A Little Pressure

From Left to Right:  Beef, Carrots, Green Salsa, Beets, Potatoes All canned using a pressure Canner
From Left to Right: Beef, Carrots, Green Salsa, Beets, Potatoes
All canned using a pressure Canner

As I was growing up, I helped in the  kitchen quite a bit, especially during canning season.   We had several big blue (water bath) canners that were used for pints and quarts of all kinds of tomato products as well as jams and jellies.  I never saw my mom use a pressure canner.  One day I asked her—why? It turned out that before I  was born, she and her mother  were working with a pressure canner.  They went into the other room for something and forgot to check on it until they heard the pressure value and gasket blow off.  A jar had broken inside and the vegetables had clogged the pressure  valve. The content of canner spewed into the air, all over the kitchen!  Seeing this chaos—and cleaning up the mess afterward—convinced my mom never to can anything under pressure while there were kids around, just in case.

So it wasn’t until I was a young wife that I convinced my Aunt Betty to teach me about pressure canning.  After doing some research, we went together and bought a pretty expensive “All-American” brand  canner.

With a new pressure gauge and careful storing, this 30+  canner is still going strong.
With a new pressure gauge and careful storing, this 30+ canner is still going strong.

It has a metal to metal construction with 6 turn-screws to hold the lid in place.  It is extremely safe.  For the amount of food that I process, it was a wonderful investment.  I think of my Aunt Betty every time I use it.

Here are some safety tips to use if you decide to dive  into the world of pressure canning.

  • Familiarize yourself with the equipment to make sure that you know exactly how it works before using it to process food.  Be sure you know how much water is needed (a metal yardstick works well to measure the depth of the water) and how many jars should go in a batch.
  • Follow the recipe exactly, at least the first time you are making something new.  The herbs and spices used during the canning process develop as the product cools and is stored.  After opening it, you can decide whether you want to change the recipe for next year’s harvest.
  • Invest in good equipment and treat it with respect.  You don’t necessarily need new equipment.  Garage sales and thrift stores often have sturdy equipment for sale.  Watch for breaks, holes, scorch marks or cracks in the metal.  These are sure signs that the canner has been used for something other than its original purpose.
  • Replace the rubber seals regularly, if your canner uses them.
  • Replace the pressure valve if it is showing any sign of wear. It is important that this part of the canner be accurate.
  • Stay in the kitchen while the pot is cooking. In this case, a watched pot is a good thing. The canner will build up to pressure.  The stove must be adjusted to keep it at the right  pressure throughout the whole canning time.  If the pressure is under the required amount—the food won’t cook correctly.  If the pressure goes over—there is risk of breaking jars and messes in the kitchen.
  • FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS for cooling down the canner.  Remember there are glass jars inside and they are very fragile in this state.
  • Do NOT open the canner until the pressure has naturally gone down to zero, according to the pressure gauge.  This part of the process cannot be hurried.
  • Remove the jars carefully and finish them according to the recipe.  Putting a towel on your table  or counter will keep the area drier and reduce the risk of the jars bumping together.
  • After the jars are cool, inspect them to make sure they have sealed properly.  If any fail to do so, put it in your refrigerator to use right away.
  • LABEL jars with contents and the year, before putting it into your pantry,

All in all, pressure canning is a great way to store your harvest,  You have control of exactly what is in your food.  Many recipes can be adapted for special diets. And, the jars  look so pretty in your pantry! If you have stories about your pressure canning experiences or any questions, please share them by adding your comment to this post or contacting John at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Lessons Learned as a Child

Jars of canned goods in the pantry.
Colorful Jars of Home Canned Vegetables

Most of what I learned about self-sufficiency was done while I was hanging around my mom, aunts and uncles.  My grandmother was one of thirteen children.  My mother had ten brothers and sisters.  I have 4 sisters and three brothers. It’s a large family, but it’s a close family.  We have always spent lots of time together. As a kid, much of it was spent gathering, gleaning, cooking and eating.  I didn’t realize I was learning self-sufficiency, I just knew that if I wanted to be in the kitchen I needed to make myself useful.

The earliest lesson that I remember happened while my mom and her sisters were canning concord grapes.  My uncle had a neighbor with an overabundance of grapes.  My mom had teenage brothers who needed something to do on a Saturday afternoon. So she sent dad with the boys off to pick the grapes while the women got ready to make jelly and jams.

