There is something magical about seeing rows of home-canned foods stacked on the shelf in the pantry. There is a beauty in being able to see through the glass and feel a connection to your food, knowing you had a hand in it. No fancy labels or opaque tin to mask the appearance of juicy summer peaches or pickled dilly beans. The rainbow of color invites your eyes to wander from one jar to the next and imagine future meals and potlucks, graced by your impressive food preservation skills.
As I gaze upon my own canned goods, each one holds a memory. I can feel the heat of hot summer afternoons picking beets and carrots to bring in from the garden to can. Perhaps you recall your own garden, trips to the farmer’s market, or the chilly April morning you landed that huge Chinook in the spring run. Some of us like looking at our jars so much we ration them to keep more food on the shelf and end up with lots left to eat when the next season’s produce comes pouring in.
Authors of canning recipe books tout the many benefits of home food preservation, including greater connection to your food, ability to control or eliminate additives and preservatives, greater resiliency and preparedness in times of emergency or natural disaster, an automatic gift basket supply,
and a savings account of valuable food that can feed your family. I love all of these reasons and each one brings different types of students into our food preservation classes.
As many of my students know, we spend a great deal of time discussing the dual goals of safety and quality in food preservation and how to achieve both in our products. We discuss the science and theory of how food preservation works and emphasize the science over the art, urging students to understand when it is safe to be creative and when it is better to color within the lines.
Pressure canning is one of those food preservation methods that relies most heavily on tested, approved recipes and a strictly adhered-to practice to avoid potentially deadly outcomes. Of the preservation methods, it is the newest kid on the block, developed only about 200 years ago. This pales in comparison to dehydrating or fermenting which have histories that number in the thousands of years.
Some students are surprised to hear that the first cases of botulism from canned foods came shortly after the first pressure canner was patented in the 1850s. We knew just enough about food safety and germ theory in the mid-nineteenth century to kill ourselves. John Snow was still working out the cholera epidemic in London, finally tracing it to a contaminated water pump on Broad Street, and Louis Pasteur was beginning to identify how bacteria traveled, on particles in the air, not actually the air itself as miasma theory had claimed.
And because you can’t see, smell, or taste it, there was no way to tell your food had spoiled before eating it or serving to friends and family. We hear stories about pressure canners exploding, or the lids blowing off, putting a hole in the kitchen ceiling.
Cases of botulism occur annually and the dangers of home canning spread through the media. The whoosh of the steam venting and the technical-looking dial gauge are enough to frighten any- one away from trying to can their own meat, fish, vegetables, beans, and other mixtures like soups and sauces. While I won’t negate any of this, I will say that with a little exposure and practice, you can can with the best of them and keep yourself safe.
My hope is to provide a few tips and remind- ers so that you feel empowered to preserve—not paralyzed by fear. I want you to be able to gaze upon your own rows of preserved goods and delight in their beauty and the effort you took to do it your- self, knowing there isn’t always a price to put on that type of achievement.
1) Dial-gauge pressure canners MUST be tested every year for accuracy. Local Extension Offices in both Wasco and Hood River County do this for free and often on-the-spot—though call first if you want to come in and have your canner tested right away. Wasco: (541) 296-5494 Hood River: (541) 386-3343
2) Tested, current, approved recipes MUST be used when preserving foods to ensure safety. The OSU Extension website and the National Center for Home Food Preservation provide an abundance of tested recipes that, when followed exactly, will result in a safe product that can sit on your shelf without the potential to develop botulism. Be wary of recipes that are older than 1988 (processing times changed that year) or those that don’t provide details about headspace, processing time, or other key recipe information.
NCHFP Webpage: http://nchfp.uga.edu/index.html
3) Getting a good seal is only part of the equation. Just because your jar sealed doesn’t mean your pro- cess has rendered the food safe. Many folks simply invert their jam and jelly jars after filling and rely on a “thermal seal” which can still result in the pro- liferation of molds, yeasts, and other bad bacteria. High-acid foods like fruits still require processing in a boiling water canner, which reaches 212 degrees Fahrenheit, to be shelf-stable and safe. In low-acid foods like meats, seafood, vegetables, and mixtures a sealed jar means an anaerobic (no oxygen) environment now exists and this allows for the botulism bacteria spore to begin producing deadly toxin. Low acid foods must be pressure canned for the appropriate time, at the appropriate pressure in a pressure canner (not a pressure cooker) that can reach 240 degrees Fahrenheit—hot enough to kill the spores.
4) Ask the experts if you have questions and don’t go it alone. OSU Extension operates a hotline throughout the preservation season to help answer your food preservation questions: The hotline at (800) 354-7319 runs 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday thru Friday from July 13 to Oct. 16. You can also email me at Lauren.Kraemer@oregonstate.edu and I will help answer your questions.
5) When in doubt, throw it out. If you have received a jar of food from someone, don’t hesitate to ask how it was processed and what recipe was used.
Your health is irreplaceable and good preservers should be able to describe their process in detail. If something was processed poorly or you have concerns, throw it out. If jars of food are oozing, leaking, bulging, popping, have an off-odor, mold, or spurt liquid upon opening—do NOT taste-test the contents, throw out the food and sanitize any surfaces that came in contact with the food or liquid.
There is nothing like opening a home-canned jar of vine-ripened summer tomatoes in the middle of January to give you a sense of pride in your accomplishments—especially if you know that jar was safely processed and there is no need for concern or second guessing your recipe or methods as you enjoy it.