This Introduction Is The First In A Series Intended To Take The Mystery Out Of Home Canning
By Gail Damerow
Whether you are a veteran home canner, or have just begun taking your first tentative steps into preserving your own homegrown food, you already know many of the reasons why anyone would bother. But if you’re wondering why so many people put in so much time and effort to fill their pantries with home canned foods, let’s look at some of the reasons.
Home canned food tastes better, especially since it contains your favorite varieties of vegetables or fruits, instead of generic or substitute ingredients (such as commercially canned pumpkin containing other kinds of winter squash), and the ingredients are all fresh.
• Home canned food is better for you. When you home can produce from your garden, you know it was safely grown, safely handled after harvest, and safely processed. You know it contains no GMOs, preservatives, excess salt, high fructose corn syrup, artificial coloring and flavoring, and other undesirable ingredients.
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• Unlike many commercially canned products, which are sold in cans lined with BPA-based epoxy, home canned food is free of BPA. (Information on BPA in commercially canned foods may be found at ewg.org/research/bpa-canned-food.)
• Home canning saves you money in terms of purchased canned goods and trips to the grocery store. The greatest economic return may be realized by processing enough food at a time to fill the canner.
• Home canning reduces waste, since it lets you store each season’s excess produce for out-of-season use. Also, unlike food bought in cans, your canning jars are infinitely reusable (barring occasional, and inevitable, breakage).
• Home canning reduces your carbon footprint, since the food you can at home is not trucked cross country, but travels only from your garden to your kitchen and from there to your pantry.
• A lot of home canners cite self-satisfaction and self-sufficiency as important reasons why they preserve the harvest by canning.
HOW CANNING PRESERVES FOOD
Canning is a method of preserving food by sealing it in jars, cooking it in the jars to destroy enzymes and undesirable microbes, and in the process removing air that hastens the spoilage of fresh foods. The trick is to heat the food just enough to destroy spoilage organisms without heating it so much it loses its nutritional value and flavor.
To anyone who grew up in a household where canning is not practiced, the process may seem somewhat mysterious. Too many people believe canning is complex and inherently unsafe.
But to those of us who grew up with mothers or grandmothers who canned routinely it becomes second nature. My husband Allan and I both grew up helping our mothers preserve foods by canning. Today we fill our pantry by canning much of what we grow in our own garden and orchard.
STORING HOME CANNED FOODS
After the jars have cooled, remove the metal bands. Otherwise, residual moisture between a band and the jar’s threads may cause the band to rust, making it difficult to remove later and also making the band useless for reuse.
Jars removed from the canner often have food residue sticking to them. If left on the outside of the jar, this residue will eventually attract insects and mold. Clean the cooled jars by washing them in warm, soapy water. I find that if I have added a splash of vinegar to the water in the canner before the jars are processed, they are easier to wash.
Canned food keeps best in a cool, dark place. The storage area should be as dry as possible, especially if your jars are sealed with metal lids. Dampness can cause the lids to corrode, resulting in a broken seal and spoiled food.
The ideal storage area has a temperature range of between 50°F and 70°F. Our pantry, like those of both our mothers, is in the basement where the seasonal temperature fluctuation is less than it is upstairs in the kitchen. When Allan and I lived in a house that didn’t have a basement, we stored our jars in the crawl space under the house.
Where we lived then, we didn’t have freezing weather. Freezing can cause a jar’s contents to expand, cracking the jar and spoiling the contents. Or freezing and thawing may cause the food to get unpleasantly soft. If you must store your jars where freezing is likely, pack them in well-insulated cartons, or in a refrigerator or freezer that isn’t plugged in (locked, please, for the safety of children).
Avoid storing home canned goods where the temperature reaches 95°F or above, such as in the attic or near a furnace or other heater. Also do not store them on a windowsill or any place where they will get direct sunlight. Such conditions can cause your precious canned foods to rapidly lose quality.
