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Canning salmon: One family’s story

Nov 25th, 2015 | Category: Features

by Mary Vermillion

Chantel Gardner knows salmon. At just 3-days-old, she traveled with her parents from Bellingham to Alaska where her dad was running his 58-foot purse seiner Reality. Ten years later, she was fishing alongside her dad and mom. She put herself through school with money earned during summers fishing in Alaska. She learned to cook on the pitch and roll of a fishing boat’s oil stove, focusing on modest meals that fit the short intervals between active fishing. Gardner surely has contemplated salmon for dinner more than most cooks. Yet, last summer was the first time she had ever canned salmon.

Chantel Gardner, with her son, holding a salmon for the family’s canning. COURTESY PHOTO

Chantel Gardner, with her son, holding a salmon for the family’s canning. COURTESY PHOTO

“We didn’t can our fish,” she said. “Canneries did the canning, and we did eat some canned salmon. It was a cheap way to get protein, but it seems like it fell out of favor. It was a staple for my parents’ generation. Then, suddenly it just wasn’t on the radar.”

Now, thanks to a sisterly suggestion sweetened with the trade of line-caught king salmon, canned salmon is a regular feature in the pantry of her Bellingham home.

Having access to fish has never been an issue for Gardner. Even though her father retired this summer after 30 years on the water, her younger sister Nicole Curry trolls for salmon off La Push and her brother captains a purse seiner in Alaska.

“I typically freeze my salmon and a lot of it just sits there,”’ she said. But when her sister asked her to can some of the fish she was catching, Gardner quickly understood why it had once been so popular. “I realized canning is a great way to preserve salmon, and it’s almost more useful because I can more easily work it into our diet,” she said. “And if our power goes out, I won’t lose the fish like I would if it was stored in my freezer.”

With a little help from her 7-year-old son Max, Gardner has been canning and splitting the final product with her sister for two summers now. Some of the salmon her sister delivers are nearly as big as Chantel’s younger son, 3-year-old Colt. The biggest this summer was 21 pounds. “It’s a pretty sweet deal,” she admitted.

Gardner is primarily canning king salmon, which is rich in oil. Her family prefers coho because it’s not as oily and is a bit firmer. Some home canners swear by sockeye for its beautiful color and intense flavor. But, local runs have been poor, so the fish isn’t readily available. jars salmon canning web

Gardner swaps canned salmon for canned tuna in recipes. “I can use it in a pinch for dinner. It can be as simple as boiling up some noodles and adding canned salmon and cheese,” she said. Max and Colt devour salmon sandwiches with mayonnaise and sweet pickles. A salmon cake recipe from Food Network star Ina Garten is another favorite. Fortunate friends know Gardner also gives half pints of canned salmon as gifts. Gardner also adds canned salmon to salad.

“Usually as my family is eating carbs, carbs, and more carbs, I eat a big salad, and fish is my protein of choice,” she said.

For others ready to bring canned salmon back into vogue, Gardner has a few tips.

First, learn to can from a proper source. Washington State University’s Whatcom County Extension office is a resource as are current canning books such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Complete Guide to Home Canning and Preserving. Another excellent reference is the National Center for Home Food Preservation, nchfp.uga.edu. Gardner found a great local online community at the Northwest Washington Canners Facebook group. She especially appreciates the expertise of group organizer and Master Food Preservationist Vykky Ayers.

Gardner and Ayers caution experienced cooks: don’t take a casual approach to canning recipes. Ad-libbing may work in most recipes but not when it comes to canning. “Don’t wing it,” Gardner said. “Follow the instructions and check the gauges and seals on your pressure canner every year.”

Can in half pints or pints. Specialty Bottle in Seattle is one good source for canning jars. Experts recommend using 8-ounce or pint jars because fish is very low in acidity. Heat penetration in larger jars may not be sufficient to destroy bacterial spores. pressure canners web

A busy mother of two, Gardner does her canning in stages. She can typically manage up to two hours of the process at a time, which allows her to fit in naps for her boys, school and errands. She filets the fish on day one, then puts them in the fridge and deals with the carcass.

“This next step is totally optional and really has nothing to do with canning,” she said. “I just don’t want to waste any fish!”

Place the head, backbone and tail on a cookie sheet and bake on a 500-degree grill or in an oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Once cooked and cooled, it’s easier to pick off any remaining meat to be used in salmon cakes or sandwiches.

Filets rest for a day in Gardner’s refrigerator, which makes it easier to remove the skin. Removing the skin is an optional step.

“It bugs some people and looks nicer in the jars without it, so I like to take it off,” she said. The skin doesn’t go to waste. Fried salmon skin recipes are popular and easy to find online. Gardner saves the skin and picked-over carcass pieces in a freezer bag for crab bait.

