Canning and Preserving Lessons from Millstone Farm

By Eileen Weber

Annie Farrell's hutch at Millstone Farm stocked with canned fruits and vegetables.

“I love canning. It makes me feel good.”

Those words were casually uttered by probably one of the most down-to-earth women in Fairfield County. Annie Farrell, often touted as the “guru organic farmer” who runs Millstone Farm in Wilton, may be timeworn by hard work. But, make no mistake—she is a firecracker with feet. Farm work is the fuel that feeds her soul.

Never standing still for longer than a minute, Farrell scooted around her kitchen to show a class of six the joys of canning your own food. She joked about growing up in New York City where a cherry tree hung low over the fence near her apartment. She recalled filling her belly with sweet cherries and thinking it was a miracle.

Annie Farrell at Millstone Farm.

“After that, I always wanted to grow my own food,” she said.

Part of growing your own food, however, is figuring out what to do with it when you have too much. Enter canning.

Canning has been a viable way of preserving food since at least the 19th century. Whether it’s your grandmother’s glass jars or mass-produced tin cans, we have been able to keep our food longer and longer.

Farrell noted that canning has definitely had a resurgence in the last several years. She quipped that one good economic downturn can do that. But, she was careful to point out that it’s more than just the economy.

Increasingly, people want to know what’s in their food. They don’t want to eat something from a package with ingredients they can’t pronounce and Yellow Dye #5.  People also like being independent, Farrell said. It’s nice to know you can go to your own pantry for food when there isn’t any on the grocery store shelves.

Jars of zucca squash grown at Millstone Farm.

While plenty of consumers are discovering the joys of canning, there are still just as many who find the process daunting. Kendall Crolius, a Southport resident and President of the G100 Network Leadership and G100 Talent Consortium in New York City, has been canning for over 30 years and still adores it. But she admits that many people find canning intimidating and not many people do it here in Fairfield County.

“I love it. It’s my little obsession. My pantry makes me smile every time I pass by it,” she said. “But Fairfield County is not full of canners at this point. If you go out of this area—like the Mid-West or upstate New York—there’s a huge selection of [canning equipment] and it’s half price.”

Crolius, who uses the water bath method, cans plenty of fruit jams and yearns for the rhubarb season. But, she steers clear of what she called “high risk” foods.

“I don’t can the things you really have to worry about,” she said, citing green beans as an example. They require pressure-cooking and often just end up looking gray.

The biggest complaint about canning, however, is the threat of botulism. Botulism is a paralytic disease that can be fatal. It is caused when the bacteria, Clostridium botulinum, contaminates the food. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are about 145 cases of botulism each year of which 15% are food-borne. That 15% is typically because of ingesting home-canned foods.

“I’m really scrupulous about the process,” said Crolius. “I totally subscribe to the concept ‘when in doubt, throw it out.’”

Farrell couldn’t agree more. She repeatedly expressed the need for cleanliness. All jars must be sterilized before canning. Place them in a pot of boiling water, always use clean towels, and wipe the tops of your jars before canning. And, you’ll know your produce has been canned properly when you hear the “pop” of the vacuum seal on the jar top.

This applies to both types of canning: water bath and pressure cooker. Farrell demonstrated the two with ease.

Annie Farrell at her stovetop with water bath and pressure cooker.

Farrell tackled the water bath method first. She had a large stockpot filled with enough water to cover the jars by about an inch. She boiled them and then allowed drying time. She filled the jars leaving half an inch of space at the top. Her advice was to close the jars “fingertip tight” so that any residual air had a chance to escape.

Tomatoes used in the recipes used at Millstone's cooking demo.

Farrell had the class cut up fresh heirloom tomatoes and also make a “chamoisette” sauce. The chamoisette was a simple mixture of tomatoes, onion, celery, green bell pepper, basil, a little lemon juice, and no seasoning. Farrell mentioned that she often does not season her canned food until she plans to use it.

While some canned foods come from a prepared recipe, plenty of foods can be canned without cooking. Tomatoes, because of a high acidity and low pH, can be easily canned in a water bath without cooking them. Foods that are low acid but have a high pH—meats and vegetables, for instance—must be pressure-cooked.

The pressure cooker with its screw knobs, pressure gauge, and heavy lid looks not unlike a small torture device. Pretty sure I would not want to find myself on the inside of that pot.

A large pot and a pressure cooker: essential equipment for preserving.

The amount of time jars are left in the cooker depends on how many pounds of food. (We cooked five pounds of tomatoes for 15 minutes.) Your device will come with a guide in the instructions. Or, you can pick up a copy of Stocking Up by Carol Hupping. Farrell uses it as her canning “bible.” But even though she’s been canning for decades, she still stresses reading the instructions for your pressure cooker every time.

Jars of chimoisette sauce. Pretty as its picture.

“I went to art school. But, I can’t make anything look as pretty as that,” she said, holding up a jar of heirlooms. “That’s nature.”

Millstone Farm is located at 180 Millstone Road in Wilton. They regularly offer workshops on canning, preserving and fermenting, as well as juicing. Check out their web site at www.millstonefarm.org for more information.

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