Saturday, June 29, 2013

Basic Canning Guide

This week our Blenheim apricots were fully ripe and ready for harvest. This variety is unquestionably the most delicious, but its delicate nature means it doesn't keep or transport well. Home gardeners have only a few days to enjoy these before they begin to over-ripen so it's best to enjoy as many as possible fresh and then preserve the rest. 
Blenheim Apricots
For the last few years we've been experimenting with a variety of food preservation methods for fruits and vegetables from our garden including canning, freezing, pickling, fermenting and drying. Unlike freezing which everyone has familiarity with today, the other forms of food preservation are a bit of a lost art. Something grandma may have done but not a skill that was transmitted to the next generation.
Many folks are fearful of canning because they are concerned about getting botulism or being scolded by hot water or steam. These fears are really exaggerated. Canning is safe and easy to do. You just need to follow a few rules. 
If you would like to give canning a try, here is our Basic Canning Guide. We'll discuss two methods of canning and the equipment you need to do both kinds. The objective is not to make you a canning expert in one article. Rather, this is to give you an overview of the process and equipment so that you can decide whether you want to give it a go.  

The Hot Water Bath Process
This is the easiest and requires the least equipment.  It is generally used for preserving fruit, jams and jellies, tomatoes and pickles.  You can preserve a lot with the hot water bath method, but not everything (I elaborate on this below)
To can using the "hot water bath" method:
·       Wash your vegetables and do the basic food preparation.  The prep. will vary depending on the vegetable or fruit you are preserving.  (For example, if you want to can tomatoes, you'll remove the skins by cutting an "X" into the bottom of the tomato with a knife and boiling for 1 minute.  The skin will then peel off easily)  
·       Put your fruits or vegetables along with the proper additives into jars.  The additives (lemon juice, vinegar/spices, or sugar syrup) aid in food preservation and allow you to can at lower temperatures.  The proper additive will vary depending on what you are preserving, but will be listed in your recipe.
·       Wipe of the lip of the jar with a clean paper towel and screw on the top.  (The lids should be sanitized by first boiling them in water)
·       Place the jars into a pot so that the water which completely covers the tops
·       Boil for 10-50 minutes depending on what you are canning and the size of the jar you are using.  You can find processing times listed in the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning, your pressure caner instruction manual, or at cooking and caning web sites on the Internet.
Equipment for Hot Water Bath Canning
The only equipment you need to do hot water bath canning is a large stock pot, a pair of canning tongs to remove hot jars from the pot, and special canning jars.  
These canning jars are made of thick glass to withstand the heat of the canning process and a special lid with a rubber gasket seal.  Canning jars are manufactured by two companies (Ball and Kerr) and are widely available at hardware stores, Wal-Mart and other retail locations.

The Bad News about Hot Water Bath Canning
Now here's the rub... The hot water bath process is good for many, but not all, canning applications.  Specifically, it's good for jams and jellies (sugar syrup additive used), canned tomatoes (lemon juice additive used) and pickles (vinegar and pickling spice additive used).  
If you want to preserve green beans, but don't want to add vinegar and pickling spices which will alter their flavor, boiling water alone will not be sufficient to prevent your food from spoiling.  You'll need to heat the food you are preserving to a temperature above that of boiling water and will need a pressure caner to accomplish this.

Canned Apricots. Open during the Winter for a Taste of Summer
Pressure Canning
Pressure canning is a process which allows you to heat your canned vegetables and fruits above the temperature of boiling water (212 degrees Fahrenheit or 100 degrees Celsius).  As I mentioned above, by canning using higher temperatures, you're able to preserve a wider range of fruits and veggies and to forgo the use of additives in some cases.
Pressure canning works by using steam to do the preservation.  Under pressure, steam can reach much hotter temperatures than boiling water --generally temperature between 228 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit (107-118 degrees Celsius).   
I should also mention that pressure canning can be used to do all of the same foods that can be done using the hot water bath method, but to complete the canning process faster because you're using a higher temperature.
Pressure Caning Process
·       To do pressure canning, you prepare your fruits or vegetables according to the recipe you are following.  This will be very similar to the hot water bath process.
·       Fill the pressure canner with water so that the water level is about 1.5 inches above the bottom of the pot.  
·       Place your jars into the pressure canner.  You will put the jars onto a rack that sits just above the bottom of the pot in your pressure canner that prevents the cans from sitting directly on the hot bottom of the caner.
·       Lubricate the metal seal on the cover of the caner with a little Vaseline to prevent sticking and then screw down the lid being careful to gradually and evenly tighten opposite wing nuts.  This ensures that the cover will be properly sealed.
·       Bring the the water to a boil.  You'll see steam escaping from a small vent at the top of the pressure canner.
·       Place a weight (supplied with your canner) on the vent using a set of kitchen tongs so you don't get burned by escaping steam.  The weight will have settings for 5-15 pounds of pressure.  Use the setting specified in your recipe.
·       Steam for the time given in the recipe.
·       When the cooking time has elapsed, turn off the stove.  
·       Let the temperature/pressure gauge of your caner return to 212 degrees Fahrenheit/0 pounds of pressure.
·       Gradually remove the hot weight from the pressure canner using a kitchen tongs so you don't get burned.
·       Open the top and remove your preserved cans.  Allow to cool.

