The first step was shopping for supplies, which was more difficult that I expected. I picked up some cases of Ball canning jars at Orchard Supply Hardware. They had several sizes in stock, although not the pint jars called for in most of my recipies. I just decided to make do with the three sizes available. OSH also sells cheese cloth, which you'll need to make a spice bag. The spices I needed were more difficult to track down. I went to three different stores, including Whole Foods, looking for pre-mixed pickling spice--or the all the spices that go into pickling spice mix--and finally found it at a Jon's market in Glendale. (LA Cooking Tip: If you're looking for an unusual ingredient, try a grocery store that in or near an Armenian neighborhood. This Jon's had three different spice sections: typical American, Middle Eastern and Latino. And the Super King in Glassell Park has all kinds of interesting fruit syrups to use as marinades.) For the fruits and veggies, I woke up early and hit the Pasadena Farmer's Market. That place is great, although they didn't have any "dill heads," so I had to go with baby dill.
Once all the supplies were assembled, my friend Merete and I began the pickling process. This is when I learned that prep work is the most time consuming and labor intensive part of canning. We chose three things to pickle: beets, peaches and peppers. All the recipies--and canning guidelines--came from my Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. The beets needed to be pre-cooked and skins removed, the peppers needed to be chopped, and the peaches needed to be peeled, sliced and soaked in a solution of water and lemon juice to preserve their color.
Luckily, I had a friend to help me. Canning is definitely more fun--and less exhausting--with two people. I don't think I would have been able to pickle beets, peppers and peaches in the same day without Merete's help.
By the way, I recommend keeping that lemon water you soak your fruit in. It lives a second life as a refreshing and delicious beverage. This was Merete's idea. Not only is she an excellent kitchen companion, but she comes up with brilliant new beverage concepts like peach water.
Once the prep work was complete, we started canning. First up were the pickled beats, and we learned a valuable lesson after we ran out of pickling juice half-way through filling the jars. We followed the recipie to the letter, so at first we were confused. Then we realized that we hadn't cut our beets small enough. If we'd sliced them smaller, they would have taken up more space in the jar and needed less pickling juice. Oh well, we still got four jars out of it. And for our very first canning project, I think that was a fairly minor error.
Next came the Dilly Peach Pickles. I cannot wait to try these when they're ready. Some people may turn up their noses at pickled fruit, but I think it sounds amazing. Plus, the peaches and dill look so pretty in their big jars. Merete and I sliced the peaches into sixths to avoid the pickling juice issue we had with the beets.
I'm skipping over the details of actual canning, because I think that's best explained by an expert, or the authors of Ball Home Preserving. I found the directions in that book very clear and helpful, and the recipies were interesting without being overly complicated.
I can comment on the tools I think are most necessary, though. They include: a jar grabber, a lid lifter (a plastic stick with a magnet on the end so you don't touch the sterilized lid), a funnel, a good ladel, a slotted metal spoon, a metal rack to set your jars on while they boil and a giant canning pot. These all appear to be essential to the canning process, in my admittedly limited experience.
After following all the canning and boiling water processing directions, we ended up with seven jars of pickled peppers, three jars of pickled peaches and four jars of pickled beats. It took us all day to can everything, but this was our first time. Happily, after the required 24-hour cooling off period, I checked the the lids and each and every one seems to have sealed properly. I really like the way they look in my new pantry.
Overall, I found home canning to be interesting, fun and satisfying. It's kind of like doing a science project that you can eat. Having a friend with me definitely made it more enjoyable. Hopefully I can have more friends over for canning parties in the future. For my birthday this year, I received The Joy of Pickling!