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Essential Apple Processing Tools inform Ahhhhh, Autumn.  Leaves start turning and the peak of the harvest comes in.  It’s a time of abundance – but translating this brief period abundance before winter sets in takes a bit of work – especially if that abundance truly is abundant.

For our family apples play a big part of that fall harvest period – save for those years where a late frost kills the majority of the blossoms.   We get apples not only from our own trees but from those of our neighbors, and in good years we get loads of apples.  That was the case again this year, which is great since this is the second year in a row that there was a crop failure for blueberries around our cottage.

But, how do you get bushels of apples once picked from the bins into shape to last?  Well, as with so many things efficiency is the key – and that translates into both strategy and tools.

Steamed apples ready for processing into apple sauce

Steamed apples ready for processing into apple sauce

From a strategy standpoint gleaned or home harvested apples aren’t the perfect orbs you see in the grocery store where a huge amount of culling has taken place.  That means the apples you pick will include perfect ones as well as misshapen ones, bruised ones and tiny ones.

I save the best for fresh storage, the next grade of nicely sized ones get peeled and sliced to be frozen, dried, or canned as sliced apples.  Next along the line are those apples which have a bit of decay which I’ve cut out, misshapen ones and small ones these end up going for sauce or cider.  Cider and sauce is also the outlet for the better apples once I’ve filled the freezer and pantry shelves with sliced, dried and spiced apples.

Apple sauce from the Victorio food mill

Apple sauce from the Victorio food mill

You can do that by hand, but in any volume you’ll need some solid tools.  An apple slicer is key here – now I love my Bonanza apple peeler which is in my opinion the apex of hand cranked apple peeler development, even if that apex was achieved a couple of generation ago.  I started with a more modern hand cranked unit – and it’s a good stop gap – better I think than the Reading 76 I also have.  The modern unit is low cost and is an investment that will pay off very quickly in improved efficiency.

For apple sauce – my Victorio food mill is awesome – steam the apples until soft and the throughput is fantastic – and sauce makes great fruit leather!

cover 02 (481x640)Apple cider – both fresh (and canned) and fermented to hard cider, is truly ambrosia, and apple cider syrup makes for a great addition to a lot of recipes.  It’s also easy to make when you have a cider press – commercial ones can be pricey but homebuilt ones can be readily assembled and come at a low price point.

It’s a bit of work putting the harvest down – but the bounty will pay off through the year with readily available healthy food at the cost of the effort to put them down.  It’s a pretty good deal in my opinion.


Meat Grinders – Meat Money Maker

Owning a meat grinder is a great way to save money on your food bill – which let’s face it isn’t likely falling.  In fact, there’s a good chance you can pay for the addition of the grinder to your household the first time you use it – and that is a pretty incredible payback.

#32 hand cranked meat grinder - simplicity and durability

#32 hand cranked meat grinder – simplicity and durability

You’ll often see bigger cuts of meat, beef and pork roasts and whole turkeys selling on special for a fraction of what ground meat costs.  While you could make a paying proposition of simply grinding up these cuts instead of buying ground meat there is an even more lucrative possibility.  I like to cut up roasts into thick steaks and chops and then trim off the parts that will be extra fatty or gristly – you know the parts that would otherwise end up being left on the plate.   I wrap the steaks or chops in a good butcher paper and toss the trimmings in ziplock bags and everything goes in one of my freezers.  Then once a year I’ll grind and process all of the accumulated trimmings.

When it comes to the turkeys, which can be offered up at crazy low prices to induce Thanksgiving and Christmas shoppers to visit one retailer or another I trim the breasts off first and wrap those to use in place of chicken breasts.  Then once the breasts are off I like to cut off the easy to remove meat for grinding, and then toss the carcass(s) into a big pot with a bit of water and boil them down.  I like to use a reciprocating saw to cut the turkey skeletons up so that I can cram more into one pot.  Once the carcasses have been cooked cool them down and then strip the remaining meat off of the carcass and then pressure can the meat and broth for cooking and easy hearty soups.  I usually freeze the cooled fat rather than can it and then add it after.

