Saturday, December 28, 2013

Canning & Preserving 101

Canning is such a satisfying thing to do.  Seeing rows and rows of beautifully colored jars filled with things you've grown yourself fills one with a wonderful sense of pride. The fulfillment you get from seeing your full larder shelves is only surpassed by the luxury of opening those jars on a cold winter day and serving up some summer.  

Canning is becoming more popular nowadays. Once people find out about my countrified upbringing, they ask me about it regularly.  As a matter of fact, I’ve taught classes on this at  the Natural Gardener and the 2014 Suburban Dad Survivalist Preparedness Conference, among other places.

Since so many people ask me about this, I thought it'd make a good subject for the blog, so thought I'd post my class outline/handout here.
If you want to print this off (six pages, depending on your margin settings), here's the link
And if you want to print off a much shortened, paper-saver version (two pages), here's that link.

All this class preparation has me realizing just how little I've canned lately. I miss the secure feeling that having all those jars of jelly and pickles sitting on the shelves gives me. And I really miss looking at them: the deep burgundy of the Mustang grape jelly, bright red pickled beets, gorgeous green of dilly beans, and bright yellow sweet corn that's really better frozen but is just too pretty to not can a little. Man, I miss having a food rainbow in my pantry to hold me over in winter until the colors of spring return. 

Really, it's that satisfying to just see them sitting there. As soon as you get something canned you'll see what I mean.  You'll find yourself periodically going back to the kitchen just to look at what you made. You'll stack them one way, then arrange them according to color, then re-rearrange them according to something else. Even after the new wears off, you'll still occasionally open the cabinet doors just to take a peek. And every time you'll smile knowing it'll be a long time before you'll have to deal with an empty belly.

I think while y'all are reading this, I'm going to go pull out the canners, dig out the jars, and can something.

Canning/Preserving 101
What I’ll cover in this post
  • Why you should take up canning
  • Safety & the two canning processes
  • Basic equipment
  • Extra equipment
  • How to start canning, step by step
  • Problems you may encounter
  • Other food preservation methods

Why you should take up canning & preserving:   
  • To carry your food production efforts full circle and save every bit of those vegetables you worked so hard to grow.
  • To save money while eating better: buy in bulk fresh from the farm, catch things on sale, and be able to preserve them for a time when they’re not so plentiful.
  • To make and save things not available in stores, like Mustang grape jelly.
  • To have the peace of mind of knowing you can take care of yourself no matter what happens.  If a storm knocks out the power or you lose your job, you’ll still be able to eat well.
  • To stay in touch with our grandparents.  To live history.
  • To brag to your friends.

Safety and the two canning processes - which type of process to use and why:
  • Canning is not cooking - Canning is a science: the science of preserving food without refrigeration by killing food-borne toxins and keeping them from later growing.  Think of it this way: you preserve food items using scientific principles, then use those food items in your cooking later.  You don’t make a peach cobbler and can it, you can the peaches and use those to make the cobbler later.  You don’t find canned peach cobbler on the grocery shelf next to the canned peaches - that cobbler’s over in the frozen food aisle.  There’s good reason for that: cobbler and many other fully-made dishes can’t be canned safely.  And even if you can can them safely (See what I did there? *snicker*), the end result is often a cooked-to-death mush that tastes just awful.  
  • Heating to 212 degrees kills most all toxins except botulinum spores, a “dormant” form of the botulinum bacteria.  Higher heat is needed to kill them.  Adding pressure increases temperature, so to kill the botulinum spores, pressure canning is needed to reach those temperatures.
  • BUT acidity keeps those spores dormant, keeps them from turning back into the botulism-causing bacteria.  Therefore, high acid foods that are below 4.6 on the pH scale AND stay there over time are safe when water-bath canned at 212 degrees since the acidity will keep the spores from growing.  
~ A couple notes of caution: Some things can be below 4.6 acidity at the time you can them, but will rise over time.  For instance, a jar of whole pickles may be below 4.6 at canning time, but later, as the moisture from inside the cucumbers comes out into the brine, it can raise the pH to higher than 4.6, leading to possible growth of botulism.  This is why it’s important to use a tested recipe from a reliable source since it has been tested over the course of time in storage and is known to stay below 4.6.  
~ This is also why vinegar with the correct acidity percentage is important!  All vinegars are NOT the same.  Read the label carefully.
  • Any food that is over 4.6 on the pH scale must be pressure canned.
  • Water-bath canning = heating sealed jars of food in boiling (212 degrees) water for a specified time.
  • Pressure canning = heating sealed jars of food under pressure which raises temperatures well above boiling (212 degrees).
  • Of the two types of canning, I’ll be focusing on water-bath canning, which is the method used to preserve high-acid foods like jams, jellies, preserves, pickles, and some tomatoes.  Both types of canning are almost exactly the same up to the point of the actual processing (putting full jars in the appropriate canners and processing/“cooking”), but pressure canning is a good bit more involved from that point on and requires more expensive equipment (the pressure canner).  Plus, there’s less margin for error with pressure canning (it’s easier to poison yourself if you screw up), so it’s good to practice on jellies and pickles before moving up to full-blown pressure canning.  So we’ll just start with water-bath canning.
  • Some things, such as breads, just aren’t safe to can.  
  • Use only tested recipes and procedures (again, ones that have been pH tested over the course of a year).  All the recipes and procedures in the Ball Blue Book and at the National Center for Home Food Preservation website (see links below) have been tested.
  • Sterilize everything by boiling or, in the case of towels, washing with bleach.  (Even though you’ll be killing the microorganisms in the jars later during processing, it’s just not good to tempt fate.)
  • Be sure to process for the recommended time, adjusting for altitude if needed.  
About altitude: The State Capitol building in Austin is 545 feet above sea level, so most of us who live in the Central Texas area don’t have to worry about it.  But it’s important to know that altitude affects pressure and therefore temperature during cooking, mainly allowing water to boil at lower temperatures, so adjustments are needed if canning in a high-altitude area.  If you live on top of a hill, double-check your sea level via the links at bottom to info on finding your altitude and how to adjust for it.

