How to survive the great canning lid crisis of 2020

Well, friends, here at home during lock down my family mocked me. They called me End Times Sally. Worse. Why, they wanted to know, was I coming home with all these lids for canning? Well, I grew up more-or-less off the grid on 40 acres in a hostile clime, and we canned for weeks every summer when I was a kid, and if there's one thing canning for weeks teaches you it's that there's nothing so annoying as running out of lids on a hot and humid day in August back East, when going in to town meant sitting for two hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic while tourists jammed Route 1. And the other thing you learn pretty quickly is the first thing you do when you plant a garden is make sure you have canning supplies. Otherwise, there is no point is working so hard all summer, and of course my mother still remembers the Great Canning Lid Crisis of the 1970s.

But if you're now at the end of the summer and have no canning lids, you already know this. And you are not going to get lids in time for canning. So for anyone who is new to the COVID Victory Garden and was not End Times Sally back in March, here are some options that you do still have. It's really pretty simple fermentation science, and as a winemaker that's something I've tried a lot of different options with over the years.

First, if you're looking at pickling anything (and you can pickle most anything), you do not need lids. You do not need jars. You can use anything that is glass, stone, or ceramic, and the key thing is that you simply need to keep whatever you are pickling submerged (anaerobic; oxygen is not your friend). Traditionally for pickles, you'd use vinegar, which needs to be at least 5% acetic acid. (No vinegar? Yeah, there's a shortage of that too, and more on that below.)

What you can still get, at least around here, at pickling crocks. You can get new ones at Capital Iron I noticed recently, and you can get vintage ones at most of the antique stores. You are looking for one that doesn't have cracks, and if you can find it you want one with the original stone lid. You'll pay about $100 for one, and the price doesn't vary a lot with the size, so you might as well get a big one. I would personally not buy one without a lid. I once did, thinking I'd make a wooden lid to fit it, and the trouble is that wood gets moldy. That was a fail. You can also use large glass containers. Those are still generally in stock, because they do not have canning type lids. From there, all you need to do is prep your vegetables like you would for regular canning, place them in a sterilized crock, cover with the hot brine, and place something on the vegetables that will keep them all fully submerged. The best material for this is glass, and glass pie pans work great if you can find a crock and a pan that match. You may have to get creative, but the key thing is no metal, no plastic, wood only with your wits about you, and keep everything submerged fully. The glass pie pan, if you go that route, will need to be weighed down. I use glass pie beads (or you could use the glass beads for flower arrangements), but frankly a clean brick will do the job just fine. That's it. You now have pickles under way. You can either leave them in the crock, taking out as needed, or you can jar them later if you want once the lids come in. Because you know in about 4 weeks we are going to be seeing canning lids everywhere, once it's too late for harvest.

If you don't have vinegar, you have a couple more options. You can make your own vinegar by just taking the mother of vinegar from one of those unpasteurized jars of apple cider vinegar and feeding it with left over wine, cider, really any fruit juice with sugar, though the time line here is pretty tough now, and you'll end up with flavours. We do have red wine vinegar at 6% still at the farm here, if you're local to Saanichton, though red wine isn't my preference for canning. A better option is to try your hand at lacto-fermentation, which is the new sourdough. This is basically pickling using a salt brine rather than vinegar. We use it most often at home to make our own corned beef, but you can do the same with vegetables. You're looking for a brine that comes in at about 3-10% salt solution, depending on the veggie, and if you don't know how to make a salt brine solution here's one good resource.

Apparently in some places pickling salt is now also in short supply, and in that case, my fellow Vancouver Islanders, we are surrounded by the sea. You can make your own salt by going down to the beach with some milk jugs, should it come to it. (And see, you thought sourdough was going to keep you entertained for hours.) Here's a good resource on harvesting salt from seawater. If you're in YYJ, I'm not clear where they are with the sewer treatment plant. They have until the end of 2020 to stop dumping raw sewer into the sea. I would not harvest sea water from any in town location. Head out the coast if you're going to try this.

Finally, yes, I agree, pickled tomatoes would be very weird. Some fruits and veggies aren't going to work out well that way. If you're lidless, I'd look into drying my tomatoes (sun-dried if probably not going to happen in Victoria in September, but oven-dried is entirely possible). You probably can't get them dry enough to just leave in a jar without them sprouting mold unless you have a food dehydrator (and if you'd thought of that, you'd have thought of canning lids, I can hear you tell me). But remember that there is one other tried and true way to preserve foods: in oil. We do this all the time with our garden beans, preferring this to pickling and because even as a very experienced canner I steer very well clear of canning any low-acid vegetables. (If this is your first time canning, you probably want to consider doing this too. If you mess up with canning low-acid foods, you can kill yourself with Botulism poisoning. Tomatoes are a high-acid vegetable, and to be safe I generally add a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice to the top of each jar in addition, to lower the pH a bit extra, because Botulism can only live in certain pH ranges. Beans, however, are a low-acid vegetable, and so to set them down I use olive oil to preserve them rather than canning them. You prep the vegetables, blanch them quickly to neutralize the enzymes that would have them continue to ripen, cool them, and fully submerge in oil. Olive oil tastes best, but it is expensive. Canola oil is fine as an alternative. Here's one good resource. If I didn't have canning lids and wanted to preserve tomatoes, I'd oven dry them and then preserve the dried tomatoes in olive oil in a large glass jar in the fridge. Or I'd oven dry them and put them in the freezer.

If you are new to canning, I can't emphasize enough that you want to sterilize everything and make sure you understand how to avoid making yourself ill. These are some ideas for alternatives to canning lids, but you need to do your own due diligence and understand the processes and risks clearly for yourself in preserving any food. When in doubt, there is always the freezer.

Finally, seeds: remember that shortage last spring? Sally End Times is here to say that we're likely to have the same shortage this coming spring. A reminder that you can save open pollinated seeds to use in the spring, and for tomatoes especially canning season is the time to do it.


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