If you know how to do it
The other day I read a little column in Salon about home canning. I was not infuriated by it, but I did find it to be uninformed and annoying in its presumption. The conclusion was the home canning is a luxury. I actually registered as a commenter in Salon, typed up a long bit of advice, and then it didn’t post successfully for some reason. By then I’d run out of steam to do it again. But I have been thinking about it since (so much that I screwed up while canning mixed beans last night, in fact!) and I think I’ll just address it here.
It is possible to do home canning very expensively — buy all new equipment and only the most expensive ingredients. Voila! You end up with a $15 jar of jam, just like the Salon writer. On the other hand, I’m not sure it is possible to can absolutely dirt cheap, either. I’d say you can save money, but not a whole bunch. For me, the aim is (1) quality food, (2) a sense of satisfaction, Unabomber Manifesto style, and (3) modest savings. Let me state up front that I DO NOT CARE whether or not one cans. It doesn’t inherently make one a good or bad person. It is, admittedly, hot work, especially for stuff that requires a lot of prep, and it mostly happens in the hot part of the year. It’s probably not for everyone. I do think it is indicative of certain character traits, and I do love my canning group something fierce, but I also love me some non-canners. Mmm-kay?
Here’s what you do to save money, in my experience:
(a) Can a lot. That way the equipment outlay is amortized more or less completely. And you become less of a dumbass, too, which reduces waste.
(b) Can stuff that is abundant and inexpensive — canning things in their season also ensures freshness. In fact, it’s kind of the point. I don’t can tomatoes in February, duh.
(c) Be vigilant about finding good recipes for what you’ve got.
(d) If you make something unusual and/or fancypants, it can be a good gift. Even if it’s something quite expensive, you come out ahead. Just make sure it’s something the giftee would like and would think is special.
(e) Can stuff you like and will eat. It isn’t any good to can stuff that just sits there or (gasp) gets thrown out. Last year’s Onion-Thyme Jelly, I’m looking at you.
(f) Don’t can stuff that will kill you (using stupid methods, I mean).
(g) Get yourself a knowledgeable support group to help avoid the worst mistakes and answer the most difficult questions. Also, they will commiserate when you do make mistakes. OK, that last one doesn’t save money, unless it keeps you canning, enhancing (a) above.
That’s the gist of my comment I failed to post on Salon. One of the other commenters on the original column made the statement that people who think they are saving money by canning are “bad at math.” OK, I’ll take up that gauntlet.
Let’s break it down for what I canned last night and this morning, dry beans (which, admittedly, is one of the least expensive things to can, but hey, it’s what I’ve done more recently, and I do like proving a point):
Beans – $0.16 per pint (approx $2.80 for about 2.75 lbs)
18 Pint-jars – $0.11 per pint (at an estimated average cost “new” of $0.45, and an estimated 4 uses already for each jar — rings cost included here)
Lids – $0.14 per pint, bought new at the general local going rate
Salt – negligible
Water – negligible
Fuel – $0.06 per pint (quite loosely estimated — about 4 hours cook time at about $0.25 per hour — this estimate is on the high side)
Total cost per jar = $0.47
Total cost for the 18 jars = $8.46
OK, the cost of a can of beans at the store is about $1.09 lately, so I would have spent $19.62 for an equal number of cans of beans. That’s $11.16 more.
But there’s more. My jars are 16 oz, the cans at the store are 15 oz. The actual cost from the store of an equal number of beans, then, is $20.93, making the savings $12.47.
The labor can hurt. It’s hard to say how much labor this required. Dry beans are about the easiest thing to can. It doesn’t help when you realize partway through that you were daydreaming and packed the jars incorrectly, and have to dump them all out and do them again (before processing, fortunately). I’ll estimate 1.5 dedicated hours. So that’s a little above minimum wage. Ain’t no taxes, but ain’t no Social Security earning either.
The problem, though, with figuring a “wage” for this, is that is not true that every second of my time has the real potential for top wage-earning. I mean, I actually did work quite a bit through the whole process (there’s a lot of standing time in canning, especially pressure canning). If I considered canning my full-time job, it doesn’t pay very well. But I don’t. I consider it my “free-time” job. So I don’t count my labor as a cost. I exercise complete discretion in what I *want* to can, so I feel comfortable with that. Well, during tomato season, Brad wants some serious tomato put-up — he sees it as his “pay” for all the time I spend with canning things he doesn’t like quite as well. Fortunately, I’m a glutton for that kind of tomato-ey punishment.
The other sticking point is the larger equipment. I own about $100 of canning equipment in the form of a small-ish pressure canner and sundry small utensils. If you’re going with a pressure canner, you need to can a LOT to bring the cost down. If using a boiling water bath process, you may only need about $10 worth of the small utensils if you already own a large stockpot.
I’ve owned this canner for a year and a half. I’d estimate I’ve used it 30 times now. So my cost per use is down to $3.33 now. Applying that to the beans, they now cost me $0.66 each.
Still less than the store. AND I have a low-sodium product. AND the container is almost entirely reusable. AND it has very little BPA in the container. AND it’s a custom blend of beans. AND I know exactly how it was prepared, and have confidence that I have proceeded in a safe and proper way and feel no fear of salmonella, e.coli, botulism, et. al.
AND I’m not bad at math.