Origin of Canning – Not What You’d Think!

Pioneer boy looks out the back of a covered wagonCalico. Little House on the Prairie. Pioneer women.

These were the things that came to mind when I considered the domestic accomplishment of home canning.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

(It still amazes me how easy it is to be wrong about things. Does that happen to you? Thinking you know, and then finding you don’t?)

So if canning is not a creation of the American West, where did it come from?


Portrait by Jaques-Louis DavidYes, Napoleon Bonaparte of the Napoleonic Wars. And, indeed, war was the inciting factor. The Napoleonic Wars saw the advent of mass conscription. With 800,000 soldiers in the field for 12 years, the French needed a way to feed their armies.

The government offered a hefty prize to the inventor who could devise a way to preserve large amounts of food. Nicolas Appert – a confectioner and chef – rose to the challenge and won the prize.

His method?

Place the food in wide-mouthed glass jar. Force a cork tightly into the jar mouth using a vice. Seal it with sealing wax. Wrap the jar in canvas to protect it. Then dunk it in boiling water and boil it long enough to thoroughly cook the contents.

early tin canThis was long before Pasteur and an understanding of microbes. But it worked.

Appert’s method was adopted by the British armies, but transposed to wrought-iron canisters, which were cheaper to make and less fragile. Unfortunately, the can opener was not invented for another 30 years. The soldiers opened the cans with their bayonets!

Although canned foods spread into civilian households across Europe, they remained more a novelty item than a staple. The process was too industrial and expensive for home use.

That changed in the 1860’s when a tinsmith named John Landis Mason invented the Mason jar. It was a threaded glass jar with a matching threaded ring or band, a flat lid (held in place by the band), and a rubber ring that went under the lid for an air-tight seal.

People all over America and Europe started canning fruit, pickles, relishes, and sauces such as ketchup. These high-sugar or high-acid foods could be safely canned without the pressure canning that we know today.

(Vegetables and meats must be pressure canned to kill the deadly botulinum bacteria which thrives in low-acid, anaerobic conditions.)

Cast-iron stoveWhen the 1880’s ushered in the widespread use of the cast iron stove, home canning reached new heights of popularity. The denizens of small towns were especially well-placed to take advantage of the new technology. They were close to the farms that produced the food, as well as possessing space for home gardens. And they had the cash to afford the jars.

Strawberry preserves, dill pickles, and apple butter abounded.

Home canning was a widespread practice by 1900 and rose to great prominence in America during both World Wars. By planting Victory Gardens and canning the harvest, citizens allowed the industrial machine to be aimed more efficiently at the war effort.

But, as you can see from this short history, canning is a relatively modern development.

So how did people preserve food before before the advent of canning?

And why did I delve into the history of food preservation in the first place?

a book of foods from traditional peoples from around the worldWell, I’ve been interested in one method of food preservation ever since I read the book Nourishing Traditions. The author, Sally Fallon, introduced me to the concept of lacto-fermentation. And it fascinated me.

(You can read about my discovery in the blog post here.)

Even though I’ve eaten yogurt for decades, I’d had no idea that yogurt is technically lacto-fermented milk.

And I certainly didn’t know that you could lacto-ferment other foods besides milk.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ve probably seen me write about this before. 😀

But if you’re new here, you might be asking, “What is lacto-fermentation?”

Lacto-fermentation happens when certain benign micro-organisms convert the glucose, fructose, and sucrose in food into lactic acid.

The micro-organisms are named – fittingly enough – after the substance they produce: they are lactobacilli. And they are present on the surface of most living organisms.

All they need to produce lactic acid is an anaerobic environment (a finger-tight jar) and a moderate “climate” (temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit).

And the process itself is really pretty nifty.

As the lactobacilli produce lactic acid, the acidity of the food rises. As the acidity rises, most other bacteria, including those that cause spoilage or disease, are killed.

