The Cost of Canning

There are people who dislike marmalade, but I love it—especially if it has a strong tang behind the sweetness, plenty of peel and a slightly caramelized flavor. It was my quest for the ideal marmalade that led me, last winter, to start canning.

I began with an all-lemon number, then switched to orange, one batch with ginger and one with Scotch in it. When spring came, I bought several pints of strawberries for a strawberry-vanilla jam that made my apartment smell like shortcake. After the berries came the stone fruits. Did you know that the skins of nectarines contain pectin, and will make homemade jam a lovely rose color? It’s true. I also made several jars of dilly beans. Soon it will be fall, which means I will go apple picking, which means a few quarts of applesauce.

The things I’ve canned have been delicious, and I enjoy the process, the stirring and steam and near-misses with scalding water. It feels productive (which it is) and thrifty (which it isn’t, at least in monetary terms, at least not yet).

Here’s why making my own jams and pickled things hasn’t saved me a cent. Aside from an occasional jar of marmalade, I rarely think to buy jam for myself, so my work isn’t offsetting a regular expenditure. I have given homemade jam to other people, but these were casual handoffs, not special-occasion gifts I’d have paid for otherwise. However, my gentleman-friend eats a peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich for lunch every day. If he does not have a jar of something I made, he buys Bonne Maman preserves, which retail for $4-$5. I figure I’ve saved him from buying five jars of jam since I started, so I’ll estimate $25. (This is a good time to recommend peanut-butter-and-marmalade sandwiches.)

Pickled beans aren’t something I buy, but I do buy pickles, and when I have a stash of dilly beans on hand I’m less likely to run down to the Ukrainian market in my neighborhood and spend $3 on a jar. I made four jars, so I’ll peg my cash savings at $12. Between that and the un-bought Bonne Maman, we can assume $37 in savings from forgone purchases.

But now: the cost of canning. My freezer is too small for freezer jams, and I don’t go through jam quickly enough to make refrigerator jam worthwhile. For keeping purposes there are two ways to process homemade jams and pickles: pressure canning and boiling-water canning. I’ve taken the latter route, which means I can use the same pot for canning and for making big batches of stock or soup—important, since my apartment has limited storage space. When I first caught the homemade marmalade itch, I did not own a pot of sufficient size. As luck would have it, this was a week or two before Christmas, so I asked for (and received) a canning setup—large pot, rack, funnel, jar lifter, lid lifter and headspace tool—as my gifts. Tip: If you have a loved one who’s showing interest in canning, find out what he or she needs and make it a gift at the next possible occasion. Gratitude will be measured in jam.

So my personal outlay for the setup was $0, but I can tell you what it would have cost me to buy: The utensils came together in a pack from Ball, retail $9.99. The rack came separately ($15.99). A 16-quart stock pot works well for canning. Oneida makes a great one for about $60. Le Creuset sometimes goes on sale (especially around the holidays), so you may be able to get a $170 model for closer to $100—that’s what I got. If you’re only going to use your stock pot for canning—that is, boiling water—you could pick up a beater pot at a lawn sale or church fair ($5? $10?). Or maybe a relative has one gathering dust in a cupboard ($0). You could buy something elegant in French copper, but I understand people who spend more than $500 on a pot about as well as I understand people who shun marmalade.

Let’s reckon $126 for my pot and utensils.

Jars are the next necessity in canning. For some reason, basic Ball canning jars are expensive in New York City, where I live now. They’re also hard to find. In Maine, where I’m from, you could buy 12-packs of Ball jars at the supermarket, and they were cheap. At one Brooklyn kitchen specialty store I visited, a single half-pint jar was $1.50, which would set you back $18 before tax for a dozen. You can order jars from Ball’s website–$10.99 for a dozen half-pint jars, $12 for a dozen pint jars–but then you have to calculate shipping, which added over $10 to my total. The cheapest New York City jar source I’ve found is the Ace hardware store near my office. Apparently this is an open secret among city canners: Ace is the go-to for jars, although some locations may have slim pickings. You can also order from the Ace website and have jars delivered to your nearest Ace store, for free. A 12-pack of half-pint jars (with lids and bands) costs about $10, a dozen pints are around $15.