Basic equipment for water bath canning
  • A good reference that contains tested how-to instructions and tested recipes. - See links below for this information online, or buy the Ball Blue Book.
  • Large pot with lid and rack - The pot must be large enough to hold jars along with enough water to cover them.  A lid helps hold in heat and keep the water from evaporating so you don’t have to add more in mid-process, thus bringing down the temp and having to start your timing over again.  The rack can be anything that can take the heat, such as cake cooling rack or collapsible vegetable steamer, that fits in your pot to hold the jars upright and off the bottom ¼ inch or more during processing.
  • Canning jars - Only use jars made and sold for canning.  Other jars, such as mayonnaise jars, aren’t necessarily tested to withstand boiling water baths (commercial processors use some preservatives and other preservation methods that don’t always involve high heat and aren’t available to the home canner).  Even if they’re new, be sure to check your jars for cracks and nicks every time you do another round of canning, especially around the rim.  Discard any damaged ones that you find, or use them for drinking glasses.  
  • Rings and NEW lids - Rings can be re-used if still in good condition, but, unless you use the reusable lids like the Tattler lids, BRAND NEW lids must be used for a good and safe seal.  The rubber that makes the seal on the lid can be damaged easily during use, sometimes in ways you can’t see with your naked eyes, which can prevent a safe seal during canning.  Since you’re literally betting your life on this, just use new ones.  They’re cheap.
  • Cooking pot - Anything big enough to boil the food you are going to can before putting it in the jars.
  • Clean kitchen towels and hot pads
  • Spoons, measuring cups, butter knife for “bubbling” jars (working air bubbles out of filled jars)
  • Tongs for removing jars, rings, and lids from hot water - Special canning tools are recommended for this (see below), but you can use anything that will allow you to safely and firmly grasp and lift hot jars, etc., from hot water.
  • Water for cleaning and/or cooking - The pH of the water isn’t important unless you’re making extremely low-adic things and adding the water to the food.  In that case, use distilled water and/or test the pH and add acid if needed (more on pH testing later).
  • Stove or other heat source capable of boiling water - The largest burners of most stoves are enough.  Glass-top stoves are not recommended as they don’t work well with large canning pots or pressure canners except flat-bottomed ones, and some glass-topped stoves have an “auto shut off” feature that shuts the heat off when the glass gets to a certain temp.  Fluctuating temperatures aren’t good for canning and can lead to inadequate pathogen killing.  So, if you have a glass-topped stove, just use that as an excuse to buy yourself a turkey fryer and use that for canning (Bonus: that will allow you to can outside where it’s cooler!).
  • Labeling equipment - A magic marker for writing the date and food name on the lid is fine, but labels applied to the side of jar are easier to see in storage.  Even masking tape will work, so long as it stays stuck on the jar.
  • Timer
  • And, of course, food to be canned

Basic equipment for pressure canning
  • All of the above, plus:
  • Pressure canner
~ A note about pressure canners: I like the ones with the weighted gauges.  Dial gauges can become inaccurate over time, but a big hunk of metal with no moving parts won’t.  Also, they're easier to vent air from (when heating canners and bringing them up to pressure, you have to vent any air inside before processing to get even heat throughout), practically doing it themselves.  The only negatives I can think of are the weight can be lost easily if you don’t put it inside the canner when not using it, and, as far as I know, you can’t get a precise PSI (it’s either 5, 10, or 15), but those things are easy to live with and outweighed by the positives imho.