Since I was only 8 years old and my sister was 11, our job was washing the jars.  There were dozens of jars that had been brought up from the cellar.  We worked in a back room of the house with two tubs.  She washed and I rinsed.  It was also the job for both of us to feel the top edge of the jars to make sure there weren’t any nicks or cracks that would prevent the canning lids from sealing.  Once the jars passed our inspection, they were taken into the kitchen where they were boiled to sterilize them and filled by the adults.  It may seem like a lot of work for an 8 year old, but I still check my canning jars this way because of the lesson I have always remembered.

Getting kids involved early is key to teaching life long lessons.  Kids are naturally curious about what the grownups are doing.  Kids WANT to be included in grownup activities. There are oodles of ways to bring your kids along on the road to self sufficiency.  It’s never too early.

  • If your kids are the kind who enjoy water, set them up washing jars to prepare for canning.  Let them help wash the dog or the car.  It may end up in a water fight, but those are great fun in the summer!
  • If they like making mud pies, teach them that making bread or pie crust dough is similar, and let them try it out. Even a preschooler can help roll cookie balls (and unlike PlayDoh, you can bake and eat the results).
  • If they like picking flowers, give them a small plot or row of their own in your garden and let them take responsibility for the tending, watering and weeding.
  • If your kids who are the kind that like to read and figure out things, introduce them to recipe books and let them choose what is going to be made for supper.  It will help them practice reading as well as teach valuable math and science skills.
  • Do you have an animal lover at your house? Let them take charge of the pet care and update you on the health of the critters – keeping records like the veterinarian.

When you include kids in your activities, at their skill level  and with ample encouragement, you are opening up a whole new way of communicating with your child. They learn that adults sometimes make mistakes or have failures and have to figure things out differently.  You are creating an environment where your kids can try, succeed (or learn that failure isn’t fatal) and grow.

As the harvest progresses and the canning/freezing season is upon us, there is an opportunity to teach the value of starting early to make a great Christmas.  By canning and collecting the summer fruits and vegetables, you can fill your cupboards full of basic things like corn, peas, beans and jelly.  You can also  try special recipes for treats like  green and red colored pears, spiced apple rings, green tomato mincemeat and peach pie filling.  Then when it comes time to put together a gift basket for a teacher or putting on a Holiday dinner, your child can proudly say “I helped to make that!”

Is there any greater feeling than “real” accomplishment?  I don’t think so!

If you have stories about your self-sufficiency lessons or any questions, please share them by adding your comment to this post or contacting John at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Preparing for Planting

It may seem a bit odd to talk about planting in the middle of winter, but this is actually the time that many avid gardeners, especially those interested in self-sufficiency, begin to think about the planting season. Of course, the planning process starts in the larder. Even though there is a catalog in your hand at the moment, the catalog doesn’t do any good until you know what to order and your larder contains that information.

As part of the preparation process, you should go through the larder, ensure all of the oldest items are in the front of the shelves, verify that all of the jars are still sealed, and wash the jars to keep them clean. Make sure all of the jars are properly marked with both food type and year canned as well. The process of organizing your larder and keeping it clean is important because doing so will make it a lot easier to determine what to plant. Once you complete this task, you can perform an inventory to determine what items are in short supply. These are the items that you need to order from the catalog.

Sometimes you can use your larder as a jumping off point for dreams of things you’d like to try in the future. For example, until last year, our larder lacked pickled asparagus—now I wouldn’t be without it. However, before we could pickle the asparagus, we had to grow enough to make the effort worthwhile, which meant planting more asparagus and waiting several years for it to get old enough to produce a decent crop. Yes, the larder was the start of our dream and the catalog provided us with ideas on how to achieve our dream, but in the end, the realization of our dream happened in the garden and in the kitchen.

Our larder also holds our canning supplies and equipment. This is the time of the year when you should perform an inventory of these items as well and ensure they’re in good shape. For example, the seal and pressure relief value on your pressure canner requires regular replacement—we simply make it a practice to replace these items before the start of the canning season because doing so is inexpensive and reduces the risk of mishap in the kitchen later. No matter where you store your canning supplies and equipment, now is the time to maintain them.