I’ve bought 24 jars so far, for a total cost of about $25. I have been able to reuse jars and bands by purchasing fresh lids; I got a dozen of these for $3.

Total outlay for containers, then, is $28.

Last but not least, ingredients. Normally I buy conventional citrus fruit, because I peel it or juice it, but for Operation Marmalade I bought organic, since I’d be eating the peel. I did not keep exact notes about my purchases last winter, but as I recall I bought organic lemons at Whole Foods for about $2.50 per pound. Organic oranges were cheaper, maybe $1/pound. I spent close to $15, including tax, on citrus. In the spring, strawberries were $5/pint at the Union Square Greenmarket, and I bought two pints ($10). The pickled beans cost me nothing: I picked the beans and fresh dill from the gentleman-friend’s parents’ garden, and I had vinegar, garlic, kosher salt at home.

So far, so good—but then there was the Nectarine Disaster of August 2013, in which four pounds of farmers’ market nectarines molded because I was too tired to preserve them the day I after bought them, and I thought they’d last another night in a bowl. I was wrong. That was $15 of nectarines down the garbage chute, but I had nectarine jam on the brain, so I bought more for $13.

Besides the produce, I’ve bought a couple bags of sugar (one organic cane, one regular Domino’s), for a total of $5. I used Pomona’s Universal Pectin in the strawberry-vanilla jam—I’d read that it was a good choice for people who don’t like overly sugary jams, which it is, but it cost $6.50.

Ingredients for a few batches of marmalade, one of strawberry-vanilla jam, a round of pickled beans and a batch of nectarine jam: $64.50.

If you’ve been keeping track, you’ll see that the total cost thus far (pot and utensils, containers, ingredients) comes to $218.50. I’ve made eight pints and 16 half-pints of food. That’s approximately $6.82 per half-pint, and while the math isn’t exact because we’re combining pickled beans and jam, and the commercial equivalents of these may be sold in different quantities, it’s clear that my homemade canned goods are pricier than store-bought.

The only way to improve that ratio is to keep canning. Most of my costs this year were fixed: I won’t need another stock pot or jar lifter, so future canning expenses will be the variable costs of jars and ingredients. I could make those costs even cheaper if I were willing to use non-organic produce, which I’m not, because if I’m going to spend four hours making jam I sure as hell don’t want any pyraclostrobin in it.

Not factored in to any of this is my desire to make my jam (or what economists would call the utility I derive from jam-making). One night last spring, I considered going to a movie, but decided to stay in, listen to the radio and make strawberry jam instead. I would have paid $15 for the movie, or $7.50 per hour. An hour spent puttering in the kitchen with ripe berries and sticky notes about gelling time seemed far more desirable, perhaps twice as desirable. I’ve spent more than 20 hours canning, I reckon. Could you say I got $300 worth of utility? Probably. I know I’ve got a shelf full of colorful jars that I processed myself, and I know that on some dreary November day I’ll have toast with spring strawberries. It feels awfully profitable.

 

Mary Phillips-Sandy is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. Photo: Shreveport-Bossier

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21 Comments / Post A Comment

Clara (#3,450)

Loved this–the data, the analysis, the inspiration. I have tackled and mastered a lot of things in the kitchen over the years, but I’ve had two boxes of Bell jars in my garage for um … at least two years. Must take the plunge.

bittysoda (#1,551)

I recommend buying your jars on Amazon – Ball pint jars are less than a dollar apiece there, and if you spend $25 you get free shipping. Also, since you are in NYC, Jack’s 99 Cent store frequently has them. (And I think I’ve seen them at the Target on 116th as well.) Plus, as you use up your jams and pickles, you can reuse the jars and rings, which should also save you money. (Lids are 3 bucks a dozen on Amazon.)