Extra equipment that is recommended but not essential
  • Ball Blue Book - Good canning information can be found online, but it’s reallly useful to have a hard copy in front of you.  This book can usually be found for not much more than the cost of printing the info yourself.
  • Canning jar tongs - These are specially designed tongs that make it easy to remove jars from boiling water.
  • Magnetic lid “lifter” - This is a little “wand” with a magnet on the end for lifting lids and rings from boiling water.
  • Food mill, food processor, tomato mill, etc. - These make slicing, dicing, and juicing SO much easier.
  • Canning jar funnel - A specially shaped and sized funnel that allows for easier filling of jars without getting the rims dirty.
  • Water-bath canner with rack - This large pot and rack are specially designed to hold the maximum number of jars and allow for easy removal of those jars: the “rack” is actually a basket that holds all the jars making them easy to lift out all together.
  • pH testing strips or meter capable of reading a range from 3 to 6 in small increments - (Great advice on how to buy a good meter from Cornell University here and in the links below. Also calibrate it, recalibrate it and calibrate it again, every time you use it.) If you follow a tested recipe or are canning very high-acid food such as peaches without anything added, pH testing isn’t needed, but it’s handy to do just to double-check for safety’s sake.  If you’re deviating from a tested recipe at all, even simply adding different spices or less sugar, it’s important to make sure your food to be canned is at or below 4.6.  Test after cooking the food to be canned, right before putting it in the jars, and only test food at room temp (dip out a few tablespoons, allow to cool, then test).  NOTE: Remember that pH can rise in the canned jar over time, so using an untested recipe can still be dangerous even if you test it at canning time and it’s in the correct range.  Therefore, again, it’s not recommended to use untested recipes, but if you have to, at least test the pH and make sure it’s well below 4.6 at canning time, test jars from the same batch periodically (every month or so), and test the food again before you eat it.  

And now for the fun part...