#12 Electric Meat Grinder

#12 Electric Meat Grinder

So a meat grinder makes a great fit into an active home kitchen – given this what are some realistic options.  Well the lowest cost entry point is a tinned cast iron hand cranked grinder, they are a bulletproof design, and are very affordable.  I’ve had one of the smaller ones – a #10 (about $30) and it did a good job, but while it is bulletproof and easy to crank it is limited in terms of throughput.  One advantage is that it can be clamped on a counter – as long as your counter isn’t something that mars easily.  I found this grinder too small for my purposes – but then I tend to do big batches in a single go.

I now have the largest of the hand cranked cast iron grinder, a #32 – which costs about $40. It requires a solid mounting to a working surface – usually by bolting them down, so it probably isn’t something you are going to be affixing to your kitchen counter.  I generally bolt it to the surface of a workmate portable workbench which I then need to hold down with some of my weight applied with one of my feet while cranking.  It does a great job but certainly does give a good workout.  If you are smaller you might want to opt for the medium size #22 which like the #32 needs to be bolted to a work surface.

There are #32 grinders which come with big pulleys in addition to the crank.  If you’ve got a bit of space this might be a good option – bolting the grinder and a big electric motor (a Harbor Freight farm or compressor duty motor would be my choice) to a solid work surface.  This would combine the last a lifetime or two design of the cast iron mill, the capacity of the #32 and the advantages of electric grinding with hand crank back up.  But you’ve got to have the space to store a setup of this size.

#32 meat grinder left and #12 grinder right with the plates in front showing size difference

#32 meat grinder left and #12 grinder right with the plates in front showing size difference

On the electric grinder front, I’ve got a #12 Kitchener brand grinder which features a 400 watt motor. This is a pretty good home size grinder – I’ve done a lot of grinding on it, but it definitely isn’t a professional or industrial model.  The construction is solid, but you can hear the motor laboring at points and it needs to be shut off an cooled periodically to avoid overheating.   Now, it’s priced right – this brand and similar models run about $70, they have a pretty good throughput rate, and it doesn’t require any mounting to counters or work surfaces, but while I’ve been using it for about three years now I’d be surprised if it end up being handed down to my kids.  I know my #32 hand cranked unit will be still going strong for my great grand kids.

I’ve also seen small grinders that are mostly plastic and use suction mounting to attach them to a counter.  I haven’t used one of these, but even the #10 sized mill needs to be solidly attached to the end of a counter with the pretty strong built in clamp.  Since I have used apple grinders that feature the same suction mounting and had them move around I can’t believe these will do anything more than waste your $25 and frustrate you – if you are looking for something on the smaller size go for a #10 cast iron mill, or one of the electrical ones.

What about one of the mill attachments for your stand mixer?  Since they are similarly sized to the electric grinder I have my reasoned guess would be that they would be pretty good buy you’d have to watch the motor and ensure that you shut things off and let it cool unless you really do have a heavy duty mixer.

In terms of incorporating these into you food strategy, I usually spend part of a day or two once a year grinding the meat trimmings I’ve accumulated in the freezer from cutting up beef, pork and venison and making them into burgers and fresh and cured sausages.  Another day gets spent grinding up those discount turkeys and then canning cases of stock that result.

Check out the price of these meat products in your grocery or butcher shop and it should be clear that this is a strategy that can not only add capacity to your home but save loads of money.


Vacuum Food Bottle Showdown – Stanley vs. Thermos

Vacuum Bottle Tops and Lids

Vacuum Bottle Tops and Lids

I feel like you should be reading this and thinking monster truck announcer voice for this epic showdown between the two leading brands in vacuum bottle technology battling it out to see which is the champion of the lunch box!  The reality is slightly less epic.

My guess is that for many folks the value of a vacuum food bottle has diminished as microwaves have become pervasive in many workpalce kitchens.  But that isn’t the case for all workplaces, nor is it true for many kids – including mine.

For them especially this is relevant because food restrictions due to allergies can really cut down on what you can put in a kid’s lunch box – no nuts or nut butters is pretty standard, but last year there was even a prohibition against bringing fish to school because someone had an allergy or at least one that was close enough that the administration didn’t want to trouble themselves with deciding what was in or out.

In anycase, a vacuum bottle allows you to pack a warm lunch that can not only diversify the regular fare, but at least in my home is a very economical means of packing lunch.  We’re talking here things like leftover butter chicken, Thai curries, and hearty soups with a chunk of homemade bread or a wholesome whole wheat biscuit.

