Almost everyone I know who cans, pickles, or makes jam, learned from their mom.
Laurie Bombard, the eldest daughter of Sam Mazza and a pillar of Sam Mazza’s Farm and Market, used to can tomatoes with her mother. Betsy Terry, a Colchester resident, uses recipes scrawled on notecards—matriarchal relics passed down through the years. Another local, Kathi Degree, remembers as a child opening the kitchen door to a flood of steam and humidity as her mother canned late into the night.
The art of pickling dates back thousands of years, with notable appearances throughout history: Cleopatra attributed her beauty to a diet of pickles; Shakespeare mentioned the food in his play Hamlet; and the art of canned meats helped Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies to survive in frigid Russia.
But while different modes of food preservation have been around for centuries, the father of canning is widely considered to be 19th century French chef Nicolas Appert, who invented the process we know today of hermetically sealing food in jars, publishing his findings in a cookbook, The Art of Preserving All Kinds of Animal and Vegetable Substances for Several Years.
Two hundred years later, not much has changed.
My mom’s specialty is jam: strawberry, blueberry, triple-crown blackberry, peach chai, vanilla apricot. I remember her kitchen filling with steam, baskets of fruit lining the countertops, and me, sitting on a stool watching the hot jars, waiting for a pop.
Preserving food in Vermont is about capturing the fresh flavors of summer before the icy tendrils of winter blanket the state and gardens go to sleep until spring.
“When you do your own canning, you’re picking your own produce or you’re buying it fresh, and you’re getting those fresh flavors,” said Laurie Bombard. “If you do it well, they stay fresh tasting into the winter.”
One of Bombard’s favorites is salsa. She uses a recipe she’s perfected and passed on to her own kids, but recipes can be as simple or as complicated as you like. “You can adjust your recipe: add more jalapenos, corn, fruit, sweet onions, garlic, red peppers, apple cider vinegar. It needs to be canned and processed to last, but there’s nothing better than that,” she said.
Bombard is also a fan of freezer jam, because she says it retains more of a fresh flavor.
“You basically cook the pectin but not the fruit. You freeze your fruit in jars, put it in the freezer, and it lasts up to six months,” Bombard said. Pectin is an ingredient used in jams or jellies that acts as a setting agent, thickening up when heated together with sugar.
Betsy Terry’s recipe for bread and butter pickles also doesn’t require cooking. Her sweet and spicy refrigerator pickles recipe can be edited per your taste buds.
Terry and I cut the recipe in half, slicing the pickles extra thick, and left them to salt in the fridge for a little less than an hour while simmering a brine mixture on the stove. After salting, we stuffed the cukes into a jar and poured the brine on top, deep yellow from the turmeric, sealing it closed. Pickling isn’t segregated to cucumbers, however, as beans, cabbage, asparagus, and beets are also popular vegetables for pickling. The heart of the process, soaking produce in an acidic or saltwater liquid to cure, remains the same.
But while recipes can be personalized and altered, it’s important to stay true to the mechanics of processing to prevent food poisoning or spoilage. Making sure every jar is sealed properly, no air bubbles or unclean jars, is important to a healthy shelf life for anything canned or pickled. One way to tell if something is sealed is by a popping sound the lid makes.
Both Bombard’s freezer jam and Terry’s sweet and spicy refrigerator pickles are perfect for a first-time canner. The piece of advice Bombard offered to first-time canners and picklers is to not feel discouraged.
“The first couple runs are going to take you more time, but once you’ve done it a few times it’s not as big of a deal,” she said. “We wait so long to have that fresh flavor—it makes you appreciate it more in the middle of the winter. And you say, ‘Ah, that’s why I did all that work!’”