I’m not sure where my mother got it, nor exactly when it entered our lives; I only know that periodically throughout my childhood, she would lug the grey, metal behemoth of a pressure cooker from its usual home in the garage and heft it onto the stovetop. Looking more like an instrument of medieval torture than a culinary vessel, with its clamps and gauges and the screaming hiss from its release valve, fear of the thing was instilled in me at an early age and was regularly reinforced. I remember Mom and Dad huddled around the stove, watching the beast with trepidation as its dial indicated the rising pressure inside. Occasionally, Dad would reach out tentatively with a wooden spoon to lift the valve that would allow steam to escape as Mom squealed. We kids only ever had to ask why once, after which it was emblazoned in our minds: If they didn’t release enough pressure, the cooker would blow up. We learned to give the kitchen a wide berth whenever it made an appearance.
Mom employed the cooker primarily in canning jams and things, as I recall, but every so often she’d use it for actual food preparation as opposed to food storage. Artichokes, for example. My mom wasn’t a great culinarian (in spite of the fact that her father was an award winning local chef), but she could pressure cook the crap out of an artichoke. After much steaming and hissing of the release valve (and the occasional girly squeal, which I swear she only did while pressure cooking), we’d each get our own individual ‘choke, tender to the point of falling apart, the meaty flesh on the leaves plump and pulpy. She’d make a version of tartar sauce for dipping, or my personal favorite: melted butter with garlic and lemon juice.
Oh gods, I’m making myself hungry. Anyway….
When I first started gardening, I was naively ambitious. I began with several tomato plants, all of which I’d given names like Jeeves and Bertie, Giles and Basil (ha!), and of course Tom (‘cause I’m just that witty). They grew like gangbusters seemingly overnight, and I was convinced I would soon be overrun with fruit.
In anticipation of this eventuality, I read up on a number of different ways to preserve my impending bumper crop, but the one that really stuck with me was canning. I had never tried my hand at it, but it was at least familiar, so I decided that it was the route to take. Armed with a canning kit and the pressure cooker that my amazing then-boss gave me (she just had it sitting around the house, not being used; can you believe it?), I sat back and waited to be overrun by tomatoes. If you’ve been following my blog, you may remember that this never quite happened. No matter, I learned to love my new pressure cooker for other reasons.
For starters, let me report that, much to my relief, modern cookers aren’t scary time bombs of shrapnelly death like they used to be! Even the most inexpensive brands have multiple safety features built into them, from rubber gaskets to emergency vents, to soft plugs in the lid that pop out to vent steam before the pressure can reach truly dangerous levels.
Secondly, pressure cookers are magical kitchen devices that cut cooking time dramatically through the wonders of science. In a nutshell, increasing air pressure also increases the temperature at which water boils. Hotter water means faster cooking. (If you want a more technical explanation, Wiki Answers gives a pretty good one.) The result is meat that goes from raw to fall-off-the-bone in about an hour, stocks that would have taken half a day in a regular pot finish quickly, and dishes like my annual batch of chili, which used to take upwards of 8 hours, but now eats up no more than two. If that’s not amazing, I don’t know what is. I LOVE my pressure cooker. I love it so much that I recently bought a second one, and this one I made sure was big enough to finally do some proper canning.
My new cooker is HUGE. It’s 16 quarts huge. It’s doesn’t-quite-fit-on-the-burner huge and takes-up-more-than-its-fair-share-of-the-stove-top huge. Huge. Almost the second it arrived, I put it to work. I decided that the perfect food with which to launch my canning campaign had to be my family’s favorite, James Beal’s Wild Boar Barbeque Sauce.
What makes the sauce such a fantastic candidate for the novice canner is its acidity. In preserving foods by this method, you are superheating the jars, which sterilizes both the containers and their contents, while creating a seal so secure that outside contagions are unable to get in and cause the food to spoil. Do it right, and one batch of edibles can last an entire year. Do it wrong, and six months from now when you decide to dig in, you may find that uninvited microbes have already beaten you to the party. Yeuch. But because the little beasties don’t really dig highly acidic environments, foods that are high in the stuff have a really great success rate. In other words, I picked something I couldn’t screw up *too* badly.