How to water-bath can high-acid foods, step by step:
  1. Assemble all cleaned equipment on cleaned kitchen counters (or outside on clean tables if you’re one of the lucky ones with your own turkey fryer).
  2. Bring lids, rings, and jars just to a boil in water-bath canning pot, then turn off heat.  To avoid lime deposits on jars, add one cup vinegar per gallon of water to pot.
  3. While jars are heating, prepare food to be canned according to your recipe or method:
  • Fruits: Preserves are generally whole fruit that can be crushed or sliced.  Jams are generally whole fruit that’s been mashed.  Jellies are just the juice, usually with added sugar and pectin (the substance found in most fruits that causes jelly to gel).  You can add sugar, and it makes for a good preservative in it’s own right, but on very high-acid things like peaches, it’s not imperative.
  • Pickles, no matter if they’re made from cucumbers, watermelon, or something else, need to be canned in vinegar, or a solution made with vinegar, to raise their acidity.  Be sure to use pickling vinegar of the exact acidity percentage your recipe calls for.  That’s usually 5% in modern recipes, but if using an old recipe, be aware that some pickling vinegars used to be more acidic, so your 5% vinegar may not be strong enough.  Also, you should always use a tested recipe when pickling as you’re usually working with low- to no-acid vegetables with a higher pH (for instance, cucumbers can be well over 5 on the pH scale).  Calculating the pH of the food, then calculating how much acidity to add to bring that pH down to safe levels, leads to such mental gymnastics that it’s best left to the professionals.  Just let them do the work for you (I’m not lazy. I’m efficient.).
  • Raw pack method: Fill jars with raw food, pour boiling-hot canning solution over it.  
  • Hot pack method: Bring raw food to boil in canning solution, ladle into jars.
  • If you want to can plain high-acid food without added sugar, you must use the hot-pack method: prepare food as desired (mashing, cutting into smaller pieces, etc.) and add to pot with enough water to get it to boiling, then cover and boil for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring as needed.  If canning plain low-acid or borderline things such as tomatoes, add acidity with citric acid or lemon juice, then test the pH to ensure it’s below 4.6.  Or just use a tested recipe.  
  • A note about tomatoes: Some tomatoes aren’t really as acidic as commonly thought, so need acidity added to make them safe to water-bath can.  The most likely culprits are yellow, white, orange, or pink tomatoes, though even some red ones nowadays have been found to have a pH right at or higher than 4.6.  San Marzano tomatoes, one of the quintessential canning tomatoes, are one such type.  This is where testing the pH yourself really comes in handy.  To raise the acidity, you can add citric acid, lemon juice (bottled, since the pH of juice from raw lemons can vary widely) or vinegar.  Each one will have a different taste, so experiment to find the one you like best.
  1. Remove jars, lids, and rings onto clean kitchen towel laid out on counter.  Immediately fill with food to be canned, being careful to avoid getting any on jar rims, leaving at least half an inch of headspace (empty space between top of food and rim of jar).  
  2. “Bubble” them, ie insert a thin utensil to work out air bubbles.  Wipe rims with clean kitchen towel.
  3. Working quickly, put lids and rings on jars, not tightening, just applying ‘til snug.  The lids and rings are designed to form a one-way valve, allowing pressure that builds up inside the jar to exhaust during processing (also called venting).  If you tighten the rings too tight, the jars may break or explode.  Venting is also why you leave the half an inch of headspace - so your food doesn’t get pushed out of the jars as they vent, dirtying the rim and possibly getting in the way of a safe seal forming between the lid and the jar rim.
  4. Place jars back in water-bath canning pot, making sure water is covering top of jars by at least an inch.  If you stack jars, don’t stack directly on top of each other: instead, place one jar “staggered” over two below.  
  5. Cover pot, bring back to a boil and start timing.  Process (boil) for the time recommended by your recipe.  If canning whole, high-acid fruits in pint or half-pint jars, process for 20-25 minutes.  If canning in altitudes higher than 1000 feet above sea level, consult the link below about adjustments.
  6. When time is up, remove the jars from the canner to a towel on the counter.  Using towels as hot pads, tighten lids.  
  7. Let cool slowly, keeping them out of drafts (if they cool too quickly, the jars make break).  
  8. Smile as you hear the pings of the jars sealing while you’re drinking that well-earned beer to celebrate your first canning success.  
  9. Next day, test every seal (see below, under “Problems you may encounter”), then label and date all jars and store in a cool, dark place.    

Problems you may encounter
  • Jars not “pinging” when sealing -  Wait ‘til jars are completely cool (next day is good) and feel the center of the lid.  If it’s convex (“caved in/down”), your jar is sealed.  I double-check by removing the ring and trying to pick up the jar by the lid; if it holds, I’ve got a good seal.  If the jar fails any of these tests, I refrigerate and eat promptly.
  • Lime deposits on jars - Add one cup vinegar per gallon of water to canner pot before boiling jars.
  • Jars breaking - This doesn’t happen often, but it’s usually because the rings were tightened too much before processing or they were exposed to drafts or cold while still hot from the canner.  

Other food preservation methods
  • Growing things that need no preservation (winter squash, dried beans, and dried corn that can be simply stored on a shelf - also tuber crops that can be left in the ground and dug as needed).
  • Drying - 
  • Freezing
  • Brining

In closing, the best ways to ensure food security are
  1. grow a year-’round garden, something that’s incredibly easy to do here in Texas, and
  2. start growing and canning now!  The skills of growing your own food and preserving it take practice.  Start now so you’ll know how should you ever need to rely on it.  Here’s hoping you never will have to.

Helpful links:

Find your altitude links from the NCHFP website
Altitude adjustment information from the same site’s page on processing times

Mother Earth articles on canning - Look down the page for “Food Preservation”

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Fancy Schmancy Nancy Cake

My friend Nancy's going on a massive trip.  She's going on a cruise with her sister to New Zealand (yes, it's a Lord of the Rings trip there), Australia (where she'll visit friends), and the South Pacific (where she might just happen upon Green Island, where my stepfather was stationed for two years as a Navy SeaBee World War II).  I don't know if I'm upset because I'll miss her or because I'm jealous as hell.  But I do know I had to get her a going away present to show her that I was going to miss her, to let her know how much she means to me.

