Probiotics and Preserves: A Quick Guide to Canning and Fermentation

Canning fermented foods

I was raised on vinegar.

Pickles, pickled peppers, and green beans, even sauerkraut—my mother made them all and stored the jars in the basement. Along with her canned salsa, fruit jams, and tomato juices, I constantly descended those wooden steps to fetch homemade preserves for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Most of her ingredients came straight from her vegetable garden. Now that I have my own patch of veggies, it made sense to follow in her footsteps and learn about preserving my annual harvest.

I didn’t realize I was embarking on such a wild expedition into the strange and unknown. One filled with disgusting failures, flavorful successes, and even some scientific experimentation that would push the boundaries of what I considered to be “normal.”

If you’ve ever considered preserving and fermenting your own food, I highly recommend it, but boy do I have some advice. Sit back, relax and let me tell you what I learned as a rookie who got way in over his head.

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Preserving Aplenty

The reason I wanted to preserve vegetables from my garden is simple—a lot of them were going to waste. And it made sense to stock up for those cold winter months when veggies from the grocery don’t compare. But if you don’t have a veggie garden or fruit trees, there are still many reasons to buy ingredients from the store and preserve them:

  • You know what’s in your food. By canning, you avoid preservatives, pesticides, and those hard-to-pronounce additives.
  • Enjoy flavors not found in the store. Canning allows you to experiment with herb and spice combinations to create unique flavors. Just make sure you follow USDA canning guidelines to ensure the food is properly sterilized.
  • Homemade goodies make great gifts, especially if you include a recipe or list of ideas on how to use it.
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Proper Preservation Techniques

Preserving fruit and veggies in jars takes mainly two steps:

  1. Create a mixture of water, fruits/veggies, salt, and other herbs with a specific pH level (acidity). You can raise the acidity by adding vinegar or lemon juice.
  2. Process the mixture by putting it in jars, placing a rubber seal lid on top, and then boiling the filled jars in a hot water bath. The hot water bath both sterilizes the mixture and forces oxygen out of the jar, creating a bacteria-free vacuum within the jar and sealing it.

Note: the pH level of the mixture you want to preserve determines the time and temperature it needs to be processed; the higher the acidity, the shorter the time and lower the temperature. Low-acid foods must be processed at a temperature higher than the boiling point for water—so, a pressure cooker is needed for low-acid foods.

Whatever you decide, follow USDA guidelines for preserving to ensure the food is safe for consumption. Not all canning recipes found on the internet are trustworthy.

 

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Canning Vegetables

When learning to preserve veggies, I focused on a few, simple recipes from a trusted Ball Canning cookbook.

Tomatoes

Tomatoes are perfect for canning. They’re a popular garden favorite, and their naturally high acidity makes them easy to process. In fact, you can make most tomato preserves without a pressure cooker.

Obviously, I had to make and can some classic garden salsa. Many people grow gardens specifically for garden salsa—both fresh and preserved. But salsa can be a little tricky. Because you add a lot of low-acid vegetables like onions and peppers, the overall pH level of the salsa may be lower than recommended. Quell any worries by adding your trusted recipe’s instructed amount of vinegar or lemon juice.

Peppers

Peppers can pack quite a punch, but they also make deliciously spicy jellies and jams. They are a low-acid food, so if you want to preserve whole peppers, you’ll need to process them in a pressure cooker or add a lot of vinegar.

I made a sweet pepper jelly and cut way back on the recommended sugar (more on this later). Unfortunately, you need a lot of sugar if you want your jelly to actually…turn into jelly. Pectin gives jellies and jams their texture, it interacts with sugar to do its job. So mine turned into more of a spicy, tangy chili sauce.

Beets

Beets are also a low-acid food. Luckily, I pickled them in vinegar to avoid the hassle of a pressure cooker and to give them a zesty kick. Again, I cut back on the sugar, but this time it worked perfectly, since I wasn’t using any pectin. Pickled beets are a home run—reduce the sugar for a healthier option.

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Fermentation: Tasty Probiotics

Tart yogurts, crispy pickles, tangy sourdough, fiery kimchi, and aged cheeses—all of these foods owe their flavor to fermentation. This process not only creates amazing flavors, but it also cultivates a rich variety of beneficial bacteria and enzymes.

Probiotic supplements are a great way to keep your gut microflora healthy, but I also wanted to try my own hand at creating some probiotic-rich foods—both for their unique tastes and the health benefits.

  • Homemade pickles may be the easiest recipe to try your hand at fermenting foods. I bottled some refrigerator pickles in about half an hour, sealed them in a jar, and let them sit in my fridge for 24 hours. The results were amazing…and very sour. The sour taste of fermented foods comes from the lactic acid produced during the fermentation process. 
  • Kimchi is another food made by lactic acid fermentation, and it’s a perfect blend of sour and spicy. I was surprised at how simple it was to make. My first batch of kimchi wasn’t amazing, but it wasn’t bad either. It definitely seems like something that requires a bit more practice than refrigerator pickles.
  • Homemade yogurt—another food created by fermentation. It’s easy to make in an Instant Pot or similar multicooker.
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Make it Healthy

You might be wondering—are these foods healthy? I asked the same question during my journey.

Most of the recipes (even the trusted ones) call for large amounts of sugar and/or salt. And while I did my best to cut back on these ingredients, I worried by doing so I would affect the pH level and it wouldn’t process properly. Still, I learned some useful tips about making some of these recipes healthier.

  • You’re safe to cut some sugar. It doesn’t aid sterilization, but it does increase the shelf-life of the food after it’s opened. Use low-sugar pectin to create jams and jellies with little to no sugar at all.
  • Cutting back on sodium is a little trickier. Less salt is okay when you’re making salsa, juices, or most canned foods. But when it comes to fermented foods, stick to the recommended amount. The salt not only helps sterilize the fresh veggies, but it’s also a vital part of the fermentation process.

At the end of the day, fresh is best. There’s no proper substitute for including a healthy dose of fresh fruits and vegetables in my daily meals. But that doesn’t mean I won’t keep a jar of delicious pickles on hand—just in case I need a zesty, probiotic-rich snack.

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