Last night as I was putting the finishing touches on 10 jars of peach salsa, I made the decision: the second we move out of Manhattan and into an apartment with a decent kitchen, we are getting a pressure canner.

ellabella (#1,480)

@bittysoda At the hardware store in downtown Brooklyn on Court Street (don’t remember the name), they’re $13 for a dozen pints (Ball). I know this because my boyfriend and I canned tomatoes (15lbs for $15 at the Fort Greene farmer’s market). About 6 hours of time, 10 pints, 1 1st degree bellybutton burn and 1 2nd degree finger burn. With jar costs, it was about the same as buying Union Market (i.e., good and not-too-processed) tomato sauce. I’ll do it again; my boyfriend (and his burns) won’t.

Next up: fig jam!!!!

Knitting is kind of like this as well. No one really saves money by knitting a hat themselves. It’s fun and you get something in the end that you made.

Preserving and canning is more economical if you have a big garden and use it as way of extending your harvest. People used to have to do it to have something to eat in the winter.

Your description of jam making makes me want to try.

CheddarCheesus (#4,629)

I’ve only seen Mason jars at the Jack’s on 40th Street (by the library), and Amazon offers jars and rings on Prime (free shipping!) usually. Also, if you need sassier jars, Fish’s Eddy has some adorable ones.

maude (#1,988)

A tip for Canadian readers: you can get a whole canning starter kit (huge pot, jar tongs, rack, pectin, funnel, magnetic stick thingie, instruction/recipe booklet and a couple of jars) for $50 at Canadian Tire. Best deal I’ve found anywhere. (http://www.canadiantire.ca/AST/browse/8/KitchenBath/Canning/CanningPots/PRDOVR~1420098P/Canning+Starter+Kit.jsp?locale=en)

Faintly Macabre (#1,043)

I think canning only makes financial sense if you have loads of fruit lying around anyway–people with productive trees or who work somewhere they can get aging fruit for free. But you get to know exactly what goes into it and play with mixtures, which is nice. I have no suggestions for NYC jars, but there’s a hardware store in Boston’s North End that has the largest variety of canning jars I’ve ever seen.

Sidenote: Bonne Maman isn’t actually very fancy jam. In France, it’s one of the cheaper options at the supermarket (about 1.80e a jar)–probably the equivalent of Smuckers here. While I think it’s perfectly good quality, if you’re buying a normal-fruit kind and want the best jam, you’re probably better off spending that money on an American option.

utsusemi (#4,691)

I wanted to try the whole canning thing this year, but I’m cheap and lack storage space for a huge cauldron. So… it turns out you can process jars perfectly well perched on a vegetable steamer (which cost me maybe $4 when I couldn’t find my old one) inside an 8-quart pasta pot (which I, like most people, already own). That’s minus about $110 of your fixed costs, though admittedly in exchange for having to spend a little more time putting the jars through the water bath since they don’t all fit at once.

Pectin is still expensive, though!

xenu01 (#4,239)

What’s the deal with pectin? Does it preserve the fruit longer and keep it from getting moldy? If it doesn’t, there’s really no need for it. I haven’t bought jam for years, but have to only unfreeze a little at a time because my homemade jam (fruit + sugar + a little water and juice) gets moldy after a few weeks in the fridge.

Beaks (#3,488)

@xenu01 Pectin is what makes jelly, well, gel. It occurs naturally in some fruit (like apples, blackberries). It’s not a preservative, as far as I know. I am not an expert canner, though.

@xenu01 Pectin helps jams and jellies set up (gel). With Jam if you use 1to1 sugar to fruit and boil up your jars&lids, you can cook the berry/sugar mix. Bring to a rolling boil, test until the jam shows three drops on the edge of a clean spoon when dipped in the rolling boil, turn off the heat and run into the boiled jars. There is a neat coffee cup without bottom which makes pouring the jam into the jars easy. Put the lids on snug (Tight and a 1/2 half turn back.) and place on a shelf to cool. If all has gone well the lids will pop tight, be depressed and you know that the seal is good. Those that don’t pop can be eaten first. Note: this for jam/jelly only. Sugar is the preservative. Tomatoes and other veggies MUST have the water bath to kill the bad stuff.

utsusemi (#4,691)

@xenu01 Yep, it helps the jam set. As I understand, the case for it is that it produces a thicker jam without having to cook for very long or use as much sugar. So in theory, the result can be more fresh-fruit-y (having been boiled only minimally) and take a bit less time. This sounds good to me, though I admittedly haven’t done a lot of with/without experiments.