But what to get her?  Nifty little passport/boardingpass/ticket/ID holder?  Piece of luggage?  Booze?  No, no, and no ~ she's a seasoned traveler and a great planner, so she already has all of the above (yes, even the booze ~ she's arranged for her room on the cruise ship to be stocked with plenty of liquor ~ I didn't even know you could do that!).

So I decided to give her the gift of my time.  I spent two days baking her a cake from scratch.

I've always wanted to make one of those fancy cakes like Chef Duff makes.  I LOVED that show!  I wish they wouldn't have taken it off the air.  Yeah, there's Cake Boss, but that guy gets on my nerves.  So to get my fancy cake fix, I have to wait for the special cake contest shows.  Bummer.  There's not enough of them. 

So I decided to get my fix by making one myself.  Man, was it ever fun!!  And easier than I thought.  I made the Devil's Food cake from a recipe from Martha, the Buttercream icing from a recipe from, and the marshmallow fondant from the AClockworkLemon blog.  (Links, recipes and etc. below.)  I'd bought some gold "fairy dust" stuff from the cake decorating aisle at Michael's, along with some gold and white sprinkle stuff and some gold wire to make some sticky-uppy-antenna things.  I'd also bought some ready-made fondant, but that stuff tastes like shit, so I decided to do it from scratch instead (good choice).  I also picked up some icing tips at HEB.  Couple all that stuff with some internet instruction and VIOLA!  

I thought I'd bring it to work.  Nancy likes sharing things with people, and she really does love the people we work with.  Perfect match.  We left it sitting on the kitchen counter 'til she cut it, right after she finished lunch.  It was gone in minutes. ;)  Everyone loved it!  And I got some helpful hints from Kirk on how to make my next one even better.  I can't wait!  Christmas Cake comin' up next!


Devil's Food Cake

from Martha Bakes on PBS


  • Vegetable nonstick cooking spray
  • ¾ cup Dutch-process cocoa powder, sifted, plus more for pans
  • ¾ cup hot water
  • ¾ cup sour cream
  • 3 cups cake flour (not self-rising), sifted
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon sea salt
  • 3 sticks (1 ½ cups) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 2 ¼ cups sugar
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract


  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Spray a 15-cup nonstick Bundt pan with cooking spray (I used two 8" round pans and MAN did they get full! Too full.); set aside.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk cocoa with hot water until smooth. Whisk in sour cream; let cool. Into a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking soda, and salt; set aside.
  4. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes. Add eggs, one at a time, beating to combine after each; scrape down sides of bowl as needed. Beat in vanilla. With mixer on low speed, add flour mixture in two parts, alternating with the cocoa mixture and beginning and ending with the flour; beat until combined.
  5. Pour batter into prepared pan; smooth with an offset spatula. Bake until a cake tester inserted in center comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes.
  6. Transfer pan to a wire rack to cool 15 minutes. Invert cakes onto rack; Re-invert cake; let cool completely, topside up.
  7. Using a serrated knife, trim bottom of cake layer to make level. Transfer to a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet.

Chocolate Buttercream Icing


  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 1/4 cup 2% low-fat milk (I used evaporated milk instead ~ next time I think I'll use heavy whipping cream)

  1. In a stand mixer or using a hand mixer, beat butter on high until it's soft, about 30 seconds until soft.
  2. Add cocoa powder and powdered sugar and beat until incorporated.
  3. Add the milk a little at a time as you mix. Stop when you get to your desired consistency -- the more milk you add, the softer it will be.
  4. Once you have your desired consistency, beat on high for 3 minutes.

Vanilla Buttercream Frosting

(for writing, gluing on fondant decorations, outlines, etc.)
I just replicated the Chocolate Buttercream recipe, leaving out the cocoa and adding extra powdered sugar.

Marshmallow Fondant

from A Clockwork Lemon

  • 1 Tbsp water
  • 1 Tbsp vanilla extract (regular tints the fondant just a tiny bit, so use clear if you want it snow white)
  • 1 lb marshmallows
  • 2 lbs. powdered sugar
  1. Melt marshmallows in a microwave safe bowl.  Microwave for 30 seconds, stir, another 30 seconds, stir, and repeat until they're good and melted.
  2. Add 3/4 of the powdered sugar to the bowl, sifted in.  Stir to form a dough.  
  3. Dust the counter with powdered sugar and turn the dough out on it.  Knead, adding powdered sugar with a sifter, until it's not too sticky.  (I rolled out butcher paper, wax side up to do this on.  Cleanup was a breeze!)
  4. Roll the fondant out to 1/8 inch thickness, powdering with sugar when necessary.  
  5. Roll fondant onto rolling pin and unroll onto cake, like putting a pie crust in a pie plate.  Form to cake gently.
  6. This recipe made plenty for a two-tier 8" cake and decorations.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Seed Saving 101