Writing your needs down as you discover them is a great idea. Check out the various catalogs you receive starting this time of year to determine which products will best suit your needs. It’s unlikely that you’ll completely fill your garden with just the items you need from the larder. The catalog will also supply ideas for new items you can try. Sometimes we try a new variety of vegetable or fruit just to see how it grows in this climate. Over the years we’ve discovered some items that grow exceptionally well for us (and also experienced more than a few failures).

Don’t just address your main garden, however. It’s also time to check into herbs and address any deficiencies in the orchard. This is the time for planning. Trying to figure everything out later, when you’re already engaged in preparing the garden, will prove difficult and you’ll make more mistakes than usual if you wait.

It’s also important to start ordering as soon as you know what you need. The catalog companies won’t send you product until it’s time to plant. However, they do use a first come, first served policy. Other gardeners are already order products. If you wait, you may not get your first choice of items and may have to reorder later.

Planning is an essential part of a successful year in the garden and orchard. However, I also enjoy starting the planning process this time of the year because it makes winter seem a little less severe. A little spring in winter is like a breath of fresh air. What sorts of things do you do to prepare for spring? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Preparing Eggs for Sale

It may not seem like a particularly important topic at first, but if you plan to sell some of your eggs, you must prepare them for sale properly. Otherwise, you’ll quickly lose your customer base. No one will say anything to you about the reasons for not buying your eggs—they simply won’t buy them. After a while, you’ll be left with a lot of eggs on your hands and no buyers.

When you get the eggs from the coop, make sure you wash them. This might seem like an obvious thing to do, but some people have actually tried to sell unwashed eggs, which is hazardous to a customer’s health, as well as unappealing. I normally use Dawn Antibacterial soap to wash the eggs and then rinse them thoroughly. The soap ensures that the outside of the egg is free of pathogens. Of course, you need to perform this process carefully or else you’ll end up with a lot of unsellable eggs.

After you allow the eggs to air dry (or dry them carefully with a towel), you need to inspect them carefully. Any flawed eggs go into my personal pack. Eggs with cracks are cooked thoroughly and fed either to the dogs or cats. There isn’t a good reason to waste good protein, but if the egg has any cracks at all, you can’t vouch for the integrity of the content. A mix of egg, rice, and leftover meat makes for a dandy addition to your pet’s daily food. Sometimes I throw in a few leftover vegetables as well.

We don’t have any roosters. If we did, we’d also need to candle the eggs to ensure there were no embryos inside. Because we buy our chicks from other places, we won’t ever have roosters for our laying hens. You need to decide on whether to keep roosters based on your particular egg laying needs. However, it’s still possible that our eggs could have a blood spot in them. We simply offer our customers a replacement egg should this happen. So far, it never has, but it could happen given that our chickens are free range. Theoretically, you can candle the eggs to find this sort of problem, but it’s still possible to miss it, so having a replacement policy is the best way to go.

At this point, you have a number of washed eggs that lack flaws. It’s time to weigh them using an egg scale. I generally keep small eggs for my personal use. Medium-sized eggs are sold at a discount, traded for something I need, or given to friends and neighbors. The large and jumbo eggs are placed into cartons and sold at full price.

Create an attractive display for your eggs. For example, I’ve set up kid friendly egg cartons. The cartons will contain an attractive mix of blue, green, brown, tan, and speckled eggs (the range of colors the hens lay). Placing the eggs in some sort of pattern also helps. Even though the inside of the egg is the same in all cases, the eye catching patterns really help to sell your eggs to the public. Of course, adults may prefer a less colorful display, which means grading the eggs by color and placing like colors in a carton. The point is to make your eggs look especially nice.

Preparing your eggs properly will help keep you in sales. In fact, a combination of high quality and classy presentation will usually net you more customers than you can accommodate as long as your prices are also in line with what the market will allow. Let me know your thoughts on egg preparation at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Engaging in the Fall Cleanup

For many people, fall is a time when they cut the grass the last time, take their car to the mechanic for winterization, check for air leaks in the windows, and ensure the furnace will run. These common chores affect anyone involved in self-sufficiency as well. For example, you still need to get your car ready—assuming you have one.

