Putting Back for Winter

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This time of year is the time to think about putting back for the winter. The last 3 days for us have been chicken days. Every year we raise 2 runs of 50 Cornish Cross chickens in chicken tractors and butcher them on the farm. We put our orders in for the chicks about 3 months before we want them so we can make sure we can get them exactly when we want them.

Some we process and sell, and we always keep enough so that we don’t have to buy any chicken at the grocery store. We have been self-sufficient on chicken for the last two years or so. This time our chicken plucker was busted but we had 40 birds to butcher due to a higher than average mortality rate thanks to a black snake. It went quite slowly since it was just Matthew and I butchering. We heated a big barrel of water for scalding and got to work In the past we had only frozen whole chickens in gallon size zip locs. This year we used a vacuum sealer and we cut up some chickens into leg quarters, boneless skinless chicken breasts, and wings. We figured that it would be easier to cook with cut chickens sometimes and we could always sell bags of leg quarters and such. This of course slowed us down even more but was worth it in the long run. We have butchered as many as 43 broilers in a day when we had the chicken plucker going.

This year we decided I should can 6 chickens in pint jars so we could have some quick meal starters for this winter. We also kept all the carcasses of the chickens we had cut up into pieces and from those I canned so I could render and can chicken stock. This was my first experience pressure canning meat or broth. I cut all the meat off the 6 chickens and packed it into clean pint jars and poured very hot water into the jars until there was a 1 inch head space. You can add spices if you want but I chose to not do that this time. After the hot lids and the rings were on I pressure canned the chicken for 1 hour and 15 minutes. You need to do it for 1 hour and 20 minutes if you do quart jars. I got 9 pints of chicken from the 6 birds which weighed about 4.5-5.0 pounds or so each when they were whole. Meat takes awhile to pressure can, but you will thank yourself for it later when you have something to make a quick meal out of. The price of canned chicken in the store was quite high last time I looked.

Rendering broth from around 20 chicken carcasses took a large 7 gallon pot like you get with a turkey fryer. I put about 10 in with a few gallons of water and let it simmer for about an hour and a half. Then I removed those carcasses and added the last 10 and let that simmer for another hour or so. I turned it off and let it sit for a few minutes so I could run up the mountain and get more rings for the jars and to have a beer break. (Canning is hot work. I had to can at my grandmother’s this year because the kitchen in my house is nowhere near done yet. She is almost 89 and firmly convinced that I am going to burn or blow myself up with a pressure canner. Any way back to business!) After I returned I removed the final bit of chickens from the pot and added a quart of cold water since it was really rich broth. I used a strainer over each quart jar to strain the broth as best I could. Cheesecloth would have been better but I didn’t have any at the time. I added a little bit of salt and pepper to it. You can spice it to taste but make sure to use canning salt when adding any salt whatsoever.

I got 15 quarts of broth and canned 14 of them. Broth has to be pressure canned for 25 minutes for quarts and 20 minutes for pints. I would recommend canning the broth in quarts even if your family is small, because it takes less time to can a lot of broth, and it will keep in your fridge for a good while. I am glad I took the time to do the broth. I hate wasting anything especially good food. I feel that if we take the time to raise chickens that we should get as much out of them as possible. It is wasteful and disrespectful otherwise. I definitely intend on purchasing another pressure canner so I can do 14 quarts of food at a time. If you can a lot of your own food, one canner is just not enough.

Last week I canned our first run of greasy cut short beans. I only got 12 quarts and 9 pints because I had two quart jars of beans bust in the pressure canner. I realized I was not turning the heat down enough when the canner got up to pressure. It also could have been a crack or some defect I didn’t notice in the jar. I would like to can 21 more quarts of beans if I get the opportunity. We have been so busy trying to get the house finished and such that our garden got a bit neglected this year, so I am going to have to buy some tomatoes to can. We just didn’t plant enough tomatoes this year. I am also going to have to buy cucumbers to make pickles and cabbage to make sauerkraut. I would have had enough cabbage this year but my Pilgrim geese ate all my cabbage. I planted a few cucumbers in a raised bed, and they did well, so next year I am going to plant a whole 5′ x 20′ bed of them.

I have made sauerkraut twice, and it seemed like what I made later in the summer was better. I am still wondering if the colder weather had something to do with the fermentation process leading to a better flavor. My first run of sauerkraut I made a bit too salty, so we had to rinse it before cooking with it. I went by the recipe in my Ball canning book but learned the hard way that a half cup of salt per 5 pounds of cabbage was simply too much. I am going to use a quarter cup per 5 pounds in the future. You will need a crock to make kraut. They sell them at the feed store where I live. I have heard of people making kraut in food grade buckets, but I have never tried that myself. Traditionally you use a crock. You shred cabbage 5 pounds at a time and add salt. Let the cabbage wilt slightly and then add to your crock. Keep adding 5 pounds of cabbage mixed with salt at a time until your crock is about three-quarters full. The next few steps vary, so I will just tell you the cheap way I do it. I use my fist and punch the cabbage down until liquid from the cabbage covers it. Some folks use a stick with a wide bottom that they carved out to be a kraut smasher. Next get a plate that is about the size of the top of your crock. Wrap a large smooth rock in an old clean white t-shirt, sheet, or you can buy muslin. It has to be white because you don’t want clothing dyes around your kraut. Put the covered rock on the plate so that it keeps the cabbage submerged. Make sure the excess fabric covers the top of your crock. This will keep bugs out. Kraut works off at different rates depending upon temperature and such. I usually taste a little bit of mine after about 10 days. If it is not “sour” enough, I let it ferment longer. 3 weeks is as long as it should take. When its done and you want to can it, you just need to heat the kraut up to a simmer and put it in clean jars and hot water bath can it for 10 minutes. Some people add a bit of caraway seed to their kraut.

After canning a run or two of pickles I discovered pickling lime. You can get it at about any grocery store, and it can mean the difference between pickles as crisp as the ones out of the refrigerated section of the grocery store and soggy ones half way through the winter.

Putting back food is important to us because we are trying to be as self-sufficient as possible and avoid the overly salted and processed foods in the grocery store. The chicken broth we can has very little salt in it, but if I buy it at the grocery store it is simply full of salt. In some cases more than what the average adult should consume in a day in one or two servings! It also gives one a sence of security to have at least a few months of food put back. In the event of a disaster, the grocery store shelves can empty really fast and living as far out as we do, getting to the grocery store in the event of a big storm in the winter is not worth the risk. Canning is a lot of work but worth it in the long run. Putting back food in a chest freezer can be another good option. We definitely store our meat this way. Hopefully we will soon have a solar back up for our chest freezers. My plan until then is that if the power goes out for more than a day or two I will just have to start canning like crazy.

Drying food is a nice space-efficient way to put back food. A solar food dehydrator can be made quite inexpensively and will last a long time. There are many designs available online. We grow Shitake mushrooms and peppers and dry them on our south facing porch. There are electric dehydrators out there but some things like mushrooms don’t dry so well in them. They can be expensive as well, especially if you get into buying extra trays to increase your drying capacity. Now I just got to get to work underpinning my house so I have a space to store all my canned goods before it starts freezing here. I am thinking about making chow chow and canning it. Do any of you have a good recipe?

If you live in the western NC area and are interested in purchasing pasture raised poultry please let me know. We can deliver within a limited area with a minimal order.