Pressure Canners & How They Work

There are two devices on the market - pressure cookers and pressure canners.  If you are canning fruits and vegetables, you want to buy a pressure canner.  Both devices work on the same principle of using steam to do the heating, but canners are larger and designed for caning jars.  Cookers are too small and the USDA warns against using them for canning.
A good brand of pressure canner is All American but there are other good brands on the market.  You can buy a variety of different sized pressure canners, but a 21 quart pressure caner is a good size for home caning applications.
The canner is basically a stock pot with a lid that can be screwed down to hold in pressurized steam. The lid of the canner has a gauge on it that will tell you the pressure in pounds per square inch (PSI) and the temperature within the pot.  There is also a small vent pipe on the top of the pot that allows steam to escape.  You control the pressure withing the pot (and hence the temperature) by regulating the amount of steam that is able to escape through this vent pipe.  You regulate the pressure by placing a small weight (supplied with your pressure caner) on top of the vent.  My weight has three settings on it and allows steam to escape so that the pressure in the pot is 5, 10 or 15 PSI.
All American brand pressure canner

Recipes & Instructions
If you want to can, I recommend that you purchase a copy of the Ball Blue Book on canning. This is widely available and will give you recipes and detailed canning instructions for almost every type of fruit or vegetable.... green beans, corn, tomatoes, cucumbers (pickles), strawberries, apricots, peaches etc. etc. It's well worth the $18.  You can find it at if it's not in your local store.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

JK Rowling Eating Eggs

A portrait of author JK Rowling (Harry Potter book series) eating eggs for breakfast. This will make the British Egg Board pretty happy.

The portrait was done by artist Stuart Pearson Wright who has painted portraits of many British celebrities including members of the royal family.

Good Scraps For Chickens

We do our best to recycle in our household and this also means putting as little food waste into the landfill as possible.  In addition to keeping chickens, we are avid vegetable and fruit gardeners and so a natural way to dispense with vegetable food waste is to compost it.

However, we put an intermediate step between us and the compost bin that makes our chickens happy too.  We leave a bowl out near the kitchen sink. As we are preparing meals any scraps that would be good for chickens go into this bowl. If the kids bring home uneaten veggies or fruit in their lunch boxes, these get tossed into the bowl as well.  So do any left-over cooked vegetables such as broccoli or carrots if there isn't enough left to bother saving it.

The following morning our chickens get any of the treats in the bowl.  They love this both for the flavor and the play-value. Blueberries and grapes seem to be particularly favored by our girls.

Chard leaves are a good choice but the stems are too woody so put those in the composter

Scraps To Crow About - The Ones You Can Feed Your Chickens

  • Grains - Left over rice, oatmeal, barley or other grain you've had the night before.
  • Cooked Pasta.
  • Bread Heels.
  • Unsweetened Cereals - Rice or Corn Checks, Rice Krispies, and Corn Flakes are OK. Lucky Charms may be "magically delicious," but I wouldn't recommend them for the flock. I don't know if sugar is specifically unhealthy for chickens, but I do know that it makes us humans fat, so I advise against feeding sweetened cereals to you chickens. By the way, research suggests that birds don't taste sweet the way humans do.
  • Veggies - Pretty much any cooked or raw vegetable scraps except those listed in the "Don't Feed" section below are OK. Good choices include, lettuce, kale, tomatoes, cooked broccoli, cabbage and chard.
  • Fruits & Berries - any left over apples, pears, cherries, banana without the peel, grapes, blueberries etc.