However, fall cleanup requires a lot more from anyone engaged in self-sufficiency because there are more facets to their environment. For example, fall is the time when you need to ensure your animal cages are completely cleaned. (Yes, you also clean them at other times, but fall is when you take everything apart and really clean it up.) If some of your animals are outdoors, you need to ensure they’ll have sufficient cover for the winter months. For us, that means scrubbing down every one of the rabbit hutches and letting them dry before we put a rabbit back inside. In addition, we add any manure under the cages to the compost heap. The chicken coop needs to be cleaned completely, the old hay replaced, and the windows closed. I also make sure I wash the window so the chickens can see out. It turns out that chickens like a nice view too.

Of course, you take the garden down after picking any remaining goodies and plant your winter rye to prevent erosion. The fall is a good time to look for potential soil issues and possibly get a soil test so that you know how to deal with problems the following spring. Likewise, your herb and flower gardens require attention so that any perennial plants will make it through the winter. However, don’t put mulch on immediately. Wait until the garden is frozen and then put the mulch on. Doing so will ensure that the plants are properly prepared for the winter.

You may not have thought of it, but all of your equipment has taken a beating during the summer months, including all of the equipment used for canning. This is a good time to scrub your pots and pans up and ensure they’re in good shape before you put them up. Make sure your pressure canner receives particular attention. Check to see if the gasket is in good shape, along with the rubber plug used for emergency pressure relief. Your stove will need a thorough cleaning and may require maintenance as well. Make sure everything is put away correctly so that you don’t have to waste a lot of time trying to find it in the late spring when you begin using it again.

Don’t think you’re finished yet. Now is the time to start walking the grounds looking for problems in your orchard. For example, it’s relatively easy to find pests that hide on trees during this time of the year. Make sure you check trees for problems associated with stress. For example, pear trees are prone to crack at the joints. You might need to mark some areas for special pruning in the spring. If a problem seems especially serious, you may want to address it now, rather than later.

Being self-sufficient means ending as well as you began. During the spring there is an excitement that builds that makes it easy to prepare for the new gardening season, but by the end of the season, all you really want to do is flop down in front of the wood stove. The time you take to prepare now will pay significant dividends in the spring. Let me know about your fall preparations at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Cleaning Substitute

I’ve received a number of positive comments about the Using a Bleach Substitute post I provided a little over a month ago. The bleach substitute is somewhat potent and there are some negative issues with paracetic acid (although, far fewer than when using bleach). The main reason to use the bleach substitute is as an antibacterial. You use it on surfaces that you must keep bacteria free and are subject to contamination from various sources. The actual amount of paracetic acid in the bleach substitute I provided is quite small, but still, any amount does present hazards, so one of the most commonly asked questions is whether there is an alternative.

You can create a simple relatively non-toxic cleaner using 2 cups of water, 2 tsp of borax, and 2 tsp of white vinegar. However, enough borax (a naturally occurring mineral) will still cause some level of respiratory problems. Theoretically, you could eat enough of it to cause a number of negative symptoms or even cause death, but you’d have to eat quite a lot of it. In fact, borax is used as a food preservative in many countries (albeit, not in the United States). Borax is relatively benign as far as cleaning agents are concerned, but you must still treat it with respect.

This cleaning agent can be kept in a spray bottle beneath the sink because the amount of problematic agents is so small. You’ll find that it does an admirable job of cleaning surfaces and won’t cause any damage to metal surfaces. However, you’ll have to deal with the after effects of the vinegar smell, which does go away relatively fast. Some people recommend using essential oils to control the smell. However, if you add 6 or 7 drops of essential oil to the mixture, it may smell better, but now you have to consider the toxicity of the essential oil. If you choose to add an essential oil, make sure that you obtain a pure oil from a non-toxic source such as peppermint or orange.

Never mix the bleach substitute that I told you about with this cleaning substitute. In fact, mixing cleaners of any sort can cause all sorts of woe (up to and including death). Just as you would never mix bleach with ammonia (the resulting gas will kill you), you shouldn’t mix anything else unless you have a recipe for doing so. Let me know if you have any other questions regarding cleaning substitutes at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Using a Bleach Substitute

I have become a label commando in recent years. People actually become quite disturbed waiting for me to finish my latest epic reading of a cleaning product or food label. I read everything, including the list of ingredients when I can find one. More importantly, I look for what’s missing on the label. For example, I’m surprised at how many margarine labels refuse to tell me that they don’t contain any cholesterol. Lest you think this is one of those odd fetish requirements—some fish oil tablets actually contain cholesterol. We pay the extra to buy a product that’s labeled cholesterol free (and yes, it does make a difference when the doctor tests your cholesterol).

