“I wanted to have you can something,” says Sofranko, founder of The Urban Canning Company, a St. Petersburg-based cannery.
I look around while putting on the printed apron she hands me. There’s water boiling in a large pot, known as the canner, with ingredients already laid out. Stubby cucumbers catch my eye. I'm getting nervous.
Sofranko tells me that many people she meets are afraid of canning, which she credits to misinformation, especially online.
“Everything says you have to do all these different things. Otherwise, you’re gonna mess up and kill someone. And it’s so silly,” she says. “Start choppin’, sister.”
We’re pickling garlic dills.
Sofranko, 31, dishes techniques and tips as we go. Although she got into canning for fun, food preservation wasn’t a hobby for the person who ignited her enthusiasm for the old-school practice — her Uncle Ray.
Sofranko’s 71-year-old great uncle and his immediate relatives were raised in the mountains of West Virginia. As farmers in Charmco, a small coal mining town, they survived the winter through canning. She says Uncle Ray once told her that his family bought only three goods from the grocery store: flour, sugar and salt.
“The more he started telling me about how self-sufficient they were, the more I got interested,” Sofranko says.
The first jar she canned contained her great uncle’s 14-day sweet pickles. After high school, she started preserving local produce more often.
Between working with Tampa’s Sweetwater Organic Farm and selling vintage at the monthly St. Pete Indie Market, Sofranko also sold clothing finds online full-time. When her vintage venture grew less profitable, she says a friend suggested she give her jams a whirl at the market.
The colorful jars did so well there for about a year that Sofranko ditched the vintage for good, rebranded the jams and established The Urban as a fresh biz.
And it didn’t take long for the area to notice.
A week or so after her February launch, according to Sofranko, Green Bench Brewing Co. asked her to collaborate on a mustard, which the St. Pete brewery carries in its tasting room. Their partnership grew from there.
While more collabs are in the works, including a fall coffee jam with Ybor’s Commune + Co., Urban Canning wholesales to spots like Brew D Licious, Duckweed Urban Grocery and Sapore Culinary Boutique.
Sofranko draws inspiration from well-worn recipes, dishes and drinks she tastes throughout the region and even an old Smucker’s cookbook. Her jams are meant to be paired with food, she says.
The cannery visits around eight markets per month with products showcasing local, in-season fruits and veggies. But Sofranko says she isn’t interested in a brick-and-mortar. She eventually wants to distribute to culinary bistros and health food shops. So instead, she and Mother Kombucha’s Tonya Donati and Joshua Rumschlag, to whom Sofranko says she’s grown close, are looking to open a cooperative kitchen, which will give fellow business owners a more stable workspace.
Though Sofranko says The Urban Canning Company has focused on the “traditional side of things” (her bread and butter pickles, pickled beets and relish are family recipes), experimentation with fermented items like syrups and ’krauts, another nod to her great uncle, is underway.
Uncle Ray still cans at the end of every summer, she tells me. She and her uncle share canning advice and experiences — which recipes worked, which didn’t.
“There’s always gonna be a counterculture group of people who want to do things on their own, or do things for themselves, and somehow not contribute to corporations,” Sofranko says. “And I think that in our generation, it’s us.”
The Urban Canning Company's Garlic Dill Refrigerator Pickles
Makes 4 jars
7-8 pickling cucumbers
3 cups apple cider vinegar
3 cups water
3 tablespoons pickling salt
8 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon dill seed
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
1 sprig of dill weed
4 mason jars with lids and rings
1 6-quart sauce pot
Disinfect mason jars, lids and rings by running them through the dishwasher. (Refer to the note at the end if you're without a dishwasher.)
Wash and slice the cucumbers into quarter spears. In the sauce pot, combine vinegar, water and salt. Bring to a boil.
While waiting for the brine to come to a boil, divvy up spices and one dill sprig into every jar, then press 2 cloves of garlic into the bottom of each. Pack cucumber slices into the jars. Don't hurt any of the cucumbers, just pack them tightly.
Poor the boiling brine into the jars, leaving about a 1/2 inch head space. Wipe the jars' rims with a wet paper towel, add lids and rings, then tightly close.
Place jars in the refrigerator. Wait one or two weeks for best curing results.
Note: Bring a large sauce pot of water to a boil; place jars, lids and rings into the boiling water; and leave in for 10 minutes. This will also disinfect the jars.
It’s a Tuesday morning in late July, and when I walk into Illene Sofranko’s home kitchen I'm caught off guard.