@xenu01 Pectin helps the jam to “set” without cooking it for hours. It’s not a preservative. As for making freezer jam instead of using pectin, that’s fine – IF you have the room. The author said that she did not. That’s why she used pectin. You can also make your own pectin from apple peelings.

caper9 (#4,692)

The thing no one tells you about canning is that once you start, jars and fruit and vegetables just sort of turn up in your life. Friends will give you their old jars (especially when you return them full of jam) your co-worker will let you know about the guy down the street with a prolific fig tree he can’t keep up with and your brother will ‘accidentally’ buy a large bag of very ripe peaches and turn up at your door wondering if you’d like to make them into jam and give him half of the finished product.
Once you have the basic equipment it’s sort of self sustaining.
This year I came home from work one day in July and there were 8 pounds of sour cherries on my doorstep with no note. I have no clue who dropped them off but they made amazing jam (and pie).
Can on!

steponitvelma (#914)

I would add that the 4-6 hours you spend canning on a weekend day is 4-6 hours you don’t have to spend money to entertain yourself. On a normal sunday I might get day drunk, or go see a movie, or both. But if I’m canning I don’t have that expenditure. Also, eventually you have to buy many fewer jars because they’re reusable.

loren smith (#2,300)

@steponitvelma I feel like this is the story of my life. I cook because it is cheaper than shopping.

the teeth (#4,702)

For anybody just getting set up, I’d suggest starting out w/ the pressure cooker: you can use it like a normal stock pot, and at around $75 for a decent 20+ quart model, it’s barely any more expensive than a regular stock pot. And a pressure cooker can be used for so much more than just canning: fully cooked dried beans in 30 minutes is maaaaagic.

Canning is the only thing that saves my family. Of course it isn’t going to save you anything if you buy all your supplies brand new and you buy your ingredients. BUT if you do like I do and many other canners it can save you hundreds of dollars. Pickles and jams are nice, but that isn’t REAL substantial food. I mostly do vegetables, meats, and soups. We raise our own large garden every year, we raise our own meat, and we also hunt. Most of the things I can I don’t buy- and those things I do buy, I buy in bulk from the Amish or local growers. I also can dry beans, so they are ready to use. We rarely buy anything in cans anymore, so much so that I gave away my electric can opener since it was just taking up space on my counter. We have 2 large deep freezers as well. My jars have all been used before me, I buy my flats in bulk. One of my pressure canners I did buy new, but my main one I found at an estate auction. And I rarely give out my jars of food as gifts–only give to those that you know will return the jar.

You don’t pressure can jams, jellies or pickles, so there’s no reason to buy a pressure canner if that’s all you are going to be making. Any pot that you already have that’s large enough to put your jars in, fill with water to cover at least 1″ and still have room to bring it all to a boil will work. You don’t even need a fancy rack to put under the jars; jar rings or a tea towel placed in the bottom of the pot – just something to keep the jars off the bottom.

Canning is becoming a lost art. Most people think it’s something mysterious and/or “hard” to learn. There are all kinds of resources to learn how and it’s easy and very fulfilling! The best place for guidance on SAFE practices can be found here: http://nchfp.uga.edu/

Tracy Rimmer (#4,724)

If you think the sum total of “canning” is jam, pickles and marmalade, I can see how it’s not saving you any money. If you start canning actual FOOD, rather than “nice to haves”, you’ll notice a difference. You also have to amortize the investment in equipment and jars over how many years you use them — they won’t start paying for themselves for a while, but they will, if you keep it up.

The other thing to keep in mind is what you’re comparing here. In my opinion you cannot compare, say, Smuckers to homemade jam because Smuckers is processed and includes so many additives. You need to compare homemade jam to an organic, high-quality, preservative-free product, which will be much more expensive than Smuckers. If you start to compare apples to apples, you’ll find canning more cost effective.

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