Always on the alert for snacks!

Don't Feed Your Chickens These Foods

  • Woody Vegetables - veggies that are too hard, or too big for chickens to easily eat should be left out of your scrap bowl. Remember chickens don't have teeth and depend on their gizzard to do the grinding. So avoid vegetables such as uncooked broccoli stems, artichoke leaves, avocado skins and pits, and other really woody vegetables. These can go into your compost pile.
  • Potato Peelings - these contain a toxin that is harmful to both people and chickens. However, you can feed your flock a cooked potato skin since cooking neutralizes the nasty.
  • Moldy Food - things that have clearly gone bad and you wouldn't eat shouldn't be given to your chickens either. That said, I do think it's OK to give "less than perfect" items to your chickens. These are foods that may be wilted or slightly yellowing (lettuce, spinach, kale etc) but are have not reached the stage when they are actually decomposing.
  • Raw Meat.

Raw potato peels contain a toxin and should not be fed to chickens.

Posting sponsored by, makers of the BriteTap chicken waterer. The BriteTap waterer shields water from dirt and poop. The water stays clean and there are no messy pans for you to wash out. For more information visit our web site to learn more about our products and chickens

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Saturday, June 8, 2013

How to Make Inexpensive Sturdy Tomato Cages

If you've been to a garden store recently, you may have noticed that good grade tomato cages are selling for between $20-$30 each.  If you plan to grow ten tomato plants, that a $200-$300 investment.  

But there's some good news for DIY enthusiasts;  if you are willing to do 10 minutes worth of work, you can build a high quality cage for about $10.  Here's the materials list and the instructions:

  • 7 foot x 3.5 foot Mesh Mini-Panels - these are used to reinforce concrete in construction work and are available from home improvement stores like Lowes and Home Depot.  The wire is very sturdy and the openings between the mesh measure 6 inches by 6 inches, making it easy to get your hand into the cage when you prune or pick tomatoes.  Buy 1 panel for every cage you want to make.  Each panel should cost about $7.
  • Double Loop Bar Ties - these are like the twistees that you use in the grocery store to tie off plastic bags, except for the fact that they are industrial strength.  You'll use these to fasten the two ends of the mesh mini-panels into a tube to form your cage.  You'll need 5 bar ties for each cage.  I think they are a few dollars for a package of 100.
  • 3 foot long metal stake - one for every cage.  About $3.
  • Plastic zip ties - two for every cage you want to make.
  • Bolt Cutter - This is a heavy duty wire cutter.  You'll need one to trim the mini-panels. (see photo)  It costs $20-$30 if you need to buy one.
  • Bar Tie Twister Tool - a hand tool that makes it easy to twist the bar ties closed.  It will probably be sold in the same section of the store where the mini-panels and bar ties are sold.  Cost is about $7.
  • Pair of work gloves.
  • Hammer or sledge hammer

To make the tomato cages, you will pull the long-ends of the mini-panels together to form a tube and connect them using the bar ties.  The detailed instructions are as follows:
  1. Place a mini panel on the grass or driveway.  Step into the center of the panel and stand toward the top end of the panel.  Grab the edge of the panel along one of the long sides.   Using your feet and body weight to hold down the panel, bend the edge of the mini panel towards yourself.  Step to the side, grab the next section of the panel and bend towards you.  Continue until one of the long sides of the panel are bent towards the center. 
  2. On the same long side, grab the panel 6 inches below the edge and repeat the same procedure as in step 1.  This one side should now be bent inward and be rounded.
  3. Now move to the other long side of the panel and repeat steps #1 and #2 for this side. 
  4. Pick up one of the long sides of the panel and bend it toward the other long side using the ground to hold the opposite side down.  At this point the panel will look like a tube.  You should do this at the top, middle and bottom of the panel.  When you are finished the panel should look like the letter "U." (see below photo)
  5. Starting at the top of the mini-panel, grab both long ends and hold them together to form a tube.  Using your other hand, grab a bar tie and wrap it around the end of the mini-panel so that the loop of the bar ties are aligned.  Use the bar tie tool to twist the bar tie so that it fastens both ends of the mini-panel together. You do this by putting the pointed end of the tool through the loops of the bar tie and twisting.
  6. Move down the mini-panel about 1.5 feet and repeat step #5. Do this until the entire mini-panel has been fastened into a tube. You now have a 7 foot high cage with a diameter of about 14 inches.
  7. Using the bolt cutter, trim off the bottom edge of the cage so that you are "spikes" at the bottom to hold your cage into the soil. (see photo)
  8. If you would like your cage to be less than 7 feet high, use the bolt cutters to trim the top of the cage to whatever height you desire.
  9. Use a hammer to put a metal stake into the ground about 7 inches away from your tomato plant.
  10. Place the cage over the tomato so that one edge of the cage touches the edge of the metal stake.
  11. Use two zip ties to fasten the cage to the metal stake.  You now have secured the cage so that it can withstand the wind and the weight of all the tomatoes your going to grow this season!
If you decide to make your own tomato cages, let me know if you like them by leaving a comment.  If you have questions, also feel free to ask by commenting.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Do Your Chickens Need Grit