The lactic acid curdles milk, to make that nice custardy texture of yogurt.

home-made sauerkrautThe lactic acid combines with the molecules of cabbage (and other vegetables) to form esters, which gives sauerkraut its unique flavor.

The lacto-fermentation process increases the bioavailability of vitamins and other nutrients, making lacto-fermented foods more nutritious than the original raw vegetable.

Plus the live cultures present in lacto-fermented foods help keep the human gut well-populated with beneficial micro-flora.

Bottom line?

Lacto-fermented foods are safe. They store unspoiled for a long time.

Lacto-fermented foods are delicious. Lacto-fermented cabbage is so much tastier than cabbage pickled in vinegar!

And lacto-fermented foods are good for you.

Kay Nielsen art depicting a lassie aback a north-bearWhy did we ever forget about them? I don’t know. But I do know that my new knowledge came in handy while writing stories set in my North-lands!

I wrote Troll-magic before I learned about lacto-fermentation. Since the technology level in Troll-magic is roughly equivalent to our own Steam Age, I assumed home canning was the norm in most households. I didn’t delve into the details of Lorelin’s kitchen, but she did pack up dried meat and dried pears, when she left home. (Drying is a very, very old method of food preservation.)

The technology of her culture undoubtedly could have supported home canning. And she lives in a time of peace following an extended time of warfare and mass conscription. (The wars in which the Giralliyan Empire gobbled many of it’s smaller neighbors.)

But, now that I do know about lacto-fermentation, I like to think that the people of the North-lands never abandoned it. I feel sure that Lorelin’s mother had shelves of lacto-fermented cabbage and turnips and greens and onions in her pantry. Yum!

Mixed garden greensLuckily, I had discovered lacto-fermentation before I wrote Sarvet’s Wanderyar. Because I was very clear that the Hammarleeding culture did not have the technological sophistication to support home canning. They would have had to get by with drying food, freezing it (during the winter months), salting it, curing it with smoke, and eating cooked dishes quickly, before they could spoil.

I was very happy to know they had another option! And we see that option pretty promptly when Sarvet teases her friend Amara with a platter of gundru – lacto-fermented greens.

So why did I read up on the history of canning?

I was mulling over my writing good luck a few weeks ago, and I got curious. Given that lacto-fermentation is so handy and yummy, how did the canning process get started?

I did some investigating. And you know the rest: I had to share! I hope you found the journey interesting. 😀

For more about lacto-fermentation, see:
Amazing Lactobacilli
Lacto-fermented Corn

For more about Lorelin and her world, see:
Character Interview: Lorelin
North-land Magic
A Great Birthing

For more about the world of the Kaunis-clan, see:
What Is a Bednook?
The Kaunis Clan Home
Hammarleeding Fete-days
Why Did the Three Goats Cross the River?
Livli’s Family
Ivvar’s Family
Pickled Greens, a Hammarleeding Delicacy

And for more about the history of canning, see these external links:
A Brief History of Home Canning
Commercial Canning
Nicolas Appert
John Landis Mason



Beet Kvass

I want to tell you about beet kvass!

Beet kvass is my favorite drink, savory and flavorful, yet refreshing. Plus it’s good for you. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get around to this.

'Red Ace' Beets

Before I zero in on beet kvass specifically, let’s consider lacto-fermented beverages generally. Lacto-fermented beverages use whey in their making, just as yogurt does, and have many of the same benefits.

Lacto-fermentation creates valuable enzymes that add to the health of the entire gastro-intestinal tract. We digest our food more thoroughly and easily – and receive more of its nutrition – when we eat enzymes.

Lacto-fermentation creates pro-biotics. Just as eating yogurt after a course of anti-biotics helps restore the natural and beneficial bacteria needed in the intestine, so will eating other lacto-fermented foods and beverages.

Plus lacto-fermentation makes the vitamins and minerals in food more bio-available, so that our bodies can absorb more of their goodness.

Using whey to make nutritious beverages isn’t new, although we moderns have forgotten about it. It’s an ancient practice once used throughout the world and valued for its medicinal benefits.

