|World War I Canning Poster,|
Image from Wikimedia Commons
A few years ago, I was scared to death to try canning, just like many other people are. I was afraid I might inadvertently kill my family. But canning's gotten a bad rap over the years, and the science behind canning safety has come a long way. If you follow the directions, you are unlikely to make your family ill. The key is to know a few basic principles and to follow recipes carefully, especially in a few key foods.
Safety-wise, what I didn't know then was that high-acid foods, like the jams and jellies most people start with, aren't really that dangerous. You're not going to get botulism from jams of high-acid fruits. You might get yeast or mold, but you'll see any spoilage, unlike with botulism, which is odorless and colorless.
So with jams, you'll know if your canned food has gone bad and that you should throw it out. (Throw it all out, because mold extends down into foods beyond what you can see, and can produce mycotoxins which might make you sick).
Botulism, the real thing to worry about, mostly occurs with tomatoes or low-acid products like canned vegetables and meat. The problem is that if your salsa, canned asparagus, or canned beef has gotten botulism, you might not know it and botulism is dangerous stuff. Although it's not common, some cases of botulism do occur each year and can be life-threatening.
Jams and preserves are much safer, and that's why they are best for beginners to start with. They are much more forgiving of errors, and spoilage (if any even occurs) will be obvious.
Make no mistake; the other foods can be done safely too, but you need to learn how to do it right (and what prevents botulism). If you want to do tomatoes and/or low-acid foods, get yourself a pressure canner, take a class so you know how to do it safely, and follow tested recipes exactly.
The other reason people avoid canning is because they think it's really hard. I promise you, canning is not that hard. It just takes a little practice.
I do suggest canning classes if you can manage it, even just for jams. It's really great to learn the science behind canning so you know proper safety practices, so you practice canning skills in a group where you can learn from each other, and so you have an expert to answer common questions. It's also a great way to find new and unusual recipes.
I first learned how to can from a friend of the family, but she follows old outdated practices (no boiling water bath). Many of the jars of jam we processed went moldy. While this wouldn't have killed us, it was an awful waste of food. So I recommend taking a class from trained teachers rather than learning it from a friend or family member, unless you know that person has been properly trained first.
Google your state's name and "extension classes" and many states will have a selection of various canning classes available through the agriculture department of your state university. They are often offered as "outreach" classes in various communities around the state, so you may not have to travel too far. Many larger cities also now offer canning classes through local cooking schools, gardening societies, urban homesteading organizations, and other groups. So there are lots of choices available. And many extension services have a "preserving" hotline in the summer that you can call if you have questions.
I learned how to can from books (after the disaster with my friend). This summer I took extension classes with my daughter to make sure she knows how to can before she graduates high school, and to brush up on my own skills. The classes were great because I learned some things I didn't know. It was very much worth the time and effort and they really didn't take a lot of time.
Being a geek, I especially liked the dollops of science in the class explaining why things worked and why the safety rules were there. I also really liked the hands-on portion of the classes where we put the lessons to work (especially because they did the prep and the clean-up!). And we got to take home several jars of our homemade jelly/jam, pie filling, and salsa. YUM.
However, if there are no classes in your area or you want to get started on your own, the best place to start is Ball's home preserving books. Ball's Blue Book Guide to Preserving is the classic of the field. All the recipes are carefully tested and there are instructions on how to can. I also really like Ball's Complete Book of Home Preserving. Everyone who cans should own these books as references.
If you are the type of person who learns best by watching instead of reading, you can also find many videos on YouTube etc., demonstrating how to do all this. Some of the best are from the Ball website, http://freshpreserving.com/getting-started.aspx.
Personally, my favorite canning book is "Put 'Em Up" by Sherri Brooks Vinton. There are lots of good canning books out there to choose from, but hers has some of the clearest directions and illustrations of the basic canning process I've found, and she has her recipes organized by type of fruit, which makes it easier to use than most books. She also has info on pickling, freezing, and drying, so it's useful on several fronts.
Another good book (and website) is foodinjars.com. If you don't have many people in your house, she has recipes that are suitable for small-batch canning. And her website has tons of ideas and info. I especially like her "it's okay to make mistakes" philosophy.
Generally speaking, you do want to use recipes that have been tested. Again, jams are more forgiving than low-acid foods so there's more room for creativity, but for tomato and low-acid foods you want to be sure to use recipes that have been thoroughly tested for safety, and to follow those recipes exactly.
The best resource for thoroughly tested recipes is Ball's website, freshpreserving.com. LOTS of good recipes there. Or there's Georgia's National Center for Home Food Preservation, http://nchfp.uga.edu/. They have a good book, "So Easy to Preserve," available by mail order, plus lots of online resources too.
Canning is actually a lot easier than it looks at first. Take it from someone who was scared to death to try it not all that long ago!
Starting with high-acid fruits is the way to go. It's easy, forgiving, and you won't kill your family. And the fresh taste of summer in the middle of winter will motivate you to come back to do more each year!
If time is an issue for you like it is for many of us, remember that you don't have to preserve everything in sight. It's not all-or-nothing. Start with something small, like an easy canned jam. You don't need to be canning all summer long unless you want to. Just do what you have time for. It still counts, even if you don't have the giant shelves of canned goods that some people do. It's okay to start slow and easy, and it's okay to just do what you have time for.
If money is an issue, look on Craigslist or Goodwill for used canning equipment. Or go look in the stores right now; lots of canning equipment is on clearance right now because they want to make room for fall stuff. You can get some great deals that way. But really, you don't need a special pot for canning; just one big enough to handle covering the jars with an inch or two to spare. An old stock pot is just as good. Do get the special jar-lifting tongs, the canning rack, the lid-lifter, a good funnel, and such; that will make your life easier. But that's all you really need if you already own a good stock pot. (Or if you are doing small-batch canning in small jars, you may not even need a stock pot.)
If you still feel uneasy about canning, try making freezer jam instead. (That's what I did.) The Sure-Jell Strawberry Freezer Jam (low-sugar, pink box) is to die for! Or you can make regular jams and then just freeze them instead of canning. The trick is to just get your foot in the door. Eventually you'll get up enough guts to try full-blown canning.
Again, remember that if you want to can vegetables or meats, they have to be done in a pressure canner because they are low-acid foods. (We missed that class this year, so that's a project for next year.) Tomatoes can be done in boiling water bath canners, but only by adding extra acidity with lemon juice or vinegar, and with careful attention to the proportion of acid to non-acid ingredients. In my opinion, tomatoes and low-acid canning are two types of canning where a class is definitely a must.
But for jams, jellies, and preserves, canning is actually pretty easy. It's mostly a matter of being organized, having the right equipment, getting good fruit, having a reliable resource for questions, and having some good recipes. Then just take the plunge! You'll be glad you did.
*What did you can this summer, or what are you hoping to can? If I have time in the next few weeks, I think I might try Ginger Peach Jam, plus my old stand-bys of applesauce and plum chutney. That's probably all I'll have time for, besides the Roasted Goodness Spaghetti Sauce (for the freezer) I'm famous for. How about you?