So I was taken by surprise recently when I read a bleach label. The stuff should be labeled toxic waste and left go at that. The label told me about the dire consequences of using the product, such as permanent damage to my esophagus. Bleach is also a terrible product to use in a house with a septic system because it kills off all of the helpful bacteria in the septic tank and causes the waste to just sit there (possibly flooding your house with a really smelly mess). However, the part about not putting the empty container in the trash or in the recycle bin is what got me most. Just where was I supposed to dispose of the container? It turns out that you’re supposed to take it to a hazardous waste disposal site. A product labeled hazardous waste has no place in my house. (Just consider the fact that many of the foods you buy in the store have been soaked in bleach and you don’t have to think very long about why your food is making you sick.)

Of course, country homes require some means of keeping things clean and getting rid of bacteria, just like anyone else does. It turns out that there is a really good solution and it actually works better than bleach. Most importantly, this solution is pretty much harmless to everyone and everything. You fill up two bottles: one with vinegar and another with hydrogen peroxide. Spray a surface first with the vinegar and second with the hydrogen peroxide and you create a really effective cleaning agent called peracetic acid. The point is to keep the two components separate until you actually need to use them in order to gain a highly effective cleaner that’s a whole lot less harmful than bleach.

What impressed me most is that the combination actually works well on carpets as a stain remover. It’s also much more effective than bleach at getting bathroom grout clean and it works especially well on surfaces with small crevices. Some people do mix the two and add water for use in laundry, but keeping the two chemicals separate is the best way to avoid the potentially toxic qualities of the peracetic acid. As with any cleaner, you do want to use this one with care, but it’s frankly a lot better than using bleach. Let me know your thoughts about this interesting cleaning aid at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Picking a Delicious Ear of Corn

Nothing is quite so good as a delicious ear of corn picked fresh from the garden. A freshly picked ear of corn is sweeter and more delicious than any ear of corn you’ll ever taste. The fresher the ear, the more delicious the taste. Of course, that delicious ear of corn starts with the correct planting technique and choice of corn variety. We happen to prefer the Bodacious variety because it produces evenly colored corn with a great taste. The ears are normally full (indicating good pollination), the stalks don’t seem to break quite as often, it’s a little less susceptible to pests, and we find that the ears are often larger. We’ve also tried a number of other varieties such as Kandy Corn (somewhat sweeter) and Serendipity Bi-color Corn (interesting color combinations and ripens somewhat earlier). So far, we like Bodacious the best, but you need to choose a corn variety that works well in your area. Take factors such the type of soil, variety of pests, and weather into account when making your choice.

Planting the seeds correctly is also important. We have quite a bit of high wind in this area, so we plant the seeds one foot apart in rows and each of the rows two feet apart. If you plant the corn seeds too closely together, the corn won’t ever produce a strong stalk. In fact, a worst case scenario is that the corn won’t produce any ears. Planting the corn too far apart makes the stalks more susceptible to wind damage and reduces pollination. You may get full sized ears, but you won’t get ears that are full of kernels. You may have to plant your corn differently depending on your area to get optimal results.

The tough part is figuring how when to pick the corn. Yes, you see the ears pop out sometime after the corn tassels (corn cross pollinates through wind action—it doesn’t depend on a pollinator to pollinate it). The tassels are the male flowering member of the plant, while the kernels (ovules) are the female flower member of the plant. These female members reside in a husk and sent out silks to receive the pollen. Pollen travels down the silks to the ovules and pollinates them. Each ovule requires individual pollination, which is why you can see ears with only a few kernels or you can see one or two ovules that didn’t pollinate in a given ear. The point is that the pollination occurs, the kernel grows, and then there is a magical period when the kernels are full of delicious sugar-filled liquid that is absolutely delightful to ingest. After that, the sugars begin to turn to a less tasty starch.

The silks are part of the key to discovering when to pick the corn. When the silks whither and turn black, you know they have done their job—the kernels are pollinated (or at least as pollinated as they’ll get). However, the kernels aren’t instantly fully sized. The dying silks tell you that pollination is over and that you’ll soon have tasty corn to eat.