Lacto-fermented beverages:
• relieve intestinal problems and constipation
• promote lactation in nursing mothers
• strengthen the sick
• and promote overall wellness and stamina

Modern research discovered that liquids containing dilute sugars and electrolytes of minerals are absorbed faster and retained longer than plain water.

Commercial sports beverage companies tout this research to promote their products. But modern sports drinks are high-sugar brews with minimal electrolytes.

Naturally lacto-fermented beverages contain plentiful mineral electrolytes and only a small portion of sugar. Plus their lactic acid and beneficial lactobacilli promote good health and more effectively relieve thirst.

a book of foods from traditional peoples from around the worldSipped with meals, lacto-fermented beverages promote thorough and easy digestion. Swallowed after physical labor, they gently replenish the body’s lost mineral ions. In Nourishing Traditions (a marvelous book from which I’ve learned a lot), Sally Fallon speculates that the human craving for alcohol and soft drinks may hark back to an archetypal collective memory of the ancient lacto-fermented beverages that were once foundational food ways. There’s no knowing the accuracy of the notion, but it’s an interesting idea.

So…what about beet kvass?

First a disclaimer. I adore the stuff, but some folks describe it as medicinal in taste. That doesn’t compute for me. Beet kvass medicinal? Huh? But I’m a kvass lover. You may not be. Or perhaps you simply loathe beets. Many do. In which case, beet kvass may not be for you!

However, beet kvass possesses all the benefits of lacto-fermented beverages plus some special qualities all its own.

Annelies Schoneck in Des Crudités L’Année tells us that sick people lack the proper digestive juices in the gastro-intestinal tract. And not only during the acute phase of an illness, but for a long time after. Cancer patients especially do not possess healthy intestinal flora. Lacto-fermented beets are particularly valuable to cancer patients and the chronically ill, because they are so rich in vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. Plus they help normalize disturbed cellular function.

Zukay beet kvassHow do you make beet kvass? The recipe’s coming right up. It’s an easy one, even simpler than sauerkraut.

(If cooking is not your thing, health food stores often carry Zukay Beet Kvass. As does Amazon. I just checked! 😀 It’s good, although not quite as tasty as homemade.)


3 medium or 2 large organic beets
1/4 cup whey
1 tablespoon Celtic sea salt
filtered water
a 2-quart canning jar

In addition to its medicinal benefits, beet kvass works well as a substitute for vinegar in salad dressing and as a flavorful enhancement to soups.

A word on ingredients: Be sure to use organic beets. The pesticide residues on conventional produce can halt the lacto-fermentation process. Use liquid whey drained from yogurt with active cultures or obtained from raw milk, not the powdered whey (which won’t work for this) found in health food stores. Use Celtic sea salt, because most other salts have chemical additives that hurt or halt lacto-fermentation. Use filtered or well water, because the chlorine in chlorinated water also harms lacto-fermentation.

First wash and peel the beets. Then chop them coarsely. Do not grate them or chop them finely. Grated beets exude too much juice, which results in rapid fermentation. Rapid fermentation produces alcohol, rather than lactic acid. We need lactic acid for lacto-fermentation!

Place the chopped beets, the whey, and the salt in the 2-quart canning jar. Add filtered water to fill the jar. Stir well and cover with the lid, tightening firmly to finger tight.

Keep the jar on your kitchen counter for 2 to 4 days, depending on the temperature. At 80°F, 2 days will be enough. At 68°F, the kvass will need 3 or 4 days to lacto-ferment. You’ll know it’s ready to refrigerate (and drink) when the beet chunks float to the top.

beet kvass, homemadeServe by pouring the liquid – the kvass – into a glass. Keep the beet chunks in the jar. (I use a small strainer placed against the jar mouth while I pour to corral the beets.) If kvass is new to you, start with small servings, perhaps just a tablespoon or two, to give your body a chance to adjust.

When most of the liquid has been consumed (but not all – leave a quarter cup or so), fill the jar again with filtered water and keep it on the kitchen counter for 2 to 4 days to lacto-ferment again. This will give you another batch of kvass from the same chopped beets.

Or, you can decant the first batch into another jar and store it in the fridge, while starting your second batch right away. This makes pouring and serving the kvass easier. No beet chunks to corral. Plus you’ll have that second batch ready to drink at about the time the first one is gone. In the photo above, you can see one jar with beets still in it, and one jar of decanted kvass.

After the second brew, discard the beet pieces. You’ve used all their goodness! You may, however, reserve a quarter cup of the kvass to use in place of the whey and salt in your next batch. I’m rarely disciplined enough to not drink every last drop! Yes, I love the stuff that much. 😀

For more lacto-fermented recipes, see Corn Relish and Sauerkraut.

For more Nourishing Traditions posts, see:
Yogurt & Kefir & Koumiss, Oh My!
Amazing Lactobacilli
Handle with Care

For more recipes with excellent nutrition, see Coconut Salmon and Baked Carrots.

For more on nutrition, see:
Thinner and Healthier
Test first, then conclude!

I’d love to hear about your cooking adventures and hope you’ll consider sharing in the comments.



Yogurt & Kefir & Koumiss, Oh My!

My nutritional education began under the aegis of my mother. Judged against the backdrop of the sixties, she was a pioneer, actively pursuing the benefits of serving whole grain breads, breastfeeding her babies, eating multiple servings of raw vegetables, and curtailing sugar intake. Compared to Wonder® bread, bottle feeding, miniscule portions of frozen corn-carrots-peas mix, and dessert every night after dinner, her choices represented a miracle of enlightenment. (Yay, Mom! Thank you!)

But she was also influenced by her time. Who isn′t? She gave up butter for margarine. (Transfats, anyone?) She remained unaware of the dangers of improperly prepared grains (those unfermented or unsprouted). She drifted toward a high-carb, low-fat diet. (As an adult, I did, too.)

So my own nutritional knowledge had a better foundation than that of my contemporaries, but it also featured serious deficits.

My first inkling that I′d gone astray arrived gradually and confusingly as health issues. It seemed there were more and more foods I could not eat without feeling really ill in the hours after my meal. Doctors had no real answers, other than telling me to keep a food diary. I did this, and the list of DO-NOT-EAT grew and grew. It was discouraging and inconvenient. I felt ill too often. And when my friends invited me over for dinner, they faced a Herculean task, if they wanted me to actually eat the foods they′d prepared.

Then I met a local dairywoman with a small family farm. She clued me into the fact that conventional dairy cows receive a soy-based feed. The soy proteins come through in their milk. Maybe it wasn′t cow milk that made me sick after all! Maybe it was the soy proteins.

Kathryn also knew that soy is added as filler to many foods, and not only the obvious candidates such as canned soup. It′s in canned tunafish. It′s in pizza (the tomato sauce and the cheese). It′s in conventional roast chicken, injected under the skin to add moisture to the breast meat. If you have trouble digesting soy . . . watch out! It′s a soy world out there.

I grew vigilant in detecting (and avoiding) soy. My health problems cleared up. Wow! I was thrilled.

But Kathryn had more to teach me. She recommended the book Pasture Perfect (which I shared with you a few weeks ago, here). That was the start of the real revolution in my thinking. Obviously there were a lot of things my mother never told me. And, like most of us, I′d been listening to the media and the mainstream medical establishment about what was healthy to eat and what was not. (Doctors are not taught nutrition, by the way. They′re reading the same newspapers and magazines as their patients!)

images depicting traditional peoples from around the worldThe next book featured in my continuing education was a doozie: Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary G. Enig. Kathryn followed its precepts, but never recommended it to me. I suspect she thought it would be too challenging for my PC thinking! She didn′t know me well enough to realize that the sheer novelty of the concepts (novel to me, millenia-old to humankind) would ignite my curiosity.