In order to be doubly sure that the jars and rings I was using were sterile, I did as some canning sites recommended, and ran them through the dishwasher starting at the rinse cycle. The lids went into a pan of hot, but not quite boiling, water on the stove.
Next I filled each jar with the nifty funnel from my canning kit, making sure to leave a little headroom so that the sauce could safely expand during the heating process. (Heat likes to do that to stuff ya know, make it bigger.)
The jars filled, I wiped each of their mouths clean to ensure a tight seal and then pulled a lid from the pot of scalding water, using the handy device pictured below, and placed it on the jar.
I put the rings on the jars and screwed them down as tight as I could. Then I put the filled jars in my awesome new pressure cooker, on top of the provided rack. If you put jars directly on the bottom of the pot, you risk them breaking due to thermal shock.
With the cooker full, I poured in a ton of water. The instructions I read said to add three quarts. I’m not sure how much I actually used, but it was enough to nearly cover the pint jars I was working with, but not enough to fill the cooker itself. Just as when you’re filling the jars, you need to leave plenty of room toward the top for things to expand in the canner (check your cooker’s manual for recommended levels). In this case, the things we’re concerned about are air and water (steam). When heated, they will expand so much that they’ll start to force their way out of the canner’s vents. Can you imagine if there was no air or steam to push out because you’d filled the pot all the way? I’ve never tried it, but I imagine it would look something like this:
Now imagine you weren’t canning, but making something like chili in your cooker and you filled it too full! Gross!
Water in, I placed the lid on the pot and sealed it according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Then I turned the burner to high and waited for the fun to start. After a while, the safety valve began to sputter and dance, and steam began hissing out of the main valve. I let this continue for ten minutes to allow all of that air I mentioned earlier to be forced out. Excess air in the pot decreases the temperature of the overall contents. In pressure cooking, that’s not such a critical point, but in pressure canning, when you’re relying on the extreme heat to sterilize everything, it can make all the difference in the world. Best to give that extra air a chance to skedaddle and be replaced with steam. (Wait, did I really just say “skedaddle”?)
After that ten minutes was up, I put the weighted pressure regulator cap on the main valve, which caused the safety valve to pop up and stick in place. This not only lets you know that the vessel is actually pressurizing, but it also locks the lid so it can’t come off while that’s happening. Once the canner reached the pressure I was looking for (about 10-11 pounds, although that may vary depending on the altitude of your kitchen), I turned the flame down to medium low, adjusting it further as needed, to ensure that the pressure stayed more or less constant. If ever the needle started to climb higher than I wanted, I simply tipped the regulator cap with a wooden spoon so that some of the pent up steam could escape (NEVER use your hand unless you enjoy being badly scalded).
After about 20 minutes, I simply turned the stove off and let the pressure in the canner dissipate on its own. When the safety valve dropped back down, I tipped the pressure regulator to let any excess steam escape. When the soft hissing diminished completely, I carefully twisted the lid and lifted it away from me. Although no longer pressured, the contents are still crazy hot, and while I’m all about steam facials, I prefer the kind that stop short of actually burning.
Using the jar lifter thingy (technical term) that came with my canning kit, I carefully removed the containers from the canner and put them on my dining table on top of some old newspapers so they could cool down overnight. The next morning I grabbed a sharpie and wrote directly on the lids. Because the lids must be disposed after each use anyhow, this is a quick and easy way to keep track of what is in each jar.
So there you have my first foray in long-term food preservation (non-freezer version). I must admit I enjoyed it so much that I’ve become something of a canning fool. Since doing the sauce, I’ve pickled watermelon rinds, preserved strawberries (they didn’t turn out as pretty as I’d hoped), and put up about four batches of baked beans. This past weekend at the Farmer’s Market, I was able to pick up several pounds of pickling cucumbers, so we know what my next canning project will be!
If any of you out there have been curious about starting to can, I absolutely recommend it. It was surprisingly easy, and I love the feeling of self-sufficiency that comes with preserving my own food. It’s nice to know that if society should go kablooey for any reason (here in earthquake territory, that’s actually not so far-fetched a possibility), I’ll have *something* to eat. Even if so far it’s just barbeque sauce, pickled watermelon rinds, and insipid strawberries.
Until next time! =waves=
For more info on pressure cookers, Fastcooking.ca has some pretty useful information.
For more info on canning: