In Praise of Pressure Canning

Speaking of pressure canning, I think it is something that everyone should learn how to do if they are going to can at home.  It’s like learning how to dress yourself but stopping with shirts because the zippers are just so darn complicated and dangerous.  Nonsense!  If you can turn your stove on and boil water you’ll have no trouble with pressure canning.  Nowadays, it is very unlikely and extremely hard to turn your pressure canner into a bomb.  In my experience, it’s much more likely that you’ll have more trouble getting it up to pressure (newbies are shyer about turning up the heat and getting that steam formed). 

But why pressure can at all?  Most fruit and veggies are perfectly fine to water-bath can.  That’s true, but there is a whole other low-acid world out there waiting to be stuffed into jars and preserved!  All meat, including stock, veggies like green beans, corn, and some tomato products and some fruits like Asian pears must be pressure canned to be safe.

If there is only one product that should make you eager to go out and buy a pressure canner it would be chicken stock.  Homemade chicken stock has changed my life.  Pan sauces taste richer and more complex, soups and stews are heartier, and it adds a whole new dimension of flavor when used a poaching broth.  Sure, you can freeze homemade stock, but if you’re anything like me, when you need it the most its frozen solid.  It is so much more convenient to have liquid chicken stock ready and waiting on the shelf when I need it.



Science Time:

Because I am a microbiologist by training, here is a bit of science behind pressure canning versus water-bath canning.  The biggest food safety concern when home canning is botulism, Clostridium botulinum, to be exact (my great-grandfather actually died of this in 1928 from improperly preserved fish).  Botulism is a bacterium that can live in the soil but the toxic portion of it is actually the spores it produces.  It’s a clever little organism for producing spores in the first place; spores are much more common in fungus and much less so in bacteria.  Spores are able to hang around in inhospitable environments for long periods of time and then when conditions are just right spring back into action as bacteria.  As you can imagine, they’re incredibly hard to kill.  It is their job is to be virtually indestructible.  Worse yet, they are also odorless and tasteless even after sitting and proliferating in your improperly preserved jars of food.  But don’t worry, they are not invincible, they actually have two soft spots in their armor—acid and heat.

The acid content in most fruits is sufficient to halt botulism spores and especially recipes that specifically call for it in the form of vinegar or lemon juice.  This is also why it’s incredibly important to follow canning recipes exactly as they are written.  It’s not a good idea (unless you really, really know what you’re doing or call your extension service’s preserving hotline) to tweak canning recipes by omitting or altering the ratio of ingredients, especially if a recipe contains a mix of high and low acid foods.  However, when canning low-acid foods like corn, for example, you must pressure can them.  The temperature of a water-bath canner maxes out at the boiling point of water 212 degrees Fahrenheit.  Because of the pressure, temperatures in a pressure canner can reach 240 degrees Fahrenheit, which are sufficient for safe and sterile food. 

If it sounds scary and complicated, it’s really not.  If you follow directions, you’ll be safe and rewarded for your efforts with preserved tasty treats.  Here is a great resource to learn more about both types of canning. It’s a self-guided, online course all about canning.  It’s great if you are brand-new to canning or just need a refresher if you haven’t done it in a while.  I have done it and the best part is you get to print out a certificate at the end, which made me feel special.  Another great resource is the Ball Blue Book Guide to Canning.  It can usually be found seasonally at stores like Fred Meyer, Wal-Mart, Target, and any time of year online.  It’s around $10.00 and is a great primer with pictures and recipes for both water-bath and pressure canning.  Perhaps the best resource is your local extension service.  Locally, a lovely group of Master Food Preservers regularly offer seasonal classes on cooking, baking, and canning.  Hands-on experience is often the best way to learn and my assignment for you is to see if your county has a local extension service that offers classes like these.  I promise you won’t regret it!


PS: I have not been paid in any shape or form to recommend these resources.  They are just 3 sources I have personally found invaluable and recommend. 


Canning Memories

When I look back on the canning my mother did when I was little, I really only remember two things-the heat in the kitchen and her frantically running around the kitchen fussing with jars, rings, and green beans.  I know she canned other things, but I only remember her processing the beans.  So many beans! 

My parents grew pole beans but there was never enough to can from the garden.  Usually by the end of the summer just when the beans were beginning to go from blossoms to beans, the well would start to run dry and the water had to be conserved for drinking and bathing.  Our bean source was a U-Pick farm about 30 miles up the road.  The whole family (2 adults and 3 kids, aged 4, 5 and 6) were pressed into service for bean-picking.  We all piled in the giant, blue Buick and headed to the farm where we would spend hours picking (and eating) beans. 

