Having been processed in a pressure canner, this neck pumpkin could remain edible for two years, though experts recommend that you use canned vegetables in six to twelve months after processing.
Zone five denizens probably have rather barren home kitchen garden plots at this point; repeated frost and occasional deeper freezes have shut down all but the hardiest plants. This shouldn’t discourage a kitchen gardener. Fruits of winter squash still abound in local markets. If you can find them in good condition, they may last for months without special treatment; I’ve kept butternut squash on my dining room floor well into spring.
However, there are many easy ways to preserve winter squash so it lasts until next year’s harvest. Perhaps the most complicated of all preservation methods is canning… but canning really isn’t hard to do if you have the right equipment.
Pressure Canning not Optional
You can preserve high-acid and high-sugar foods such as fruits, pickles, jams, jellies, and preserves in a boiling water bath canner. To can low-acid foods such as vegetables and meats, you must use a pressure canner. Some microorganisms simply won’t die at the temperature of boiling water. However, when you increase the pressure in the cooking environment, you also increase the temperature. Generally, the increased heat is enough to kill every microorganism so low-acid foods can survive for a year or more without refrigeration.
Before you blanch the squash, wash your canning jars, fill them with very hot water, and keep them hot. I fill my jars with hot water and set them in my canner. Then I add the prescribed 3 quarts of water to the canner, and set it on the stove on medium heat so it warms slowly. If the water starts to boil, I turn off the burner… the heat will hold. I also rinse the lids and bands and set them in a pot of water on very low heat.
To do the blanching, first pare and cube the winter squash or pumpkin (the steps I followed are on Your Small Kitchen Garden blog). Blanching is simple. First, fill a very large pot with water and get it boiling. If you’re freezing the squash, you need a correspondingly large pot of very cold water. Because you’re canning, the cold water isn’t necessary.
Put all the squash in the boiling water and wait for the water to start boiling again. Let the squash boil for three minutes, and then ladle it out with a strainer, setting it in a bowl or pot to hold it until you pack it into jars. Keep the hot water in which you blanched the squash; you’ll use it in the canning jars. (If you’re freezing the squash, plunge it into cold water when you remove it from the boiling water… you need to cool it down quickly so it doesn’t get mushy.)
Squash is a low-acid food. Unless you want to pickle it before canning, you must use a pressure canner to make it safe for long-term storage (alternatively, you can freeze squash or dry it… but we’ll talk about those preservation methods in later posts).
Canned Neck Pumpkin
Neck pumpkin is a magnificent squash that’s common in central Pennsylvania. I wrote about neck pumpkin in Your Home Kitchen Garden at the end of October, and I wrote more about it in my other blog under the topic of Exploring Neck Pumpkin at Your Small Kitchen Garden. There, I explained one method of preparing winter squash for cooking—and, perhaps, the most reliable way to prepare it for blanching and canning.
To fill the canning jars, lift one at a time from the canning pot, pour the water out (save the water for other things such as watering plants or flushing toilets), and set the jar on a clean work surface. Use a measuring cup with a handle to scoop cubes of blanched squash from the holding bowl and dump them into the jar.
When the jar is nearly full, lift it and shake it up and down so the squash cubes settle in and fill spaces. Then add squash, shake the jar, and add squash until there is an inch of space between the top of the squash and the rim of the jar. At this point, fill the jar with boiling water left from blanching.
Use a chopstick or other non-metalic probe to release air bubbles trapped by the squash and top up the boiling water to cover the squash… still leave an inch between the water and the rim of the jar. Finally, wipe the rim and threads of the jar to remove any squash particles you might have gotten on them.
The photos in this post show the steps I took to can my neck pumpkin. I ended up canning all but a pint it. Of that pint, I cooked a small amount to taste, and used the rest to make pumpkin bread.
My neck pumpkin had the same consistency as butternut squash. The flesh was lighter in color and tasted sweeter than butternut. Also, my neck pumpkin’s flavor wasn’t as “squashy” as butternut… it was a little bland. Still, there’s room for slightly bland squash in my larder; most pumpkin breads and cakes have enough seasoning to make up for blandness in the pumpkin itself… I imagine my family will eat a lot of pumpkin bread and cake in the next year.
Place a heated lid on the jar, then screw a band onto it. Don’t pull a muscle tightening the band, but don’t be gentle either. When the band is tight, place the jar back into the canning pot. Repeat this procedure until all the jars are full or until you run out of squash.
Read the instructions for your pressure canner and follow them. For mine, I lock the lid on and bring the water to boil. When steam is coming out of the vent pipe (to the left of the pressure gauge), I let it cook for ten minutes. Then I set the pressure regulator on the vent pipe (right). I monitor the pressure gauge until it registers 11 pounds of pressure, then I adjust the heat of the stove to keep the pressure at 11 pounds. Once the pressure is up, I turn the heat down surprisingly low to maintain it… with a stove knob that runs from 0 (off) to 9 (hottest), a setting of about 2.5 is enough to maintain 11 pounds of pressure in the canner.
For squash, the pressure must remain at or above 11 pounds for 90 minutes. If, at any point in that 90 minutes the pressure drops below 11 pounds, you need to get it back to 11 pounds and start timing from zero.
After 90 minutes, remove the canner from the heat and leave it alone until the pressure drops to zero; this could take ten or more minutes. My canning pot has a “vent lock” to tell whether it’s under pressure. When there is pressure, a metal disk rises above the lid (right). Once that disk drops back in place (left), it’s time to open the canner’s lid. With any canner, do this cautiously. I wear oven mitts, stand back from the canner, and keep the lid between me and the steam.
Set the lid aside, and lift the jars from the canning pot. Set them on a cooling rack or on a towel on the counter. Let them sit for a day so they cool and seal. As they cool, the lids will pop with a “ping.” After the jars cool, examine the lids to confirm that they form concave surfaces—they should bulge down into the jars. If you remove the band, you should be able to lift the jar by the lid. If a lid hasn’t sealed, refrigerate the jar and use its contents within three days.