KC Canning Co.’s founders spoon out some good preservation advice
Laura and Tim Tuohy used to have a cherry tree in their backyard. Which doesn’t sound exceptional — until they remind you where they lived at the time.
“We were in New York, and something was bearing fruit that you could actually eat,” Laura tells me. “It was bizarre.”
To make the most of it, the Tuohys started canning the fruit. Laura had learned the art of preservation on her grandmother’s farm in the Midwest, and Tim grew up canning with his grandparents in New Jersey. They soon fell in love with their new hobby, even creating a custom drink for their wedding using some of their homemade marmalade.
“We made a clementine-thyme bourbon smash,” Laura says. “People were like, ‘You guys should really sell this.’ And we were like, ‘No way.’”
Eventually, though, they heeded their guests’ advice. Three years ago, they moved back to Kansas City and founded KC Canning Co., which specializes in pickles, preserves, jams and specialty cocktail goods, and which can be found in shops and restaurants across the country.
As this year’s unusually bountiful growing season leaves us with a surplus of everything from cucumbers to tomatoes to blueberries, I got with the Tuohys to pick up a few preservation pointers from the pros.
1. Don’t be afraid to play around.
Last summer, my boyfriend and I made jam using cucumbers, jalapenos, blueberries, strawberries and bell peppers. That’s jam, singular. The result was … interesting. Laura says she and Tim have also mixed up combos that bombed the taste test — but for her, that’s half the fun.
“You can try anything, and what’s the worst-case scenario? It’s just not your favorite,” she says. “We have a graveyard of things we’ve tried on our storage shelves. We think: This is gonna be awesome. And then it, like, isn’t.”
Some experiments, though, turn out winners. Hence such bold, popular KC Canning Co. creations as Sriracha-pickled green beans, vanilla-bourbon peach preserves, and ancho-date butter. They also recently collaborated with the new Boulevard Visitors Center to create unfiltered hoppy pickles.
“A lot of what we make borders on flavor combinations that are pretty unexpected,” Laura says. “We want to push the envelope a little bit and show people that there’s a lot of utility in this for modern food.”
2. Use all-natural pectin — or none at all.
Getting jams and preserves to set is an adventure all by itself. But dumping a small mountain of store-bought pectin into the mix won’t necessarily fix the problem of runny concoctions that ultimately must be classified as pancake syrup or, uh, compote.
Because pectin can change the texture of fruit and modify the flavor, Laura says, she relies on the natural pectin in fruit to do the job. “If you’re willing to let a jam cook on your stove for a significant period of time, that can allow you to get more viscosity,” she tells me.
3. Sterilize that shit.
Sterilization is simple: Basically, you just boil your jars and the lids (though most canning guides offer more detailed instructions). But you gotta do it. And when you do it properly, you become your grandmother, resourcefully storing pickles in your basement longer than most people keep a car.
“I have a lot of people who approach us and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, my grandma used to do this,’” Laura says. “And it’s funny to have that dialogue with people, because this is how we used to have food for the winter. I think about my grandma, and before she passed away she was eating stuff that had been canned for, like, five years.”
4. Quality matters.
When it comes to making crispy dill pickles, Laura has heard it all. “There are so many wives’ tales about how to do it,” she says. “It’s kind of this mystery to people.”
But you can go a long way toward solving the mystery by using high-quality produce. She recommends firm pickling cucumbers, which are available in abundance at farmers markets right now. In general, that’s how Laura and Tim decide what to make next — they consider what’s in season and what they can get from their local growers, a list that includes New Roots for Refugees, Boys Grow, Cultivate Kansas City, Powell Gardens, and KC Food Circle.
5. Follow the rules and be patient.
One thing about the canning process that cannot be overlooked: “It can be kind of boring,” Laura says. This can cause impatient beginners to rush the process and neglect the rules, which can lead to funky textures or lids that fail to seal. That’s why Laura and Tim still follow the recipes their grandparents gave them — every step, every time.
“Canning is similar to baking — you need to follow the rules,” Laura says. “When you’re connected to it and you spend time with it, it’s such a satisfying experience to be able to create that stuff in your kitchen.”