Why save seeds:
  • To avoid a monoculture by preserving many varieties of vegetables and their genetic diversity.
  • To avoid GMOs.
  • To save money.
  • To ensure you will always have that favorite variety.
  • To develop strains well suited to your own garden.
  • To not be dependent on seed companies.
  • To be ready in case of the Zombie Apocalypse.
  • For the love of it, and the feeling of being connected to our grand-gardeners long past. 
Differences between heirloom, open pollinated, hybrid, and GMO:
  • Hybrid: The offspring of a cross between parent varieties that are genetically different. Hybrids usually won’t come true to type if you save seed from them, even if you avoid cross-pollination.
  • Open-Pollinated: Non-hybrid plants produced by crossing parents of the same variety, which in turn produce offspring just like the parent plants. If these are isolated to avoid cross-pollination, these will produce true seed that will grow into the same variety of plant as the parents.
  • Heirloom: A non-hybrid variety that has been passed down from generation to generation.
  • GMO (Genetically Modified Organism): A hybrid variety produced in a lab that has had genetic material from a very different organism, sometimes from an entirely different kingdom, introduced into its genome; or has been otherwise genetically altered in a lab using ways other than natural processes such as cross-pollination. 

Ways plants are pollinated:
     Chenopodiaceae family (beets, Swiss chard, spinach)
     Peas (green, edible podded, and southern/cowpeas)
     Cucurbitaceae Family (squash, cucumbers, watermelons, etc.)
     Alliums (onions, leeks, etc.)

Some types of plants to know about:
Biennials: These plants will usually flower only in their second growing season. Some examples are carrots, onions, and chard.
Monoecious plants: Plants with blooms of only one sex. Spinach is an example.
Dioecious: Plants that produce blooms of both sexes. Squash is an example.
Perfect flowers: Flowers with both male and female parts. Some of these are self-fertile and some require cross-pollination. Tomato flowers are perfect and self-fertile.
Self-incompatible (aka Self-Infertile): Perfect flowers that cannot fertilize themselves, or do so inadequately, requiring insects to cross them or hand pollination. Most of the crucifers, such as broccoli and cabbage, are self-incompatible. This presents a real pain in the butt when saving them as they can all cross with each other: cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, collards, kale and kohlrabi. Use alternate-day caging (covering one, opening the other: reversing this the next day), caging with introduced pollinators (not really easy for the home gardener), or save a large amount of seed from each in differing years, freezing to ensure you have an adequate supply every year.
Isolation practices: 
Distance: If there aren’t many flowers available for bees to forage, the distance to ensure purity needs to be much more than the books say. That means us here in Texas. Using other isolation techniques would be wise.
Caging: Making a cage-like structure to hold up a fabric to keep pollinators out. Floating row cover is best to use since some wind pollinated plants have pollen so small it can go through window screen. .
Bagging: Putting a paper bag over the flowers to exclude pollinators, removing it to pollinate, then replacing it to continue keeping pollinators out until the flower is no longer receptive to pollen.
Taping: Taping the petals of flowers shut the night before to prevent it from opening the next morning, then removing the tape to hand-pollinate, and replacing it to exclude pollinators. Most often used with squash.
Time isolation: Timing the plantings of different varieties so that they flower and are receptive to crossing weeks or months apart. Due to variability of the weather and other cultural practices that can affect speed of maturity, this can fail and the varieties can flower and be receptive at the same time. Be sure to watch for this and have a backup plan in place to bag, hand pollinate, etc.
Hand Pollination How To:
     The males will be just stem and bloom and be held away from the base of the plant. The females will have a short stem, a baby whatevervarietyyouplanted, then the bloom and will be closer in to the base of the plant.
Male bloom on left, Female on right.
     Go out the night before and determine which flowers will open the next day (they will have an orange blush to the petals). Tape the tips shut or bag them if they’re too small to tape. Make sure you tape/bag at least half a dozen males from different plants to ensure genetic diversity and adequate pollination. It’s also wise to hand pollinate multiple females since Murphy’s Law says if you do only one, that’s the one the birds will find irresistible, or the dog will choose to play with like a football.
     Go back out in the morning, about 9am, and remove the tape/bags from the males. Pick them leaving as long a stem as possible and prepare them for pollination by stripping the petals off them, leaving just the stem and stamen to use like a paintbrush. It’s handy to have a small cup to hold them in, pollen-side down.
     Carefully remove the tape/bags from the females one at a time. Use each of the multiple males on the first female, tape/bag it back up, and mark it as pure. Repeat this process with all remaining bagged/taped females of the same variety (If you’re doing more than one variety, wash your hands and any tools used in between varieties.).
     Double check that you marked them correctly.
     Triple check that you tied the markers on securely.
     Go on about your day, then come back that evening to quadruple check that the markers are still on. (Again, Murphy’s a jerk who thinks he’s funny...)
     Let the fruit mature fully on the plant, pick it, and keep it at room temperature for at least three weeks. Cucurbit seeds continue to gain weight and increase in size during this period, making for many more fertile seeds.