The excruciating part (for us kids anyway) was the ride home and the several hours after we got back.  That’s when the snapping began.  In the spacious backseat of the enormous Buick, we would kneel on the floor, using the seat as a table (safety belts were only suggestions and car seats completely unheard of) and snap the ends off the beans and then snap them into pieces.  Each and every bean.  For hours.  And hours.

That’s where our involvement ended and Mom’s contribution got interesting.  Mom would gather all the supplies-canner, lids, rings, jars, and of course the beans.  First she would sterilize the jars in the boiling water of the canner, which was usually when we were discouraged from the kitchen and pretty much the house itself.  The gas stove would be going for what seemed like eternity and after suffering a serious burn herself at that same stove, Mom didn’t want to take any chances with small, but curious hands.  Sterilizing the jars is where if jars were going to break they would.  This meant she had to fish broken glass out of the bottom of a 16-quart canner filled with boiling water using a pair of tongs.  Hot jars would be fished out of the canner with the same tongs and beans would be crammed into them as tight as Mom could get them (hence the beans snapped into pieces).  Boiling water was ladled over the beans nearly filling the jars and more beans and water were added if there was room after all the bubbles were removed.  Lids and rings were attached and into the canner they went.  This procedure would be repeated over and overa again.  One year we had picked 100 quarts of beans! 

I would peek in on this process from time to time and there was a thick layer of tension and a hint of panic in the air.   The house would become unbearably hot as the processing wore on until the kitchen was just miserable.  Mom never had any major incidents, but I remember that look in her eyes that meant she was not be asked what was for dinner that night or any question at all for that matter.  Dinner would be at Grandma’s.  And then for most months after that, the answer to what’s for dinner almost always included beans in some shape or form. 

I distinctly remember the rollicking, gentle hiss of the pressure canner long into the night (it helped that our bedroom was also the kitchen).  To this day, that sounds both thrills and excites me.  It’s very satisfying to hear, knowing that my jars full of low-acid fruit or veggies are on their way to being safe for long-term storage, but there’s that low level thrill at having a 23-quart canner merrily hissing away under 10 pounds of pressure on the top of my stove.  Pressure canning is always worth it and I can’t help but think of my Mom and those beans from my childhood whenever I process beans.

Do you have any memories, fond or otherwise, from your youth of canning?  I would love to hear them.

About Me

My name is Carolyn and I am the face behind the Canning Closet, and there really is a canning closet in my house.  I am a scientist by day and a hard-core foodie all the time.  I love figuring out how to preserve food, usually by canning.  There’s always the freezer and the dehydrator, too!  I also try to grow as much produce as I can and enjoy the challenge of growing and preparing new (to me) produce.  The only formal “foodie training” I’ve had is my continuing education through the local extension service and by good ol’ trial-and-error.  I have been canning for 2 years and am proud as punch to admit I have earned 23 ribbons for my 25 entries in the local county fair in 2012. 

I live in the beautiful Willamette Valley in western Oregon with my husband, our tuxedo cat, Spike, and a black and tan dachshund, Karl.  Karl is my kitchen companion and self-appointed floor cleaner.  He is also excellent help in the garden and keeps the birds and squirrels from the backyard.  He has developed quite the appetite for fresh veggies and routinely picks his own peas, beans, and cherry tomatoes when they’re in season.  He is quite good at it, too, and never (well, almost never) damages the plant—just picks his fill and moves on. 

Although I try to not let it become all-encompassing, an important part of my life is the fact that my kidneys don’t work.  I have been on dialysis since March 5, 2010.  I have been on the transplant list since June 15 of that same year and am marking time until my number is up, one way or the other.  Kidney failure does affect my relationship with food, but I try not to let it dictate my life. 

Mission Statement

My purpose with this blog is first and foremost to have a regular outlet in my life to share my passion and enthusiasm for gardening and home food preservation.  I want to hear the stories of other like-minded individuals and connect with a broader community outside my own.  I want to educate and encourage interest in water-bath and pressure canning and what people can bake and cook with home canned goods.  I also want to promote the Oregon State University Extension Service in Lane County and encourage foodies to become involved in their local extension offices as they are an often-overlooked, but invaluable, resource to foodies of all skill and experience levels.  I hope my posts inspire people to try home preservation for themselves and at the very least entertain folks with the successes and failures in my own garden and kitchen. Enjoy!