Vacuum Bottle Heat Loss Chart

Vacuum Bottle Heat Loss Chart

All those things do best nice and warm, and I’ve found that cheap vacuum bottle just don’t cut it given I reheat lunches shortly after 6am.  So this fall  when shopping for a few quality vacuum bottles I found those made by – Stanley and Thermos brands came with a variety of competing claims on how long they would keep contents warm or cold.  With them priced reasonably closely I decided to pick up a few and trial them to see which ended up being better.

Well, the end result is that all claims aside they all perform equally well and seem to loose heat at comparable rates – the biggest determining factor being the starting volume of the contents you load rather than which brand or model you choose as can be seen in the chart.

So knowing that which ones win out.  Well, for adults I like the 17oz Stanley – it’s a nice size and had the much better designed top.  Thermos tops should really be redesigned to give better grip.  As the contents cool there can be a pretty substantial vacuum pulled which fights against easy opening of the top.  But all things considered for the kids the 16oz Thermos brand ones win – particularly based on size to volume.  They are a nice meal size for kids and they are only 2/3rds the size of the Stanley which makes a difference in a jammed backpack.   The folding spoon originally struck me as gimicky, and likely to get lost in short order – but somewhat surprisingly we’re about five month into their frequent use by the kids – at least once a week – and those spoons are still around.

Slightly more worrying is the silicon gasket.  I worry every time I wash them that the gasket will go missing – but so far so good.  I will probably end up contacting Stanley and Thermos and asking to order a few replacement gaskets to have in the spare parts drawer.  Apart from that I can see both of these living up to their claims of a lifetime of use, and both have already paid their cost back in lunch savings (roughly $25 to $30).

These definitely trump the cheap thermoses that will end up disappointing and being chucked time and again.  Buy something that will deliver and keep you happy.


Canning Pumpkin

Pie pumpkins

Pie pumpkins

So Libby’s just announced that due to wet weather production of canned pumpkin this year would be half the previous year’s quantity.  I love pumpkin in recipes but this news doesn’t particularly distress me and hasn’t sent me on a panic buying binge – I can my own pumpkin.

I actually buy the sugar pumpkins for canning, but they are just as cheap as they have been in previous years at about a dollar each  – which nets more that a can worth of pumpkin – which on sale averages about $1.50 and considerably more on a day to day basis.

Cutting the rind from the pumpkin

Cutting the rind from the pumpkin

Now you may be wondering why bother canning at all, why not just let the pumpkin sit on the shelf since as a winter squash they should last.  Alas,  while some winter squash are great at avoiding rot for prolonged periods – my favorite being Seminole squash, which in addition to tasting great have to be some of the toughest vegetables out there – not only in terms of the fruit lasting but also the vines which are rock solid.  Unfortunately, they do require a rather long season for Eastern Ontario… if you are in a more temperate locale you definitely need to give them a try – but divergence aside – pie pumpkins seem to want to rot fairly soon after picking, which means to use them requires canning.  If I had a larger area I’d probably just dispense with rot prone pie pumpkins and grow winter squash that make meals and pumpkin baking every bit as good if not better than sugar pumpkins, but given my relative lack of space buying less shelf stable goods and preserving them is a sensible balance.

Jars of canned pumpkin

Jars of canned pumpkin

Fortunately preserving them is easy.  You’ll need to cut the pumpkin up, clean out the seeds interior guts, remove the outer skin and then cut the meat up into chunks about 3/4″ to 1″ square and then put it in a pot of water that you bring to a boil for 2 minutes.  Then you’ll hot pack and pressure can.  The full instructions can be found on the appropriate page at the National Center for Home Food Preservation website here.

The pressure canner needed to carry this out is an investment, but here’s another example of making that purchase earn it’s return.  I put back the equivalent of 30 cans of pumpkin saving roughly $30.  Now that may not seem like much but given the pressure cooker costs $400 that savings is enough to pay for around 7% of the total cost for an evening worth of invested time, that’s probably better than your stock portfolio did, and it will likely taste a whole lot better.