Be sure to label each jar with the contents and the date. The contents may seem obvious at the time, but in the future may cause confusion. For example, Allan and I can beets both pickled and plain. The contents are used in different ways, but in the pantry the jars look identical, as I found out when I once grabbed a jar of plain beets and served them as pickles.
The date is important because you should always use your oldest jars first so they don’t get out of date. In our pantry, we place the newest jars to the right of older jars, and use the jars on the left first. The USDA recommends canning no more than you can use in a year, which is basically sound advice. However, in our house we rely on canned homegrown foods to get us through the year, but we can’t always rely on any particular harvest. For instance, in the summer of 2014 we had a bumper crop of tomatoes, which we use a lot of, but the summer of 2015 brought us barely enough tomatoes to enjoy fresh. Had we not diligently canned all the surplus tomatoes the year before, we’d have gone for an entire year without home canned tomatoes.
The problem with prolonged storage is not so much spoilage (provided the seal holds) but a potential reduction in quality. According to Brian A. Nummer, PhD, Food Safety Extension Specialist at Utah State University, unopened home canned foods have a shelf life of one year and should be used before two years. In this case, the ambiguous term “shelf life” does not mean that home canned food suddenly “turns bad” at the end of one year, but rather it means that during the first year canned food has its highest nutritional value and retains its freshest flavors.
Preserve the Harvest with Countryside
Future articles in this series will offer step-by-step detail on how to safely preserve the harvest. Briefly, it involves these basic and common sense steps:
1. Select only the freshest foods.
2. Sort out any that are not sound (bruised, diseased, or moldy).
3. Rinse produce to remove dust, insects, and residual soil.
4. Peel produce (such as potatoes) that require peeling.
5. Pit stone fruits (such as apricots and peaches).
6. Partially cook foods that must be packed into canning jars while hot.
7. Cover fruits with sweet syrup and vegetables with salted water.
8. Leave adequate head space (empty space at the top of the jar).
9. Add vinegar or lemon juice to low-acid fruits or vegetables as needed.
10. Seal the jars with canning lids held with metal bands.
11. Place jars in either a boiling water canner or a pressure canner.
12. Process jars for the prescribed amount of time.
13. Remove jars from the canner, cool, and test them for an air-tight seal.
14. Remove the metal bands, then wash and dry the jars, as well as the bands.
15. Label the jars and store them in a cool place away from light.
BPA. Bisphenol A, a synthetic estrogen in the epoxy coating of commercial food cans that is linked to many human health problems.
CANNER. A large vessel used for processing jars of food, which may either use boiling water or steam.
CANNING JAR. A jar specifically designed for the home processing of foods; also called a Mason jar, Ball jar, Kerr jar, or fruit jar.
CANNING LID. A specially designed disk used to vacuum seal a canning jar.
HEAD SPACE. Empty space between the top of canned food in a jar and the jar’s rim.
METAL BAND. A reusable metal ring that is screwed down over a canning lid to hold it in place while jars are being processed in a canner.
— Gail Damerow
Each food, and combination of foods, may be safely canned only according to instructions established by home canning experts. These instructions are offered on authoritative websites and in related published pamphlets and books.
Over the past few years, the specifics for safe canning have changed significantly. Many recommendations in older books and pamphlets (and passed along by folks who have been canning for decades using methods they learned from Grandma) are now considered unsafe. The following two reliable sources are available both in print and online:
The USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning was last updated in 2009. Its 190 pages cover all the basics for canning fruits, vegetables, meat, and seafoods in an easy-to-follow format designed to instill confidence in the novice. Much the information may be found online at nchfp.uga.edu (click on “publications” or “how do I… can?”).
The Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving has long been called the canner’s bible. The 37th edition was published in 2015. Within its 200 pages are currently recommended step-by-step instructions for all types of home food preservation. Ball’s website also offers a wealth of canning information at freshpreservingstore.com.
— Gail Damerow