     This is a rather involved and labor-intensive process, so it’s best to isolate through distance and time. The following is a brief synopsis. For more detailed instructions, see the Corn listing in Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth.
     Bag individual ears before silks appear by stapling paper bags around them tightly.
     Bag tassels with brown paper bags early in the morning just as they are beginning to shed pollen by stapling paper bags around them, tightly so as to catch all the pollen at the base. .
     That same afternoon, shake pollen into bags on tassels and collect them all, pouring them together into one.
     Remove bag from one ear at a time. Shake a small amount of pollen onto ear and recover (use the now-empty pollen bags for best results).
     Leave bags on ears as they develop to denote pure seed, or otherwise mark hand-pollinated ears.

Other Vegetables:
     Bag blooms before opening.
     Every morning, unbag the blooms and brush a fine paintbrush inside each bloom.
     Continue this process each day, how many days depends on which vegetable you are pollinating. For instance, onions should be done every day for two weeks, though a month would be better, while other types may need it only once.

Harvesting the Seeds:
     This is usually a simple matter of letting the fruit or pods fully mature on the plant, then pick, clean, dry, and store inside. Some types of vegetables will need a bit more specialized treatment than that (remember the squash seeds above that like to sit inside the fruit for a while before drying).

How to Ferment Tomatoes:
     Whir whole tomato in a blender with a couple cups of water for just a few pulses, then pour mixture into a bowl. Alternately, cut horizontally across the tomato and squeeze out the seeds into the water in a bowl.
     Let sit at room temperature for a few days until a scum appears.
     Run more water into the bowl or cup and stir vigorously, then let settle. The good seeds will sink to the bottom.
     Pour off water containing scum, skin, etc.
     Repeat until water runs clear and all you have left are good seeds in the bottom.
     Dry well.

     These are easiest to clean by winnowing.
     Make sure pods are completely dry.
     Put in a fabric bag such as a pillow case and beat it against something (Not your husband. He won’t appreciate that as much as you.).
     Set up a fan outside and turn it on high. Lay a sheet on the ground in front of it and pour the beans onto it, holding the pillow case up high enough for the wind from the fan to blow away the crushed seed pods.
     Repeat until clean.

Hints on harvesting and drying the seeds:
     Don’t use paper plates to dry your seeds unless you have lined them with plastic wrap or foil as the seeds may stick to the paper.
     If you’re saving multiple types of tomato seeds, fermenting them in non-biodegradable cups with the variety name written on the outside is oh-so-handy.
     Make your drying area somewhere well away from the hustle and bustle of your home. A dedicated top shelf of a cabinet with a door works well. Ask me how I learned this one. *sigh*
     Once you’ve packaged up your seeds in paper envelopes, putting them in some silica gel desiccant crystals for a few weeks is a good idea to ensure your seeds are really dry, especially if you plan to freeze them for storage. Don’t buy the expensive types of silica for flower drying. Get one of the silica crystal cat litters such as Petco Crystal or Clear Choice Silica Crystals, unscented. It’s the same stuff for much cheaper.
     Accurate labeling and record keeping is imperative all along the way. There’s nothing worse than going through all the trouble of hand pollinating, just to realize you don’t know which squash is the pure one, or which seeds are which. Writing the variety name directly on tomatoes with a Sharpie, before you even pick them and right after triple-checking the tag on the plant, is a good idea. Works for peppers, squash, cukes and melons, too. Harvesting beans directly into paper bags with the variety name and date written on them is another good idea.