Harbor Freight Dehydrator – all things considered a good value

Dehydrator tray of tomatoes

Dehydrator tray of tomatoes

Among the food preservation techniques dehydration has to be one of the easiest, and that alone should merit it’s incorporation into your household, and the dehydrators sold by Harbor Freight offer a reasonable entry point to do just that.

I’ll say right now – these five tray units run about $20 when coupons and the frequent specials get figured in.  That’s cheap.  Now the current models aren’t anything fancy – just basically a 125 Watt heating element in the bottom, five plastic trays and a top.  The previous model which featured a fan and a turntable type setup for the trays was about the same price, but in my experience does and equally OK job.

Current HF dehydrator, and previous model (L & R)

Current HF dehydrator, and previous model (L & R)

Now, it appears some folks have received units that overheated pretty much at startup.  I’ve never had that happen but you’d probably do well to start it up for the first time during a period where you could observe it and if problems happen bring it back and swap it for another one.  The other issue has to do with the durability of the trays.  To be sure these trays are fragile – you have to treat them carefully or they will break.  BUT, this is a $20 dehydrator.  Spend five times as much and you can get the bottom of the line Excalabur… or you can build one easily enough, but even that approach is likely to run you more than $20 not factoring in your time.

I have a really big homebuild dehydrator – but it only really gets called out when we’re in prime harvest season.  Otherwise one or both of my Harbor Freight dehydrators are going to be doing the work for me.  During the summer that is often drying tomatoes or zucchini for fall soups and dressings.  In the fall and winter more often than not they are drying apple slices we’ve peeled, sliced and frozen or making apple leather from some of the apple sauce we’ve put down.  It doesn’t take much time to pay off the $20 investment when you are making dried fruit.

So if you don’t have a dehydrator or want another one consider the Harbor Freight units – they aren’t fancy, they aren’t really solid but the price factor means they possess significant value.


Spiced Peach Jam

A bowl full of peaches - try to resist snacking.

A bowl full of peaches – try to resist snacking.

There is just something special about this jam – capturing that rich summer flavor with the hint of spice that melds so nicely with the sweet peach.  It is the next best thing to biting into a perfectly ripe summer peach – with the advantage you can enjoy it year round.

I often find peaches come on sale for a crazy low price towards the end of the season.  They arrive in store as hard as baseballs but in a day or two they will have all softened up with some even skipped juicy and gone straight to rotting.  Toss those ones into the compost pile and get ready to work like crazy to process the remainder.

Homemade Pectin for jam

Homemade Pectin for jam making

As jam is able to be processed in a boiling water bath you aren’t going to need expensive kit to put this bounty away, a rack that can fit in the bottom of a pot deep enough to submerge your resealable jars and a canning jar gripper will suffice – but you won’t regret spending a few extra dollars to pick up a canning funnel at the same time.  The latter will cut down on mess and by helping to keep the rim of the jar clean will reduce the incidences of failure to seal.

Mason Jars of Peach Jam

Mason Jars of Peach Jam

The first step is to remove the skins of the peaches – I like to put the peach in a pot of boiling water, then using a slotted spoon remove it and put it in cold water for a few seconds to cool.  Get the timing right and with a slit from a paring knife the skin will be quickly removed, and you can cut the now skinless peach into slices.

Since I usually have a lot of peaches to peel, I tend to peel them into a diluted lemon juice solution before removing them to either start processing right away or if time is limiting for refrigeration to process the next day.




All American Pressure Canner – worth the investment if you use it

All American Pressure Canner - 941

All American Pressure Canner – 941

Ah preserving food,  there’s something romantic about it isn’t there?  Something that hearkens back to our forefathers – or more likely foremothers [if that is actually a term]  when life was simpler and things were more black and white. [ Or was that only Leave it to Beaver?]

The All American Pressure Canner likely marks the pinnacle of home food preservation – at least until home freeze dryers come down a bit more in price.

Boiling water bath canning allows you to preserve high acid and high sugar goods including things like pickles, jams, jellies and fruit in sugar syrup – that is definitely a little to no bar entry point for home food preservation, anyone can and should give it a go.

