A large harvest is a good problem to have! If you’re looking for ways to preserve your summer harvest, you’ve probably considered canning it. Canning is a perfect way to preserve your harvest and make delicious foods for you to eat at home.
Many foods that you enjoy can be created and canned at home. It’s important to make sure that you are canning your foods safely. Many of the methods used by your grandparents aren’t safe and reliable methods of canning. Unfortunately, you may not know that your foods aren’t safe to eat until you’ve already eaten them.
Botulism is an illness that is caused by bacteria that often grow in foods that weren’t properly preserved or packaged. The bacteria that causes botulism thrives in foods that aren’t very acidic. Many of the foods that you grow and may want to can aren’t very acidic, which means if you try to can them improperly, you could be creating the perfect habitat for botulism.
A quick search online for ‘canning methods’ will bring up multiple results for canning methods. Many of these methods are old-fashioned and aren’t safe for you to use to preserve your food. The United States Department of Agriculture, USDA, tests methods for canning to see which ones are safe and which ones aren’t. Many canning tricks that your grandmother may have used have been shown to be unsafe. It’s best to stick with one of two methods when you are canning- a water bath or a pressure canner.
Canning with a water bath or pressure canner is safe when done properly. It’s always safe to use a pressure canner, no matter what kind of food you are preserving. However, using a pressure canner can be difficult and it isn’t always necessary. It’s more important to know when you can and can’t use a water bath to seal your jars.
Water baths can be used to can foods that are acidic. Foods that are acidic enough to can with a water bath will have a pH of 4.6 or lower. Most fruits are acidic enough to be safely canned with a water bath. This means that jellies and jams can be canned with a water bath. Foods that are pickled, like pickled okra or dill pickles, are preserved in vinegar. These foods have a low enough acidity from the vinegar that they can be sealed in a water bath.
Foods that have a pH above 4.6 should be canned using a pressure canner. A pressure canner heats the contents in the jar quickly and evenly, killing any potential bacteria that could be lurking in your food. Vegetables that aren’t being pickled, meat, dried beans and soups should be canned with a pressure canner.
When you’re just starting out, it’s easiest to learn how to can with a water bath. Pressure canners can explode if they aren’t used properly. If you don’t use your pressure canner correctly, the foods that you’re trying to preserve may not be safe to eat or they may not seal properly. If this is your first time canning, try your hand at using a water bath canner. You don’t need a ton of special equipment to use a water bath to seal jars. A large stew pot with a lid can be used in a pinch although there are special water bath canners that you can buy.
Once you feel comfortable using a water bath canner you can try to use a pressure canner. Any time that you use a pressure canner for the first time, it’s a good idea to have someone experienced show you how to use it. There are several kinds of pressure canners. Some have weights on the top and others are digital.
An experienced friend or neighbor can help you learn to use your pressure canner without creating a huge mess. Your local extension office should also have information about how to safely use a pressure canner. Many extension offices even offer classes that teach you how to can foods using a pressure canner.
Before you start canning your food, take the time to do a little prep work. This will help prevent bacteria, ensure a good seal on your jars and make the whole canning process go quicker. Start with the best-looking fruits and vegetables that you have.
It can be tempting to can your ugly and bruised produce; don’t! Only preserve your best crops. High quality fruits and vegetables will be less likely to have botulism and will last longer than produce that has seen better days. Clean your fruits and vegetables well. Small specks of dirt can harbor bacteria that can cause your food to spoil.
Always start with clean and sterile equipment and jars. When you start prepping your food that you’ll be canning, stick your jars, rings and canning equipment in the dishwasher. Ideally, you want to pack your food into clean and hot jars. The lids that you’ll use to seal the jars should be cleaned and then placed into a small sauce pan filled with water.
Put this on the stove on low to gently heat them. This will help you to get a tighter seal on your jars. Pro tip- when you put the lids in the water, alternate the sides that are facing upwards. Layer them this way in the pan to make it easier to get them out. If you stick them in the pan with the same sides facing upwards, they tend to stick together and are more difficult to get apart.
What NOT to Do When Canning
There are few practices that you might find on the internet that are not safe to use when canning. Most of these practices have been passed down from generation to generation. Just because your neighbor uses one of these methods doesn’t mean that it’s safe and food-proof. It just means that he/she has gotten lucky and hasn’t gotten sick yet.
Don’t use open kettle canning. This is a really common mistake that people make. In open kettle canning, the produce is prepped and then ladled into hot jars while the food is piping hot. The lids and rings are placed on the jars before the jars are flipped upside down. The jars of food are left on the counter, turned upside down, until the contents have cooled completely. The idea behind open kettle canning is that the food and the jar are both hot enough that it will ensure a good seal. Not only will you risk burning yourself by trying open kettle canning, but your jars aren’t guaranteed to seal properly. Avoid open kettle canning methods.
Oven canning is another method that you might find in recipes for canning foods like dried beans. In oven canning, you put your food into the jar, place the lid and ring on it and then put it in the oven at a set temperature for a certain amount of time. The problem with oven canning is that the heat in the oven isn’t consistent.
The heat in your oven will vary from place to place and from time to time. Your oven also won’t get hot enough to kill bacteria. Rather than oven canning, use a pressure canner. A pressure canner has even heat at a high enough temperature to kill unwanted bacteria.
There are some other crazy canning ‘methods’ out there that are just plain unsafe. Some really old canning recipes call for pouring paraffin wax over the top of your foods to seal them. While a thick layer of paraffin wax may help to keep air out, it’s not a reliable way to seal a jar. Always use a mason jar with a new, unsealed fitted lid and ring.
Some people have also recommended adding aspirin to their foods before sealing the jars. Aspirin will not help to keep your food from spoiling and it will not help your jar to seal properly. Do not put aspirin in your mason jars.
Similar to oven canning, some people have attempted canning in their dishwasher. The dry heat in ovens doesn’t work to kill bacteria, but neither does the wet heat in your dishwasher. The dishwasher gets nowhere near hot enough to kill bacteria. The only reason your dishwasher should be involved with canning is to clean and sterilize your jars and equipment before canning.
Until a few years ago, it was thought that tomatoes were acidic enough to can alone. Most tomatoes are acidic alone, but with the numerous varieties of tomatoes available now, it can be difficult to know if your tomatoes are acidic enough to can with a water bath.
It’s not recommended to add lemon juice to tomatoes when you can them. Not only does the lemon juice help keep bacteria at bay, but it also helps to preserve the vibrant color of your tomatoes.
Canning at home is a wonderful way to produce delicious foods and preserve your summer harvest. Try your hand at some canned peaches, homemade apple sauce or apple butter, pickles, canned green beans or your favorite jelly. What will you can this year?
Today’s post about canning safely comes from Shelby DeVore, founder of Farminence [https://farminence.com]. Shelby is a former agriculture teacher and a multi-generational home gardener. She currently lives on a small farm with her husband and three children where they raise way too many animals and grow a large vegetable garden each year.