I’m a five-foot-eleven-inch, 175-pound manly male, comfortable climbing Kilimanjaro or sleeping on the cold metal floor of a transport headed to or from Afghanistan, comfortable surviving on MREs. I once tried to have The Food Channel removed from my cable package and replaced with The Manly Adventure Channel. Last time I stepped foot in a kitchen was to nuke a couple of hot dogs. Otherwise it’s the room I have to cross through to get from my bedroom to the bathroom. And now because I’m always looking to cut costs, I’m signed up for what could be one of the most complex operations known to cooking kind—canning. And I’m the only guy in the class.
Catherine, who’s teaching the canning class at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, explains that it’s been a part of her life for her whole life. Her grandmother’s last words were, “Well girls, I guess we won’t be canning this year.” At the beginning of the two-hour class she says that anything can be pickled, from green beans to eggs. Yeah, eggs. They taste gross, but they’re still pickleable. That’s probably why they’re usually only found in bars.
Us novices, we’re going to start with green beans. Not a big fan of green beans.
Catherine really emphasizes exactitude. This whole canning business isn’t so much an art as a precise chemistry problem. “Follow directions,” she says. “It’s really easy to get botulism.” For those who haven’t had botulism, or botulitis, or whatever it’s called, the stuff’s pretty toxic. Fatal in microscopic doses. A walnut-size chunk of botulism is enough to snuff out all of New York City. It’s probably on some top secret Government list of weapons of mass destruction. Think about that the next time you buy a can of green beans that came off some production line in Myanmar.
So much of the emphasis is on cleanliness—sterilizing the jars, namely, by sticking them in boiling water for 30 seconds or more , and using the round inner-sealy thing just once. If anything rusts, it’s no good, nor are odd colors, a head of foam, and if the seal doesn’t pop, indicating freshness. (If you’re going to try this at home, don’t take my word for it. Truly and honestly, get precise directions from the internet—a legit site, too, not like a Facebook or the comments section of imdb.com.)
We get divided up into tasks, like sterilizing the jars, chopping the ends from green beans, filling the jars with said green beans, then pouring Catherine’s thoughtfully pre-prepared brine that includes water, vinegar (five percent acidity is a must!) and pickling salt about a half-inch from the top. Remember, no iodine. Don’t worry, you won’t get a goiter from a dose of un-iodized salt. Kosher salt, always iodine-free, she says, does the job. The final task—I’m probably skipping vital steps, too—includes setting the filled jars into a good-size pot of boiling water until you hear a tiny pop. That means the jar has sealed. Catherine starts removing the jars one by one with a special scissors-like object called canning tongs. From the gossip in the class, apparently you can also work them out of the boiling pot with a wooden spoon and a winter glove or two. Bare fingers might work, depending on your pain tolerance. Be creative! Use your imagination!
With all the yucky green beans out, we prepare the pickles. Again Catherine has soaked a bunch of “proto-pickles”—AKA cucumbers—in brine for 12 hours. You can soak longer, she says, or less; it’s up to you. Personally, after all that talk of botulism, I’ll stick to the 12 hours, even though botulism has nothing to do with how long the pickles soak. While some of us quarter the cukes (pronounced “cukes,” and short for “cucumbers”), Catherine fills a linen bag with spices she’s carefully chosen from her refined taste in pickles, and then she soaks it in boiling water for a few minutes, while others sterilize jars and others clean up. She pulls the bag from the water, and with the jars full and the mystery liquid filling the spaces up to and including the top of the cukes, she places them one-by-one in the boiling vat of water with the scissor-ish object, then pulls them out once the lid pops.
Now we have 12 hot, hot jars to split among 10 people. Some grab up the green beans—suckers!—but I head straight for the pickles, which Catherine says should be pickle-ready in about a week. Altogether canning may sound like a lot of work, at least more than heading to the pickle section of your local grocery store, it’s also been a lot of fun. Catherine says people hold canning parties, and about half the class signed up for one. Even me, the Macho Man, I signed up—after a taste, I need me a steady dose of real canned pickles.
Executive Editor Phil Scott often writes about science, travel and aviation.