For me, it all started when I moved into a house with apple trees. You see, I simply could not let all those apples go to waste, even though I couldn’t possibly eat them all, either. In the end, I learned how to can applesauce, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Mom made jelly and chokecherry syrup when I was young, but I did not really grow up on home-canned food. I taught myself from books and the internet, with occasional advice from folks I knew. I still quite clearly recall the trepidation I felt, the very first time I ate a jar of applesauce I had made myself. Had I done it right? Was I going to die? Luckily, Hubby grew up on home-canned food, and had no reservations at all – he just dug right in, and I drew courage from his example.
Now, I’m no canning guru. I make a few dozen jars of jam every year, some pickles, some salsa, a few dozen quarts of peaches and pears…just a little of this and that. I certainly don’t feed the family exclusively on home-canned goods, but I do have to say, we don’t buy canned fruit, either. I recently started to learn about canning more exotic goods, like meat and beans, which are going on the to-do list, though we’ll see how soon they actually get done.
I hang out on a number of homesteading forums, and I see a lot of questions posted about canning. It’s clear that more and more people are getting into it, whether it’s the bad economy or the do-it-yourself attitude that’s been catching on, and I think that’s a wonderful thing. Unfortunately, though, there are a lot of people spreading dangerous misinformation, and I am afraid that, sooner or later, there is going to be a tragedy (or several) as a result.
You see, back in my grandmother’s day, everything was canned in what is called a water-bath canner. Basically, jars were filled, water or sugar syrup added, the lids put on, and the jars were boiled in a big pot for varying lengths of time, in the hopes of killing off the fungi, yeasts, and bacteria that would spoil the food. That works fine for high-acid foods, like applesauce and peaches, but it is not sufficient for low-acid foods, like meat or beans. However, there are still lots of people who can that way – they boil the meat for two hours, or three hours, and call it safe. And these people are posting their recipes on the internet, and commenting that they have been ‘doing it this way for years’ (and they have), and ‘nobody has ever gotten sick from my canned chicken’ (also probably true). The thing is, even if nobody has ever gotten sick from Auntie’s canned chicken recipe, does not mean that nobody ever will.
The problem is botulism. Botulism comes from a spore that can survive boiling temperatures (100 degrees Celsius) for basically an indefinite amount of time, which means it does not matter if you boil something for twenty minutes or three hours, you won’t kill it. Now, in acidic foods, that does not matter much, since the spores won’t hatch in an acidic environment (a pH of less than 4.6), so even if the spores exist, they are effectively neutralized. The spores themselves don’t cause any problems; it is when they hatch and start to produce toxins that they become an issue. Botulin, the toxin produced by clostridium botulism (the botulism bacteria) is extremely potent, and it does not take much to make someone very, very sick, or even kill them. You can’t see it or smell it, and the food won’t appear spoiled. Luckily, botulism is rare, and only hatches under pretty specific conditions – it is an anaerobic bacteria, which means it can’t survive contact with the air, and it does not tolerate acidity. So, really, you only have to worry about it in low-acid, anaerobic conditions. Like canned chicken.
In order to safely can low-acid foods, you need to use a pressure canner. A pressure canner has a lid that locks on, and uses steam and pressure to reach much higher temperatures that you can get from just a pot on a stove – they can get over 121 degrees Celsius, which is the temperature required to kill the botulism spores. Unfortunately, pressure canners are expensive, and I suspect a lot of people (especially people who are taking up canning in order to save money) will be tempted to use Granny’s recipe for canning beef by boiling the jars for three hours, since nobody’s ever died from Granny’s canned food. Yet. Remember, botulism is rare, but then again, so are house fires. That does not stop most people from taking basic safety precautions, and maybe getting some insurance, right?
So please, if you are new to canning, do your research, and take the time to understand why things are supposed to be done one way or another. Only use recipes from a reliable source, like the Ball Blue Book of Canning, or the USDA Guide for Canning, which can be downloaded for free. Don’t just take someone’s word for it that their Auntie / Mother / Grandmother canned this way for years – it’s a risk that’s simply not worth taking.
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