Storing your seeds:
     The enemies of seed viability are fluctuations in moisture and temperature.  Storing in a glass jar in the freezer lessens both to almost non-existent levels.
     Many seeds will stay viable for years at room temperature, but some will only last one. Storing them in the fridge would be good and increase that time for a few years, but beware the overzealous fridge-cleaner-outer.
      To ensure you get the most out of your investment of time and effort, freezing is the way to go. They’ll last decades that way, and since you know you’re the only one who will ever clean out the freezer, they’ll be safer.
     Make sure they are DRY.
     Package them and label variety, date saved, and any other notes you care to add.
     Put in a glass jar with a tight fitting lid to which you’ve added an inch or so of rice.  Let sit on the counter for a few days to ensure the rice has soaked up all moisture inside the jar.  Put in the freezer.
     When taking the jar out, let it sit out overnight or for at least a few hours to avoid moisture condensing on the cold seeds.  Be sure to leave them on the counter as above before returning them to the freezer.

Miscellaneous advice:
     Only save seeds from the healthiest, most productive plants.
     To avoid seed borne diseases, don’t save seeds from diseased plants or even ones you suspect of being diseased. Rinsing in a one-part bleach, ten-part water solution may kill some diseases, but may hamper seed viability. Best to just not save seeds from diseased plants.
     Accurate record keeping (Yes, again) is a must. Keep a notebook listing all the cultivars you grow.  Tape the original seed packet to a page and write notes below it such as how much seed you saved and when from how many plants, how productive the cultivar was, or any stories you’ve heard about it. Or scan that packet into your computer and keep notes in a document there. Google Docs is good for saving that info as it’s kept online, safe from computer crashes. Or start a blog with entries for each cultivar (then send me the address ~ I love that stuff!). Don’t forget to write down when and where you obtained the seed, MOST ESPECIALLY if it’s a family heirloom from a friend. Get details, names and dates, and write them down. I think half the wonderfulness of heirlooms is hearing the stories about them, stories that someone had to write down at one time or another. I’m so glad they did.
     Easy veggies to start seed saving with are beans and beefsteak/slicing tomatoes, since they are hard for insects to cross-pollinate and they self-pollinate or pollinate with little or no input from you.      But don’t save seeds from the first two tomatoes from any plant. Those are commonly formed from fasciated blooms (think “Siamese twins”), so are deformed and may be susceptible to cross-pollination. And separate types of beans by at least twenty feet. It’s not common that they cross, but they can a little.
     Save enough seeds from your crops to plant multiple years. This allows you to share with others, guard against crop failures, and not have to do all the work and expend all the space of saving every variety every year. Keep them frozen correctly and most will last for decades.
     Don’t pick your beans, peas, okra, etc., all season, then leave the last ones on the plants to dry for seed saving, as you will be inadvertently breeding in the trait of lateness. Plant some plants for seed saving and don’t harvest from them for eating at all.
     Don’t ever plant all your seeds out. Keep some in reserve in case of crop failure.
     Research, research, research to avoid surprises. For instance, did you know that carrots will cross with Queen Anne’s Lace, a common weed? Or that beets and Swiss chard will cross? And some pumpkins are actually squashes and will cross with others you may be growing, so be sure to learn the genus and species of each type of those you are growing in a given year.

Notes on supplies:
Books: If you buy only one, make it Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth. Other books may be good, but this one, being heavily influenced by great heirloom experts such as Glenn Drowns and Will Bonsall as well as the founders of Seed Savers Exchange, is the seed-saving bible.
Seeds: Hands down, Seed Savers Exchange is the best source of true heirloom and OP seed. They are the ones that started the heirloom movement. Other companies offer heirlooms and OPs, but not only does SSE take great pains to ensure purity, they have a membership option that gives you access to literally tens of thousands of cultivars of heirloom vegetables.
Envelopes: Coin envelopes from an office supply store work well, but will need to be taped shut to ensure small seeds don’t fall out. Plastic Bags: I don’t like plastic, though it does come in handy sometimes IF SEEDS ARE DRY.
Marking tools out in the garden: Surveyor’s tape is good for tying around the stems of pure fruit. If you need to be able to leave notes on the plants, vinyl blinds cut to size work well. Use a hole punch to be able to tie it where you need it, and write on it with a China marker (aka grease pencil) available at most office supply stores. Don’t be tempted to use Sharpie markers. They fade quickly. And cut up plastic jugs aren’t uv stabilized, so turn brittle and fall apart in less than one season.
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