Canning's comeback seems here to stay. Equipment sales are up, cookbooks are selling and home cooks, from beginners to experts, are enjoying the pleasure of a well-filled jar.
And as home cooks who took tentative first steps in this art of food preservation gain confidence, they are exploring new flavor combinations, such as herb-infused jellies and peach-ginger preserves.
Even recent canning converts are experimenting. Mary Wooten, 40, who lives in Indian Trail, 15 miles southeast of Charlotte, had never considered canning, remembering the work involved from watching her grandparents. "It just seemed so labor-intensive," Wooten says.
Then this summer, Wooten hosted a party sponsored by Ball canning company via house party.com . The company shipped her a canner, rack, utensils, coupons for free jars, cookbooks and more. Seven women, most of them canning novices, gathered to make salsa and pepper jelly. They had so much fun that they agreed to meet in October for a "jam session" to make presents for their children's teachers.
"I have totally fallen in love with this," says Wooten, who has since made pomegranate and pineapple jellies. "It is something that lasts longer than a plate of cookies."
There are so many people buying supplies that veteran canner Penny Walker, 56, has had trouble finding enough. "I think everybody must be canning," Walker says. "I've had a hard time finding lids these days."
Walker sells jams, pickles and other canned goods at the Franklin County Farmers Market, 30 miles north of Raleigh.
Sales of preserving products, such as Ball brand jars, are up almost 10 percent this year, after two years of significant double-digit growth, says SymphonyIRI, which tracks sales at food, drug and mass-market retail outlets.
Canning products are cropping up at Big Lots, Lowe's Home Improvement and other retailers. About half a dozen canning cookbooks were released this year. And phones are ringing at county agricultural extension offices, with consumers asking about how to can safely.
One of the extension agents is Kristin Davis, who has spent her first month on the job in Mecklenburg County answering them. "The vast majority of the calls I've received have involved canning," she says. In Chatham County, extension agent Phyllis Smith says she helped organize classes in Durham, Chatham and Granville counties this summer. There are 30 people on waiting lists.
Who's canning now?
Who makes up this new breed of canners and why? Women between 39 and 55 who live in more urban areas, says Brenda Schmidt, a brand manager at Jarden Home Brands, which makes Ball brand jars and food preservation products.
"They are canning for very different reasons than our grandmothers canned," Schmidt says.
That would be necessity. Canning was invented during the Napoleonic wars almost 200 years ago; until the mid 20th century, when freezers became household fixtures, it was the only way to preserve food for any length of time.
This new generation has other motivations for canning. Some want to control salt, sugar and other preservatives in the foods they eat. Some want to support local farmers and "put up" - as we call it in the South -- locally grown produce at its tastiest. Some enjoy making homemade gifts. Others are drawn to the trend because of the economic downturn.
They love to experiment
And some enjoy the creativity of tinkering with flavors. Raleigh cookbook author Debbie Moose has been canning for a decade. She started with jams and has graduated to pickles, relishes and jellies, the latter being the one she's experimented with the most.
"Since I had that process mastered, I knew what I could and couldn't do," she says.
Moose has turned thyme and rose tea into jelly, made batches of lavender jelly, even combined store-bought juices to make jelly.
For Chapel Hill cookbook author Jean Anderson, apple jelly is a good starting point for flavorful additions. Plus, the apples have enough natural pectin that you don't have to add commercial pectin to make jelly. Anderson's book, "The Green Thumb Preserving Guide," lists such apple jelly variations as rose geranium, lemon verbena, tarragon, rosemary and sage.
If you want to experiment, the key, Anderson says, is to not to change the ratios. For jams, jellies and preserves, don't alter the amounts of acid, sugar and fruit or fruit juice. In pickling, don't change the proportions of vinegar, water and produce. But she says you can tweak flavors.
Follow those rules, Anderson says, and canning novices should feel emboldened. She says, "Tell people, 'Fear not.'"
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