After sterilizing and preparing canning jars, add the fish to the jars and then add coarse sea salt – one teaspoon for pints and a half teaspoon for half-pints. The prepared fish should be cut in roughly 2-inch by 1-inch pieces for pints or 1-inch slices for half pint jars. At the Gardner canning operation, adding fish to the jars is Max’s job. His tip? Put the big pieces on the bottom; smaller on top. Stack them neatly for eye-appealing presentation. Be sure to leave one inch of head space between the fish and the lid. Gardner sometimes adds smoke flavor. Some canners add vinegar to the jars in the same measurement as the salt to soften the bones. Finally, squirt a paper towel with vinegar and wipe rims of jars to remove fat, salt, scales. This helps to ensure a good seal.

Next, pour into the canner the maximum amount of water per instructions specific to the pressure canner in use. Typically, it’s three inches of water. This will help ensure the canner will not go dry during the long processing time. After sealing with lids, add the jars to the canner. Make sure there are no empty spaces. fishing web

“If your canner holds seven jars and you have five to can, fill in the space with two jars of water,” Ayers said.

Place the lid on the pressure canner. Check the seal. Canners will have either a gasket or metal to metal seal. If metal, make sure it’s smooth, no burrs. Then, follow the instructions that came with the pressure canner.

Depending on the manufacturer, pressure canners will have either fixed 5, 10 or 15-pound weights, or weights and a gauge. The gauge provides visual confirmation, regulating and confirming the desired pounds of pressure. The weight offers audible confirmation; it will rattle, rattle, rattle as pressure increases.

“It’s a sensory rich experience to pressure can. A symphony of noise,” Ayers said. “At first it’s a discordant sound. But as you become experienced, it becomes a pleasurable sound that you can time the process to.”

Every pressure canner is a bit different. Check the manufacturer’s specifications or search online if instructions have been lost.

Canning a low-acid food like fish is all about TTK – Time To Kill bacterial spores. The pressure within a closed canner creates higher temperatures that permeate the food product at a rate needed for safe processing. At Whatcom County’s altitude, the rule of thumb for canning salmon is 100 minutes for 10 pounds; above 1,000 feet altitude, process at 15 pounds. If canning smoked salmon, increase to 110 minutes because the flavor coating makes it a bit denser.

Bring up the heat, slowly and steadily. Soon, it will begin venting steam. If cans don’t seal at the end of the cooking process, eat the fish immediately or re-can. Ayers has one final piece of wisdom: Glass-like crystals of magnesium ammonium phosphate sometimes form in canned salmon. While perfectly normal, there is no way for the home canner to prevent the forming of these crystals. They usually dissolve when heated and are safe to eat, she said.


Tips of the trade

Tips of the trade


From Tana Skaugrud, co-owner, Skagit’s Own Fish Market, Burlington:If you don’t have a fisher in the family or can’t catch your own, then be sure to buy salmon from a reputable fish monger or from a fisher licensed for wholesale. Read reviews online or ask friends. Skaugrud, whose family has been fishing for three generations, has the following tips for selecting salmon for canning.

If buying whole fish with the head on, look at the eyes first. They should be bright and clear, not dull or clouded or sunk into the fish’s head. If they are, it’s a sign of age. Great fish is all about time and temperature. How long has it been out of the water and how was it handled? Look at the scales and body. Freshly caught fish will be bright and shiny with minimal scale loss. Scale loss is a sign the fish has been handled roughly and the meat may be bruised.

If you’re buying fileted salmon, the meat color will range from bright red to a duller pink. The color is dictated by what the fish are eating. Most fileted fish will still have its skin. Ask the fishmonger to flip over the piece of fish to inspect the skin side.  Again, it should be bright and shiny with no signs of trauma.

For canning, Skaugrud recommends a good firm fish such as king, sockyeye or coho.  Although the season is over for most local troll-caught salmon, some local fishers are back from Alaskan waters with No. 1 fish frozen and ready for sale at fish markets.


From Vykky Ayers, Master Food Preservationist, canning for 33 years. Member of Northwest Washington Canners: The biggest obstacle for people new to canning is simply overcoming the fear of a pressure canner. “You need to bag and slay the monster,” Ayers says. Botulism is the monster. “There’s no fear of botulism with high-acid foods that you’re canning like fruits,” she said. “But with low-acid foods such as meat and fish, it’s a concern. Botulism spores are normal. When they’re out of balance, that’s a problem. When you’re pressure canning, you want to deprive the little rascals of the environment they love. It scares people that the possibility exits. But, by following directions you can avoid problems.”

Be sure to check pressure canner gauges each year. “Up to 5 percent of new gauges are off by more than 2 pounds, which makes them unsafe for use,” she said. “It can be checked with a simple test and, if needed, the purchase of a new gauge for $20 or $25. It’s completely worth it for food safety.”

The Northwest Washington Canners group have no formal meetings, yet, with the end of canning season nearing, Ayers may consider hosting an event to test gauges and check canning equipment. Request to join the Northwest Washington Canners group on Facebook and then ask about pressure canner tests. If there’s enough interest, a notice will be posted.

It can be tricky to test gauges locally. They can be sent back to the manufacturer. Or, in August, visit the Northwest Washington Canners booth at the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden. Ayers believes the group’s fair booth may be the only place north of Bellevue to have gauges and canning equipment checked.

Published in the November 2o15 issue of Grow Northwest

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