The next clue is to feel the ears. Gently place your hand around an ear and you can feel the kernels growing. It takes a while, but you’ll eventually developer a touch that tells you that the kernels are getting larger. At some point, you’ll stop feeling any growth. In addition, the ears will feel solid, without any gaps between kernels.

At this point, you can peak at the ears. Gently pull the husk back to reveal the tip of the ear. The kernels at the tip develop last, so the kernels at the bottom are always riper and fuller than the kernels at the tip. When the last few rows start the look the right color and fullness, try sticking a thumbnail into one of the kernels. If you see a liquid come out, the corn is ready to pick.  If there is no liquid, carefully smooth the husk back over the ear. It should ripen normally within a day or two.

Of course, sometimes the kernels at the tip of the ear aren’t pollinated or may not grow right for other reasons. Sometimes a corn borer ruins your day. Earwigs are also a problem at times (and beneficial at others). Never allow the corn to stay on the stalk for more than a week after you feel full ears. If you have doubts, pull one ear, fully husk it, and evaluate the results. Cutting the kernels from the ear and trying a few raw will tell you quite a bit about the status of the corn.

Sweetcorn—it’s the stuff of summer. What are your experiences with corn? Do you grow it yourself or get it from a roadside stand? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Care and Feeding of a Wood Stove

After reading my recent post entitled, “Choosing Wood Carefully,” one reader wrote to ask me about wood stoves. Yes, you really must exercise care with your wood stove or end up paying the price. For that matter, any wood burning appliance requires care and if you don’t maintain it, you’ll likely end up with a chimney fire at some point. There is little doubt in my mind about it. Even if you don’t have a chimney fire, the wood will burn less efficiently and you’ll get less heat from it. In addition, there is always the problem of potential carbon monoxide poisoning. If you haven’t gotten the point yet, maintaining your wood burning appliance isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s a requirement.

Make sure you perform your required maintenance. When it comes to my wood stove, that means ensuring I clean the glass twice a week so that I can actually see what’s going on inside the wood stove as the wood is burning. Opening a door when there is a burning piece of wood leaning against it (due to shifting) is never an easy task, but clean windows make things easier. You’ll also want to clean out the ash content from time-to-time (I do it daily) to ensure there is no buildup that could reduce the efficiency of the stove. As part of my personal regular maintenance, I also spray some Anti-Creo-Soot into the stove daily to ensure that no creosote builds up in the chimney. This product will greatly reduce the likelihood of a chimney fire and ensure that your wood stove continue to work a full efficiency at all times.

There is also annual maintenance to perform. The most important thing you can do is to obtain the services of a certified chimney sweep. You want a certified professional because they have specialized equipment to clean and check your wood burning appliance. In addition, these professional can usually perform repairs. For example, my wood stove has a very odd shaped window in the front. It broke at one point, causing the stove to operate poorly. Our chimney sweep was able to make the required glass insert when it was discovered that the vendor no longer supplied it, saving me considerable expense and worry.

When the chimney sweep is done, it’s usually a good idea to repaint any rusty areas on your stove. Make sure you wear a mask during the entire process because wood stove paint contains some incredibly nasty chemicals. Use a high temperature paint to repaint the surface after you prepare it. It’s absolutely essential that you paint your stove with all of the windows open and with a fan blowing air into the room. Using a spark proof fan (one designed for use in painting) is a good idea. Always follow the vendor instructions (including using the stove with all of the windows in the room open the first two or three times). Maintaining the paint job will help you enjoy your wood stove for a lot longer and present a nicer appearance when people visit.

Although it isn’t strictly a maintenance task, I also verify that my wood stove is burning at the right temperature. You do this by placing a magnetic thermometer directly on the stove pipe. It’s a good idea to keep the stove in the orange zone of a colored thermometer. Burning wood at too low a temperature causes creosote buildup in the chimney. Of course, keeping the stove too hot could result in a fire.

When you choose the right wood and maintain your stove, you’ll find that your wood burning experiences are significantly better and considerably safer. It doesn’t take long to perform these tasks and the savings from heating your home with wood are incredible. I find that the radiant heat actually feels warmer than the heat produced by a furnace. Let me know your thoughts on wood stove maintenance at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.