"Do chicken's have lips?" is a sarcastic expression that is used to answer any rhetorical question.  However, one could just as easily say "Do chicken's have teeth?" because they obviously don't.

That brings us to the topic at hand today -- chicken grit.  Grit is mixture of small pebbles or crushed stones that chickens eat in order to help them digest their food. They need grit because chicken's don't have teeth and are not able to chew their food to aid digestion.  Instead, they pass the food into an organ called the gizzard where it is ground up.  

How Chicken's Digest Their Food

Chickens consume food with their beaks and pass it into a large sack called the crop.  The crop is really just a storage bag and allows the chicken to eat large quantities of food quickly so they are not exposed to predators for long periods while they are eating.

The food is then sent to the proventriculus where it mixes with enzymes that begin the digestive process.  However, the food particles may be too large for the chicken to effectively digest and so the food and enzymes travel next to the gizzard for further processing.

The gizzard is a specialized part of the digestive tract that is constructed of thick muscular walls where food is ground up. You can think of the gizzard as a gristmill for grinding up the food. And to take the analogy a step further, the grit is the millstone for that gristmill. The gizzard squeezes against the food particles and rubs them against each other and any grit contained in the gizzard.  The combined action of gizzard squeezing and the grit, or small stones, rubbing up against the food particles reduces the food to a more digestible size.

The ground up food and digestive juices then move to the small intestine where they are absorbed.  The grit goes along for the ride and are eventually excreted through the chicken's cloaca.

Do Your Chickens Need Grit?

The answer really depends on what they eat. Commercial crumbles and pellets are already ground up finely enough that grit isn't required.  However, if you feed your chicken's whole grains, scratch or allow them to forage for all or a portion of their diet, then you should provide your flock with grit so that they can digest these larger food particles.

Scratch is comprised of larger food particles that require grit. Crumble and pellets are already ground fine enough that chicken's don't need grit to digest them.

Grit Size

To be effective, the grit needs to be of a particular size. Too large and your chickens won't be able to swallow the grit. Too small and the grit will pass through the chickens digestive system without doing its job. That's why you'll find grit in different sizes

  • Small for chicks
  • Larger for mature chickens 
  • Larger still for turkeys

Soluble Versus Insoluble Grit

There are two different types of grit sold in the feed store and it's important to buy the right type. In this article we've been discussing the insoluble type (not digested and of no nutritional value). Insoluble grit is composed of small stones, generally granite. 

The other type of grit is soluble (digestible) and is often made of flaked oyster shells. Soluble grit is a calcium supplement and helps your chicken's build strong egg shells. It dissolves during digestion and will not work to break up larger food particles. If your chicken's have a diet that requires grit, the soluble kind isn't the right type to use to assist digestion. 

Remember the Water

One other thing that keep in mind is that chicken's generally eat a diet that is very dry. Even free-ranging birds who eat a diet of seeds, insects and vegetable matter will not get enough water from their diet alone to properly digest their food.  Water is essential to digestion, so make sure you provide plenty of clean drinking water.

Naturally, we use the BriteTap chicken waterer since it provides a constant source of drinking water free from contamination by dirt and droppings.  The BriteTap waterer is fully covered and chicken's drink from special valves located on the bottom of the dispenser.

For more information about the BriteTap Chicken Waterer web site.

Posting sponsored by, makers of the BriteTap automatic poultry waterer. The BriteTap waterer shields water from dirt and poop. The water stays clean and there are no messy pans for you to wash out.