool together, forming a seal. When the wax disk was pried off, it was rinsed and set aside fro reuse. I have not canned that way, but would. I have passed up blocks of good wax at the thrift stores before. Maybe I should pick up one if I'm ever so lucky again.

Sometimes we use bail jars with rubber or silicon seals for jams, but we don't use them for vegetables. We have only bought these at thrift stores but we only buy ones wth really hefty metal bails. I think lesser bail jars have probably been sold with candies in them and were never meant to be canning jars. We look for LeParfait, or Arc, or Fido brands. I have seen LeParfait jars in a national chain store called World Market, but I'm not up to paying their prices at this point. A national chain, Ace Hardware, sells the rubber or silicon seals at a decent price. I think Ace had some very small LeParfait this year, too. Ace sells all kinds and sizes of Ball brand Jars. I bought half gallon jars there. They are supposed to be safe only for canning acid juices. (I have them for fermenting.)

In general Ace is a good place to find new canning items, tools, jars, pots, books, seals, jar lifters, etc. Sometimes they put those things on sale, too. The first time I went into Ace they were selling perpetual canning lids which are made of some kind of translucent plastic. These, too, use a rubber or silicon seal. I bought a small box of them but only [pressure] canned a jar of water with one of them. I did not want to risk vegetables or fruit loss. I think it's been three years now and that seal is still holding, so I guess I could try my food in them confidently. I'm told the seals will wear out well ahead of the lids wearing out.

Ball canning lids are available pretty much everywhere, and even in my city grocery store they are year round, as are quart and pint jars. These things cost more at the grocery store than at the hardware stores. However, once, I bought about twenty boxs of lids on clearance for ten cents each box of a dozen! The find of my life. I think lids are typically about $2.70 per dozen; more for wide mouth. Here in the US we can also easily buy all kinds of lids in small quantity or in bulk over the internet or mail order. I bought a something like 630 lids from Lehman's this year.


They are sturdier lids and may have reuse potential for things that have only been water bathed, as they have more gum on them than Ball lids now have.

Our biggest source of jars has been thrift stores over the years. Just one or two jars at a time. But in the last several years, decorating with canning jars, especially for weddings, has been a fad. So there are more people who want the used ones now. On the other hand there are people who buy them for a wedding and then donate them in perfect condition to the second hand stores, yahoo! This week I saw jars priced at $1.99 each, despite the fact that I could buy a dozen with lids for about $9 at the hardware store. Once, my husband wrote a letter to the thrift store pointing this out and the next week, jars were marked $0.49. But they've crept back up.

There are still alot of jars in people's basements from when parents or grandparents used to can. I have bought some of those from people, and met some of the most interesting people doing it!

I have a pressure canner and prefer it over water bath canning. The kitchen gets a lot less hot. I wish I knew whether it acutally uses less fuel, too. I think it does because there is non of that pre-sterilizing business and it requires so little water to heat.

Despite all this, I'm trying t get better at preserving without canning. Drying is my favorite means.

Now that's a big wall of words. Probably tomorrow I'll think of other things to add. But I really want to know what overflow canning is. I've never heard of it.

Magpie's picture

Overflow Canning

My grandmother (a good German) used to can pickles in the big half gallon jars. Of course, the only time I had a half-gallon in my possession, I tried to do the same and it exploded (didn't pack the devils fast enough!)

Canning supplies are really available just about everywhere in the US--I miss that! I had my mom send me a care package with wide mouth lids.

Now to the technical stuff:

Water bath canning is the standard in the US. You sterilize the jars, pack them with your fruit/vegetables add hot syrup or brine if applicable up to the neck of the jar, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Then you put the lid on, screw to fingertip tight, and put it in a boiling water bath until done.

Overflow canning (or open pan canning) doesn't have the water bath step. You prepare what you're putting in the jars, and boil it. If you're doing pickles, you need to boil the pickles in the brine. If you're doing peach halves, you need to boil them in the syrup. Everything has to be really hot. Then, you fill your clean jars with boiling water. When they've heated up good and hot, empty them, and fill them with what you're canning. You need to fill them all the way to the lip of the jar--ideally, there should be no air left inside. Screw the lid on REALLY tight; some of the contents will 'overflow' out of the jar and onto the counter. That's it, you're done. There is no water bath.

Oven canning is worse all-around. The clean jars are heated in the oven, then filled as above. It is easy to get the jars too hot and then the 'cold' boiling syrup can cause the jars to contract and explode. Sometimes people 'process' the sealed jars in the oven for a little while in lieu of a water bath.

Clare, I eventually want to learn to dry food safely (do it right so it doesn't spoil or mold). As the decline continues, it might be harder to get lids and rings for canning or to replace jars that break. That's definitely a concern!

David Trammel's picture

For the long term collapse I can definately see drying and its cousin "smoked" being a way people save food. Short term I can see canning coming back as a way to do that, as home gardening becomes more popular, as it will I'm sure.

As luck would have it, while out and about today getting supplies to finish my self watering containers I stopped at a couple of Thrift stores. I was looking for a few cookie sheets to start seeds on as well as a blender. I want to try making some hot sause from this year's harvest of peppers. No blenders but did find one cookie sheet.

Also one of them had a small home food dryer for $10. Its one of those electrical forced air units with 5 trays. Now I have to start looking at just what it takes to dry food.