Take care not to misplace the pressure weight between uses

Take care not to misplace the pressure weight between uses

Pressure canning represents a considerable step up in cost – the canner itself often runs several hundred dollars, with the cream of the crop the  941 All American Pressure Canner clocking in at just under four hundred dollars [US]. Now that investment will allow you to safely put up meats, broths, low acid and low sugar vegetables and fruit but it is quite an investment.  That said if you take care of it the unit will likely be still serving your grandchildren it is built wonderfully sound and has no gaskets to fail and the only thing you could loose would be the pressure weight but that is simple enough to secure between batches.

But back to the issue of investment and payoff. I can be a bit of a romantic and an idealist, but there’s a pretty pragmatic streak in me too.  So, I have always had to smile when folks would talk about doing a day of preserving, and how wonderful it was, and how great the preserves are, and how quickly they go, only to find out that the sum total of their work was a half dozen jars of jam or pickles.  Now, I’m all for gaining experience so that you are comfortable taking on the next incrementally complex task, but this scale hardly makes the time and mess created by the process worth while.  Processing food is usually in my experience eminently given to efficiencies of scale. If you are preserving something from a bumper harvest or purchase make enough to last for your family – or even better enough to last for your immediate family and others around you.

Fresh Salmon on Special - a buying opportunity

Fresh Salmon on Special – a buying opportunity

A pressure canner can save you loads of money by allowing you to take advantage of buying opportunities and preserving food for yourself.  I’ve paid for my canner several times over by putting up jar after jar of hearty turkey stock, bone broth or fish.  Note I said “can save” not “will save” in order to realize the savings potential you have to use it – and invest the time in the process.

For example, yesterday alone I put up 25 pounds of salmon – now the store was selling it as a teaser at 2.48 a pound.  I would have purchased more but that was all I could over a couple of visits before they sold out.  As it happens canned salmon is also on sale a 213g tin for 2.97.  After you’ve sharpened your pencil and figured things out to buy the same quantity of salmon canned would cost a hundred and thirty-five dollars, a difference of eighty-two bucks.

The pricey alternative - already canned salmon

The pricey alternative – already canned salmon

Now granted I’ve already sunk the investment into the necessary jars and I use Tattler reusable canning lids which while more expensive than the steel ones are reusable time and again – even when pressure canned.  This latter point is especially relevant because while you can probably get away with reusing lids in good condition from water bath canned jars the higher vacuum drawn by the pressure canning process effectively sees you destroy the steel lids when you remove them from a pressure canned jar.  Even if they look like they are ok I’ve found that the failure rate shoots up making it too costly in terms of time to bother to attempt a reuse – so Tattler lids while initially expensive start to make a lot of sense.

Canning is also a great means to add cheap but healthy convenience foods to your pantry.  The goose and turkey stock form the backbone of loads of hearty soups served in our home throughout the cool months.  Being able to dump a jar of turkey meat and stock into the slow cooker toss in some frozen and dehydrated veggies and a couple of chopped up potatoes, rice or pasta and walk away knowing that lunch or dinner is pretty much ready when you want it – or more likely in our house is only going to require pulling together some quick whole wheat biscuits or popovers – is wonderfully convenient, and makes it easy to not be tempted to head out for ho-hum meals which can really add up financially.

Now if you are tempted to opt for a smaller pressure canner I’d advise you not to.  Where boiling water bath canning has fast cycles – often 10 minutes once a boil resumes – pressure canner cycles often span four or more hours and including the time to boil the water in the canner and begin venting steam for at least ten minutes, the process cycle itself – which for fish is 110 minutes, and then the time needed for the canner to cool down and see the pressure drop to zero.  This means that your capacity is going to be capped at two to maybe four loads per day rather than the dozens of batches that could be boiling water processed in the same time.  Remember, making the canner pay means using it and really taking advantage of it when opportunity comes – so spend the extra and buy the biggest unit you can get – which is the 941.

I’m going to offer a caveat to that advice – the 941 is really best suited to being on a BBQ side burner, a turkey burner or a big gas stove.  It is a bit too hefty to go on an electric range, so if you don’t have those options and will need to be using your electric stove to heat the canner – well you’ll have to step down in size.  Additionally, weight may be a factor.  The 941 weighs in close to 40 pounds empty which is a reasonably heavy load, though the handles are excellent making keeping a grip on it reasonable.  Don’t figure on moving it when full.

All in all these are great tools, that while expensive can pay for themselves and add a lot of convenience and resiliency to your family’s larder and budget.