The tale of how I discovered that Nourishing Traditions held an honored place on Kathryn′s shelves is convoluted enough (and rather beside the point) that I won′t spend the paragraphs to recount it. Suffice it to say, I did discover the book, checked it out from the library, and was blown away by its contents. It′s a cookbook with hundreds of recipes, but it′s also a nutritional manual, packed with the wisdom accumulated by traditional peoples over the ages. Their food ways kept them healthy and strong, generation after generation, before doctors and medical science achieved modern power.

Nourishing Traditions is so dense with amazing information, my customary sharing of ″3 cool things″ not only can′t do it justice, but risks serious misrepresentation. I′ll be sharing 3 cool things from the first chapter today. (With more chapters following at intervals across the next half year.)

The Ancient Art of Culturing Milk

photo of fresh milk, homemade whey, homemade yogurtDrinking unfermented milk from dairy animals is a new and modern development. Without pasteurization and refrigeration, milk sours and separates quickly. Before the age of industry, traditional people harnessed this property for their advantage. During the process of lacto-fermentation, friendly bacteria that produce lactic acid (think yogurt) break down both milk sugar (lactose) and milk protein (casein). Over time, they produce enough lactic acid to inactivate all putrefying bacteria. The milk reaches a state in which it is safely preserved for days or even weeks. (Longer for cheeses.)

Different cultures had different methods and produced different end products. Europeans once consumed clabber and curds and whey, as well as the more familiar yogurt and cheese. In Russia, one found kefir and koumiss. In Scandinavia, there were longfil and kjaeldermelk. In the Middle East: laban. India: dahi. France: crème fraîche (still popular). Germany: cultured butter. All over the globe, shaped by their unique climate, terrain, and history, traditional people cultured milk. It′s a practice worth reviving more fully today.

Fight Osteoporosis and Lactose Intolerance

The fermenting of milk creates many benefits. Casein, the milk protein, is one of the most difficult to digest. Breaking it down via fermentation renders it digestible. Culturing also restores or multiplies the helpful enzymes in milk. One of them, lactase, aids the digestion of lactose (milk sugar). Other enzymes help the body absorb calcium and other minerals. Plus vitamins B and C both increase during fermentation. A ″witch′s brew″ of fermented milk is significantly more nutritious than the basic, conventional white stuff!

Viruses & Germs, Take That!

Most of us know that eating yogurt after a round of antibiotics restores the proper functioning of the gut. What I didn′t understand was that the benefits of healthy gut fauna are both more essential and more comprehensive than bouncing back from a sinus infection.

Friendly lacto-bacilli and the lactic acid they produce are just as much a part of moving nutrients from our food into our bodies′ cells as the actual structures and organs of digestion: mouth, stomach, pancreas, etc. Could we assimilate our food well without our intestines? Well, the friendly bacteria are just as necessary. In addition, these friendly bacteria keep unfriendly intruders at bay. There′s a reason traditional peoples fed fermented milk to the sick, the aged, and to nursing mothers. These vulnerable individuals needed all the bolstering they could get.

Strong bones, fewer stomach aches, more complete transfer of nutrients, less illness. What′s not to like?!

* * *

The chapter on cultured dairy products continues with recipes for piima, buttermilk, crème fraîche, kefir, and other tasty comestibles along with the foundational whey needed by the cook to make many of the dishes featured in later chapters. Margin notes provide vignettes into the kitchens of traditional peoples and the wonders they worked there. It′s an intriguing read, but it also turned many of my own mistaken notions upside down.

Education, entertainment, and health-saving practice all in one package. I couldn′t resist, and I′m glad I didn′t.

Nourishing Traditions at Amazon

Nourishing Traditions at B&N

For more Nourishing Traditions posts, see:
Amazing Lactobacilli
Handle with Care
Beet Kvass

For more on books important to continuing nutritional education, see:
Thinner and Healthier
Test first, then conclude!
Butter and Cream and Coconut, Oh My!
Why Seed Oils Are Dangerous