Choosing an Appropriate Stove

I’m not here to recommend a particular stove or brand of stove. I’ve found over the years that a stove that works for one person, doesn’t work at all for someone else. We all have different ideas of precisely what makes the perfect stove. For example, some people prefer white stoves, while others think that colors are the way to go. The selection of stoves is also limited by local availability and the size of your pocketbook. I’m sure that there are some people reading this who will merrily spend $5,000.00 or more on a stove and never think twice about it. So, I’m not here to tell you that a particular stove is the end all invention of stoves because it probably isn’t true in your case. Stoves used for self-sufficiency purposes, especially canning, do have some features in common though and that’s the point of this post.

Glass top stoves are completely out of the question if you want to can. Even the vendors will tell you that placing a heavy canner on a glass-topped stove is doomed to failure (or at least breakage of the top). That said, I know of at least one person who uses their glass topped stove for canning, quite successfully I might add. Still, it’s probably not a very good idea and forget about any warranty work if the vendor discovers that your stove top broke from canning.

We tried an electric stove that was specifically designed for canning. The vendor even talked about canning in the manual. This stove came with some high wattage burners designed to heat the water more quickly. The problem is that the electric stove doesn’t get enough air flow to cool the burners (as odd as that might sound) when a big canner is sitting on top of the elements. I ended up replacing the burners almost every year because the metal holding the elements together would sag and eventually the pot ended up resting right on top of the stove (with the resultant fire hazard). After the stove burst into flames the second time (and I was looking at rewiring it yet again), I decided that electric wasn’t going to make it for us. That said, I know of more than a few people who do successfully use electric stoves for canning. Almost every one of them has removed the vendor-supplied burners and provided heavier duty canning burners. AP Wagner is one place that sells these burners—be prepared to pay an arm and a leg for one (a burner that normally runs around $30.00 will cost nearly $80.00 in canning burner form), if you can even find one to fit your stove.

That leaves gas stoves. Even here you can make some serious mistakes. Look for a gas stove that specifically mentions canning in the manual. Check out reviews from other people who use the stove for canning purposes. The grates should be quite heavy if you plan to use the stove for canning because a canner is quite heavy (especially when working with a pressure canner). Make sure the grates aren’t so high that they actually prevent good heat transfer to your canner. It’s a good idea to obtain a gas stove that has at least one power burner (more is better). Unfortunately, the power burner will also trash any sort of sauce you try to make with it, so a simmer burner is also a good idea. The stove we finally purchased has one standard burner, two power burners, and a simmer burner. We’re finding that it works extremely well for every task.

No matter which stove type you choose, make sure it has a porcelain finish and not a painted finish. Some vendors will try to pawn a painted finish off on you and the paint is guaranteed to peel from the heat generated from canning. Unless you like the idea of repainting your stove with high temperature paint (nasty stuff) on a regular basis, porcelain is the only way to go.

Another issue to consider is the size of the back panel. Many stoves have back panels that jut out as a fashion statement. Unfortunately, the back panel design also makes it impossible to use the back burners with anything larger than a small pan. This sort of stove is unlikely to work well for canning purposes (Rebecca and I know, we’ve tried). If nothing else, take your pans to the store and test fit them on the stove before you buy. You really don’t want to discover that your pans won’t fit after the stove is already installed in your home.

If you’re using your stove for canning like we do, then you’ll find that it takes a lot of abuse. We bought one with as few gizmos as possible because gizmos tend to break easily when you use them a lot. Simpler is better when it comes to canning. To help make the stove even more reliable, make sure you read the manual that comes with it and perform all of the vendor-recommended maintenance, including the required cleaning. For example, we found out that ammonia really does work better for cleaning the stove than other cleaners. (We tried it as part of the vendor-recommended maintenance.) The ammonia fumes are quite nasty, so we run the hood on high speed during cleaning to remove them.

Our results may vary from yours, but we’re also finding that gas is less expensive to can with than electric. I’m still trying to figure out precisely how much less, but my preliminary estimate shows that you save about 17% using gas over electric. In order to come up with a precise number, I’m going to have to figure out how many BTUs are required to perform a typical canning operation on each device, and then compare the per BTU costs of each fuel source. We’ve also discovered that canning with gas takes less time because the water heats more quickly. You should know though that we’re using propane and that could change the economics of canning. Choose carefully if you value long term costs as part of your purchasing decision.

What sorts of things have you found important when choosing a stove? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.